Wednesday, 18 April 2018
The scandal over what allegedly happened at INM, where the data of journalists were literally handed over to an outside body, is shocking and deeply disturbing. The matter is in the hands of both the courts and the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, and they will do their work. This case will have serious repercussions and highlights the fragility of the institutions that sustain our democracy. It is a subject that will no doubt feature largely in our debates in this House in the future. What is deeply disturbing is the detail of what is now emerging and how sensitive information was shared by a Minister.
The Celtic Media Group publishes a number of well-known titles. It was announced in September 2016 that INM planned to buy the group of seven newspapers. It was part of a trend of consolidation in the print industry, which has been under long-term stress, as we have discussed many times here. INM already has a dominant position in the Irish media landscape, and it sought to make these acquisitions. There were concerns over the control of so many outlets resting in one company, all but controlled by one significant shareholder.
In January 2017, the Minister publicly announced he was referring the deal to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, sought a full review of the proposed merger and a recommendation from the authority within 80 working days. However, in June 2017, INM announced the takeover would not go ahead. That was before the Minister would announce his decision on the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland review. The Irish Timesreports today that the Minister told a lobbyist from INM in a telephone conversation of his intention to refer the takeover to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland because of "the overall ownership of print and broadcast titles by Denis O'Brien". This telephone call with a former Government press secretary, Mr. Eoghan Ó Neachtain, now director of public affairs at Henaghan PR, occurred two months before the Minister acted. It is an extraordinary revelation that the Minister provided key information to a lobbyist for INM considering he refused to engage with the NUJ on that very same issue. In effect, it appears that the Minister might have prejudiced his statutory functions under the competition Acts in regard to approving media mergers. He might also have unwittingly shared insider information that was passed on subsequently to a shareholder. Unlawful disclosure of insider information is a criminal offence under Regulation 6 of the European Union (Market Abuse) Regulations 2016.
The Taoiseach said the Minister is going to make a personal statement. This is not a personal matter. It is not encompassed by the rules of the House on personal statements. I ask that the Minister make a full statement on his departmental role and be subject to questions in the House this afternoon.