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Inspectors into INM governance scandal circulate draft findings to witnesses

Move signals long-running investigation into Ireland’s largest news group is drawing to a close

Court inspectors have circulated confidential draft findings about the governance scandal in the former Independent News & Media to key witnesses, signalling their long investigation into Ireland’s largest news group is drawing to a close.

The move by barrister Seán Gillane SC and UK solicitor Richard Fleck comes in the sixth year of an inspection ordered by the High Court in the wake of an unlawful breach of company data when businessman Denis O’Brien was the main shareholder.

The affair raised serious questions over the conduct of then INM chairman Leslie Buckley, who represented Mr O’Brien’s interests in the company. Mr Buckley has always denied any wrongdoing.

There was no reply from the company, known now as Mediahuis Ireland, to questions about the inspectors’ draft findings. “The company is not in a position to comment as we are under a duty of confidentiality throughout this statutory process.”


Mr Gillane did not respond to an email and voice messages about the draft findings. A London law firm linked to Mr Fleck took a message for him but he did not reply.

Still, two people familiar with the inspectors’ work said they had circulated draft conclusions to individuals against whom any adverse findings may be made in their final report.

The inspectors have asked such individuals to submit any observations on the draft findings to their office before they settle definitive conclusions for the court.

The deadline for making any observations falls shortly. The preparation of submissions is said to be a “live” question for certain witnesses and their legal advisers.

Mr Buckley’s spokesman had nothing say about the circulation or substance of the draft findings, noting the former chairman “has given a confidentiality undertaking to the inspectors which prevents him from commenting”.

There was no comment from the spokesman for Mr O’Brien, who became the dominant INM shareholder after wresting control of the business from Sir Anthony O’Reilly. Mr O’Brien incurred a loss greater than €400 million when selling his INM shares to Mediahuis of Belgium in 2019.

The inspectors were appointed in September 2018 after Mr Justice Peter Kelly, then president of the court, expressed concern over conduct “suggestive of an unlawful purpose” to benefit Mr O’Brien, then reputed to be Ireland’s richest man.

The court heard that backup computer tapes from INM ended up in the hands of third parties for “data interrogation” relating to 19 named individuals, among them journalists and former company officials, some of whom had come into conflict with Mr O’Brien.

They included two barristers who worked for the Moriarty tribunal during its investigation into the award to Mr O’Brien of the State’s second mobile phone licence in the 1990s.

Mr Justice Kelly said the data interrogation took place “at the direction of Mr Buckley”. The INM data was accessed by parties with links to Mr Buckley and one of Mr O’Brien’s companies paid for the analysis.

In private legal correspondence in 2018, the company itself questioned whether the unlawful interrogation of the tapes was carried out for Mr O’Brien’s benefit.

The inspectors were also asked to examine a plan for INM to buy out Newstalk, a radio station then under Mr O’Brien’s control. The plan was scrapped after INM’s then chief executive, Robert Pitt, complained of pressure from Mr Buckley to pay an inflated price for Newstalk.

Also under investigation was a proposal, later dropped, for INM to pay about €1 million to one of Mr O’Brien’s companies for work “allegedly done” on the sale of shares in APN, an Australian group. Mr Pitt claimed no services were provided.

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Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley is Current Affairs Editor of The Irish Times

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times