29 May 2015

Denis O’Brien injunction: what damage to Irish democracy?

It is fundamental. It is the bedrock of any society claiming to be democratic. And in the Republic of Ireland it has been wiped away at a stroke.

What our democratically elected representatives say in parliament is privileged. Whether it’s correct or not, the media can, should and must report it and more so where it is in the public interest.

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And Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien’s (pictured above) dealings with the publicly-owned Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IRBC) are, many would argue, a matter of public interest.

Public money from the bank – said to be at least €500m. And public money going to Mr O’Brien in loans, and it’s claimed very favourable rates of interest on those loans, if what was said in the Irish Parliament is true.

Denis O’Brien denies the story but – whether it’s correct or not – it could hardly be more in the public interest. And yet the Irish public are largely denied hearing, seeing or reading the allegations made by the TD (MP) Catherine Murphy yesterday in the Dáil.

As you might expect, nothing substantive has appeared in the Irish newspapers and radio stations that the Malta-based billionaire owns and controls. While the Irish Independent, the country’s biggest selling newspaper, reports on the existence of the row – it doesn’t mention the contents of the speech.

His lawyers have also issued an injunction against the wider Irish media – including state broadcaster RTÉ. They have been prevented from reporting yesterday’s speech – even though it was said in the country’s parliament by an MP.

They successfully argued that the remarks in the Dáil were covered by a previous injunction, which was granted when the broadcaster was previously planning to cover the story. RTÉ’s arguments about press freedom and legitimate journalistic inquiry on behalf of the public were rejected.

Catherine Murphy’s allegations

So for the record, Irish readers and others, these are the key passages of Catherine Murphy’s allegations:

“We are now aware…that the former CEO of IBRC made verbal agreements with Denis O’Brien to allow him to extend the terms of his already expired loans…

“I understand that Mr O’Brien was enjoying a rate of approximately 1.25 per cent when IBRC could, and arguably should, have been charging 7.5 per cent.

“Given that we are talking about outstanding sums of upwards of €500m, the interest rate applied is not an insignificant issue for the public interest.”

At the time of writing, the rest of the Irish media are yet to report fully on the speech – although some have carried a link to a transcript of the speech on the Oireachtas website.

Mr O’Brien claimed in a statement yesterday that the information is false – and that this amounts to an abuse of Dáil privilege.

He is widely held to be Ireland’s richest man.

The entire sorry saga raises disturbing questions about the influence the wealthy can exert over bedrock freedoms in a supposedly democratic country.

It will also leave the Irish public questioning whether it is in their interests to have large swathes of their country’s media concentrated in the hands of one person.

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