One of Ireland’s largest media groups has said it remains focused on ensuring business continues as normal despite a judge approving the appointment of inspectors to probe the company’s affairs.
Independent News and Media said its management was committed to ensuring operations were conducted as normal in “so far as possible”.
The president of the High Court said yesterday that inspectors should be appointed to look into a range of allegedly “unlawful” behaviour at INM.
Its publications include newspapers the Irish Independent and Northern Ireland’s Belfast Telegraph, as well as 12 regional titles.
Earlier this year, the High Court in Dublin heard an application by Ireland’s corporate watchdog to have the inspectors appointed. The media company opposed the move on grounds that it could damage its business.
Mr Justice Peter Kelly said: “The appointment of inspectors is a serious matter and such a sledgehammer should not be used to crack a nut. What has been disclosed in the evidence before me is no nut.”
He rejected the objections of INM’s board and said the appointments were in the “public interest” given the dominant position it occupies in the Irish media sector.
The state’s corporate watchdog, the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, took the legal action.
The judge told the court the director had asserted that during the course of his investigation he had “uncovered evidence to suggest that there may have been unlawful sharing of the company’s inside information with third parties outside of the company as well as unlawful sharing of the company’s confidential information”.
It follows an alleged data breach within the firm in 2014 involving 19 people, including journalists.
The judge said the evidence “merits the appointment of inspectors” and the court could instruct them to examine whether the affairs of the company “are being or have been conducted for a fraudulent or unlawful purpose”.
Among the allegations is that former INM chairman Leslie Buckley passed inside information to the company’s largest shareholder, Denis O’Brien.
The judge said there was a myriad of issues “the answers of which are not known”.
He said the watchdog’s investigation to date had produced a “good deal of information” but that it was “far from comprehensive” and “considerable mystery” still surrounded a number of the issues.
The judge agreed not to make a final order in the case until INM had time to consider the 76-page judgement. The court will sit again tomorrow morning.
The corporate investigation began after concerns were raised over the details of a possible acquisition by INM of radio station Newstalk.
In March, INM received information from the ODCE about the danger of personal data having been put at risk of inappropriate disclosure. Journalists’ information may have been involved.
The company appointed Deloitte to conduct a full investigation.
In a statement issued yesterday, INM said the board would consider the terms of the High Court decision and any “action that the company might take in the interests of the company and its stakeholders”.
It added: “The board and the company’s management intend to remain focused on the business and ensuring that the group’s operations continue, so far as possible, to be conducted as normal.”
The National Union of Journalists welcomed the judge’s decision. Séamus Dooley, NUJ Irish Secretary, said: “This is a welcome and timely recognition by Judge Peter Kelly of the importance of data breaches involving journalists.
“Political action on media ownership can no longer be delayed or justified.”