September 4, 2018 / 2:42 PM / 15 days ago

Irish court appoints inspectors to Ireland's largest newspaper group

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland’s High Court on Tuesday approved an application by the state’s corporate watchdog to appoint inspectors to investigate potentially unlawful conduct at Independent News & Media (INM), the country’s largest newspaper group.

Ireland’s Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) made the request in March following an investigation into issues at INM, including allegations that journalists’ data might have been accessed for an “improper purpose”.

INM had opposed the application and had also said it was prepared to take action if there was any wrongdoing.

INM, which owns Ireland’s highest selling daily and Sunday newspapers, said in a statement it would consider the decision and possible action that would be in the interest of the company and its stakeholders.

“The board and the company’s management intend to remain focussed on the business and ensuring that the group’s operations continue, so far as possible, to be conducted as normal,” it said.

INM chairman, Murdoch MacLennan, told shareholders in May the board was “gravely concerned” that the appointment would significantly damage the company and lead to very considerable, ongoing financial costs.

In a judgement that took more than one hour to deliver, Justice Peter Kelly told the court that a good deal of reputational damage had already occurred and that it was highly desirable that the ODCE get to the bottom of the matters.

“Considerable mystery still surrounds many of the issues,” he said.

The ODCE’s initial probe was prompted by a clash in 2016 between the company’s then chief executive, Robert Pitt, and former chairman Leslie Buckley over the terms of a possible acquisition of Irish radio station Newstalk.

Newstalk’s parent group Communicorp is owned by Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien, INM’s largest shareholder with a stake of 29.9 percent.

Pitt alleged that Buckley pressurised him to agree to pay an excessively high price for the station. His account was supported by a disclosure by INM chief financial officer Ryan Preston, the court heard.

Buckley, who represented O’Brien on the board before becoming chairman in 2012, wanted to buy Newstalk “no matter what”, Kelly said on Tuesday, quoting a submission from the ODCE. He said Buckley acted in a way that was advantageous to O’Brien and not the company.

The ODCE also alleged that an external IT group was hired on behalf of Buckley to download data from INM’s servers belonging to 19 people, some of whom were journalists and lawyers that had acted in opposition to O’Brien in the past.

In a statement in April, Buckley said he would “robustly defend his position against each and every allegation”.

Shares in the group were 2.8 percent higher at 0.08 euros by 1510 GMT, unchanged following the judgement.

Reporting by Graham Fahy; Writing by Padraic Halpin; Editing by David Evans and Edmund Blair

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