Press scandal haunts de Valeras

Irish Press plc is still haunted by the ongoing row between its controlling editor, Eamon de Valera, grandson of the former president and taoiseach, and the company's shareholders. Frank Connolly attended this year's highly-charged AGM

The managing director of Irish Press plc, Eamon de Valera, described RTÉ as "a devious and underhand" station during the company's heated Annual General Meeting (AGM) in the Davenport Hotel in Dublin on Tuesday 29 August.

Commenting on a Hidden History documentary, A Family Fortune: deValera's Irish Press, which was re-broadcast on RTÉ last year, Eamon de Valera told shareholders that RTÉ was "a public body that is prepared to stand over its lies".

He said that he had been advised not to participate in the programme, but said that the documentary was "most disgraceful" and that he would deal with it in "another place".

Irish Press plc published the first edition of the Irish Press in 1931 and later added two highly successful titles, the Sunday Press and the Evening Press, before it was placed into liquidation in September 1995 with the loss of 600 jobs.

"Personally speaking, I found that documentary a disgrace," said de Valera, who claimed that the offending programme first broadcast in November 2004 was full of "mis-statements".

Eamon de Valera was responding to questions by irate shareholders about the 2005 company accounts, which included provision for large administration and legal expenses as well as generous remunerations for directors. Eamon de Valera told the meeting that he takes €129,000 per annum from the company plus a pension.

Eamon de Valera indicated that he is continuing to pursue an unspecificied action, in a personal capacity, against RTÉ, despite a rejection of his complaint against the programme by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC) in January last.

The BCC said that the programme was impartial and "was presented in a balanced manner", notwithstanding the decision by deValera not to co-operate with it.

Ordinary shareholders who attended the AGM questioned the constitutionality of the Irish Press plc board and claimed that de Valera should repay all of the annual salaries he has received since his appointment as managing director in 1982. His appointment followed the death of his predecesor and father Vivion, the son of the newspaper's founder, Eamon de Valera.

Accountant and shareholder Neal Duggan told the AGM that he believed that there was no provision in the articles of association of Irish Press plc allowing for the appointment of a controlling director or chief executive, as de Valera termed himself. He also claimed that the appointments of other board members, including the former chief executive of Irish Press Newspapers, Vincent Jennings, were in breach of the company's articles of association.

He was supported by another shareholder, Tom Burke from Drogheda, the son of original shareholder and veteran of the war of independence Thomas Burke, who said that he believed that de Valera should return all his salaries, which he estimated at over €3m since 1982.

Other shareholders said that the re-imbursed money could be used to repay the loan, made in 1994, from Independent News and Media (INM), on which is currently owed just over €2 m, including interest, by the company. INM provided loans of £2 million to the Irish Press and acquired a 24.9 per cent shareholding in the group in 1994. One shareholder said that the company should not "have the shame of a knight of the realm... holding our titles hostage".

Neal Duggan asked de Valera in what circumstances the board would consider it financially sensible to repay the loans to INM in order to regain control of the Irish Press newspaper titles. De Valera said that they could be repaid if there was a real prospect of re-launching the Press titles. He said the company did not have the resources to re-launch at this time.

De Valera denied that his appointment was in breach of the articles of association, but referred the matter to company solicitor LK Shields, who said he would consult with others on the matter.

"I will consider it. I won't be taken on the hoof," Mr Shields told the meeting, which was persistently interrupted by angry shareholders, some of whom claimed that the board was planning to privatise the company and disperse its assets into other ventures controlled by deValera and his partner, Vincent Jennings.

De Valera also confirmed that legal action was still "in being" against Richard Bruton, the former Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, arising from the closure of the Irish Press group of newspapers in 1996. The former minister had criticised the manner in which the Irish Press management had dealt with the group's difficulties at the time.

In 1995, the chairperson of the Competition Authority, John Fingleton, said that the INM acquisition of the 24.9 per cent shareholding and the £2 million in loans represented an abuse of a dominant position by Independent Newspapers in the industry and were a serious breach of the Competition Act.

The Authority recommended in a report to the Minister that High Court action should be taken for the alleged breach of the Competition Act as it did not then have powers to take action on its own behalf.

In a letter in August 2002 to Irish Press shareholder Michael O'Connor from Macroom, Co Cork, the Authority said that it did not know why the Minister did not exercise his power to take court action.

In 1996, legislation was passed giving the Authority stronger powers, which were later strengthened further in the Competition Act 2002.

"However, neither the powers given to the Authority in 1996 nor the strengthened powers in the 2002 Act are retrospective, so the Authority is not in a position to take any action into the acquisition in 1994 by Independent Newspapers plc of a shareholding in the Irish Press," Ciaran Quigley, secretary to the Authority, wrote.

"I realise that it will be of little consolation to you to know that if a similar situation to the Independent/Press were to arise now, and the Authority was of the same view as in that case, it would take the necessary action itself," Mr Quigley said.

A family fortune

In January 2006, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC) rejected a complaint by Eamon deValera about the contents of a documentary, A Family Fortune: de Valera's Irish Press, which was first broadcast in November 2004 as part of the Hidden History series.

The programme examined the manner in which three generations of the de Valera family came to control the newspaper group, which was originally established in the 1920s as a trust in which thousands of small shareholders in Ireland and America invested.

In his complaint to the BCC following a re-broadcast of the programme in July 2005, de Valera claimed it unfairly implied that a family fortune was made out of the Irish Press by his grandfather, the former Taoiseach and president, Eamon de Valera, and his father Vivion de Valera.

Eamon de Valera appealed for donations to establish a national newspaper in a fundraising drive during the 1920s and sought donations of $500 each from American supporters.

By 1929, some $120,000 was raised and for the following years, each of the donors were assigned what were called 'Republican bonds' on the understanding that any profits that accrued from the enterprise would be re-distributed to the donors.

Eamon de Valera (grandson of the former president) said that an allegation that American subscribers were tricked into providing funds for the newspaper venture was without foundation. This allegation, he said, implied that his grandfather was "a crook" along with those who assisted him in raising funds, particulary in America.

He disputed as "false" claims by the late Noel Browne, which were repeated in the programme, that Eamon and Vivion de Valera had acquired shares at a gross undervaluation. He also disputed a claim by former Irish Press editor, Tim Pat Coogan, that the newspaper was run like a family business and that Eamon de Valera was only interested in discussing how its control could be exercised.

In reply, RTÉ disputed de Valera's detailed and extensive criticisms and insisted that the documentary was "fair, accurate and thoroughly researched". It pointed out that while the Irish Press was not founded as a family business, all three controlling directors have been de Valeras.

"Mr de Valera's central allegations are incorrect. The documentary did not assert that his grandfather was motivated by financial greed. It argued that political considerations were uppermost in his mind, at least until he passed control to his son (Vivion) in the 1950s," RTÉ stated.

RTÉ said that the de Valera family had always controlled the vast majority of shares in the Irish company and, through a handful of voting shares, the American company.

"No-one was accused of being a crook. The documentary concluded that ordinary investors would have had little idea that they were investing not in the Irish Press, but in an American Trust company with a similar name over which they had no control," RTÉ insisted.

Profits and dividends were not made available to American shareholders until some 50 years after they were raised, by which time very few investors could be traced.

In its finding, the BCC said that the decision of Mr de Valera not to participate in the programme did not preclude its makers from reporting on a matter of public interest. It said the central theme of the programme was substantially correct and was not unfair.