The O'Reilly memos and Denis O'Brien

Was Denis O'Brien's support for the boardroom move against Gavin O'Reilly fuelled, at least in part, by a 2010 row over the Irish Independent's coverage of the Moriarty Tribunal? By Vincent Browne.

Last Thursday evening, at the launch of a new book, Michael McDowell advised the large and well-heeled audience to visit the website and search its archives. The search is worthwhile.

On the site, there are posted memos by Gavin O'Reilly of conversations he had with Leslie Buckley, one of Denis O'Brien's then directors on the board of Independent News & Media (INM). The first of them records a phone conversation on 29 October 2010.

According to the memo, Leslie Buckley had been speaking to Denis O'Brien, who was "very upset with Sam Smyth" who, in his view, was conducting "almost a vendetta" against O'Brien. Smyth is an Irish Independent journalist who was reporting on the Moriarty Tribunal.

The memo says that Buckley wanted to know whether the journalist could be taken off the story of the Moriarty Tribunal and moved on to something else. Buckley has consistently denied that he was engaged in any attempt at improper interference.

It is important to record here that Buckley, while saying he expressed concern, said he did not push for Smyth to be taken off the story and, later in the correspondence, this is stated.

Gavin O'Reilly, according to his own memo, then made the interesting acknowledgement that, while he had seen that morning's Irish Times, he had not seen that morning's Irish Independent (he was in New Delhi at the time).

According to the memo, Buckley said Smyth's piece in that morning's Irish Independent was okay, but his performance on RTÉ's Prime Time the previous Tuesday night was, in his opinion, "aggressive" and "hostile".

Gavin O'Reilly, according to his memo, said that if he spoke to the editor of the Irish Independent, Gerry O'Regan, about this, and if Smyth were moved from coverage of the tribunal, that would create even a bigger story, one which would be on the front page of the Irish Times.

At the time, O'Brien was suing Smyth personally for remarks made on another television programme.

Buckley persisted. He said Smyth had done his job (on the tribunal) and should now be moved on to another story. O'Reilly replied that doing what was proposed would be a public relations disaster.

Subsequently, O'Reilly wrote an email to Buckley, saying it was a matter for the editor to decide who should cover stories.

On 5 November 2010, O'Reilly had a transcript compiled of a phone message left by Buckley:

"Hi Gavin, Leslie here. Got your text message. Really, what we are talking about is there somebody who can be down there [at the Tribunal]. I know there are other reporters, really kind of writing pretty positive situations. There was one good story last week carried - I can't remember who.

"But, by and large, it's generally negative stuff. Someone with our friend down there, I think, really trying to ensure that a good balanced story comes out. That would be much appreciated. Give me a bell, as I'd like to try to resolve this."

The following day, O'Reilly wrote an email, marked "PRIVATE" and of "high importance", expressing his severe irritation with the repeated representations by Buckley on the Smyth issue.

He wrote: "Frankly, I am somewhat bemused by the plethora of calls and texts, I am not sure what is so incredibly urgent that it has required the host of phone calls and texts in the past week or so."

O'Reilly went on to say that no specific complaint had been made about anything Smyth had written, just a complaint about what he had said on Prime Time.

O'Reilly referred to a conversation that had taken place after a board meeting a few days previously at which, according to the email, Buckley had said that he and O'Brien had agreed that Smyth could not be stood down (from covering the Tribunal).

He then wrote:

"Leslie, I have listened to and considered very carefully your various messages and, again, looked at all the coverage.

"And frankly, I can't agree that there is anything wrong, inconsistent or unbalanced with Sam's coverage."

He said the issue went to the heart of editorial independence, and that "tribunal coverage cannot be adjudicated or influenced by people that are a party to the Tribunal".

In any event, he wrote, this was now moot, for the Moriarty Tribunal's proceedings had concluded.

Leslie Buckley has consistently maintained the communications between him and O'Reilly were, as he has been quoted as saying, private conversations, and reflected his concern about aspects of the coverage of the tribunal and his desire to see other journalists from the paper involved. He has rejected any suggestion of "editorial interference".

What is striking about the memos is the propriety of Gavin O'Reilly's handling of what he appears to perceive as the pressure to have Sam Smyth moved off the Moriarty Tribunal coverage, and his insistence that he and the board should not interfere with the editor's editorial independence.

The second striking feature of this is O'Reilly's view that Denis O'Brien was seeking to advance his private interests by influencing the coverage of a story affecting him. O'Brien has denied this and has claimed that he has been targeted by INM, and particularly by the Sunday Independent, through its newspaper columns.

He wrote in the Irish Times last year that he felt the papers had engaged in a "prolonged, nasty, well-orchestrated campaign against me across a range of issues".

Was O'Brien's support for the boardroom move against O'Reilly fuelled, at least in part, by this row over the newspaper's coverage? {jathumbnailoff}