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Saturday 26 May 2018

'I didn't talk out of turn on merger' - Naughten

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten
Minister for Communications Denis Naughten

Denis Naughten insists he said "nothing wrong" to a PR executive about the proposed merger of Independent News & Media (INM) and Celtic Media.

The communications minister is under fire after it emerged he discussed the referral of the potential deal to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) during a phone call with an INM lobbyist.

Details of the call emerged in the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement's (ODCE) application to appoint inspectors to investigate corporate governance issues at INM.

It was reported yesterday that details of a conversation between the minister and Eoghan O Neachtain, director of public affairs at Heneghan PR, were relayed to INM's largest shareholder, Denis O'Brien.

Breach

It is alleged Mr O Neachtain briefed PR executive Nigel Heneghan on the conversation he had with Mr Naughten. In turn, Mr Heneghan alerted INM's then chairman, Leslie Buckley, to the minister's thinking.

The State's corporate watchdog has claimed Mr Buckley then emailed Mr O'Brien in a move that may amount to "inside information" and a breach of stock market rules.

In the Dail yesterday, Mr Naughten confirmed that he took a call from Mr O Neachtain in November 2016.

He said the former government press secretary told him the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission had approved the INM acquisition.

The minister acknowledged that he told Mr O Neachtain that his "personal view" was that a referral to the BAI was likely, but said he stressed the decision would be based on future advice of officials.

The minister said it would have been "preferable if the conversation had not taken place", but repeatedly argued that he did not express a "definitive view".

"Nor did I state that the view expressed was a confidential one," said Mr Naughten.

There is no note of the phone call and the minister did not inform his officials about it.

Fianna Fail's Timmy Dooley claimed it was "not credible" that a PR executive hired by INM would "attempt to mislead their client" by suggesting the phone call was more than the minister was stating.

In response, Mr Naughten said he is "crystal clear" that he gave his "personal view" based on information already in the public domain.

Sinn Fein TD Mary Lou McDonald accused the minister of acting "outside of the law" and in a manner that was "inappropriate".

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