By Ann O'Loughlin
A High Court judge has dismissed an application by Independent News & Media plc aimed at quashing the corporate watchdog's decision to seek inspectors to investigate an alleged data breach and other issues at the media group.
Mr Justice Seamus Noonan’s decision means the ODCE application will now be heard at a later date before the president of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly. He will decide whether or not inspectors should be appointed.
Dismissing the judicial review today, Mr Justice Noonan said INM’s fundamental proposition that it had a right to be consulted before legal proceedings are instituted by a public body is “novel and unprecedented” and, as a matter of law, “cannot be sustained”.
If INM has an answer to the concerns raised by the ODCE, that may mean, when the application is actually heard, inspectors will not be appointed, he said.
The court could not take cognisance, at this stage, of any damage INM claimed to have suffered as a result of the ODCE decision to seek inspectors, he also said.
There was an important public interest in the functions performed by the ODCE, he said.
The ODCE application was initiated following its year long investigation into matters at INM.
ODCE Ian Drennan said he considered it was necessary for the court to appoint inspectors to investigate various matters about which he had concerns.
Those issues arose from protected disclosures by former INM CEO Robert Pitt and INM Chief Financial Officer Ryan Preston on dates in 2016 and 2017.
The issues included an alleged data breach at INM over some montHs from October 2014; a proposed purchase by INM of Newstalk Radio from Communicorp, a company of INM's major shareholder, Denis O'Brien; and a proposed fee payment by INM to Island Capital, a company also linked to Mr O'Brien. Neither the purchase nor payment proceeded.
Mr Drennan said the range of “potentially unlawful conduct” that may have taken place within INM is “extensive” and an investigation by inspectors is necessary for reasons including to establish whether journalists emails or other data was accessed over a period from October 2014, by whom, for what purpose and whether Mr O’Brien benefitted from that.
In response to the bringing of the ODCE application last March, INM sought judicial review which, had it succeeded, would have prevented the application being heard. The judicial review was heard over two days last month and Mr Justice Noonan reserved judgement on May 10th.