Articles in newspaper were about Ireland not Denis O'Brien, former editor tells trial

Former Editor of the Sunday Business Post, Ian Kehoe. Photo: Collins Courts

Former Sunday Business Post editor Ian Kehoe has told a High Court jury articles in the newspaper in March 2015 were not about businessman Denis O'Brien but about Ireland and a report that "cast a lie" about what the banks were telling everyone at the time of the financial crash in 2008.

Mr O'Brien has sued Post Publications, publisher of the SBP, claiming the articles wrongly meant he was among a “gang” of 22 borrowers who “wrecked the country” and they defamed him and injured his reputation.

The defence denies those meanings, defamation or malicious publication and has pleaded "fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest".

Today, Mr Kehoe said he and journalist Tom Lyons had discussed leaving Mr O'Brien out of the articles but decided he had to be left in because he was named in the report, given by Price WaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to the government in November 2008, as among the 22 biggest borrowers with Irish banks in 2008.

There was an "immense fear factor" across the media around anything to do with Mr O'Brien and anything involving him had to "go through me" and lawyers.

When Mr O'Brien's name was mentioned, it was like being "in a fire station with a light going around and around".

"He is the only person in that category," he told his counsel Michael McDowell SC.

He and Mr Lyons had discussed, in the interests of a "quiet life", leaving Mr O'Brien out but decided it was "not our job to doctor a government report".

Core journalistic values mean treating all reports and individuals fairly, Mr O'Brien was named because he was one of the 22 named in the report and the articles also reported Mr O'Brien had paid all his debts, he said.

Asked why not anonymise all 22, he said he got into journalism because he believes in transparency and informing people what is going on.

This story was about a report that showed how fundamentally the banks misled PWC at the time of the bank guarantee in September 2008, he said.

The PwC report showed an immense concentration of debt in a small group of people "who could have been the best or worst borrowers".

It was not about Mr O'Brien or any other of the 22 individuals but about Ireland, Irish banks and why even now investment is not being put into areas "that so badly need it".

The story was of "immense public and national importance", he and Mr Lyons were fully engaged with it, he himself read the entire PwC report and went through the articles to ensure they were correct.

Denis O'Brien

He had not discussed the story with the company's then chairman, Conor Killeen, who at no time sought to exercise any control over any editorial content.

Earlier, during continuing cross-examination of Mr Lyons, Paul O’Higgins SC put to him he had falsely stated in his articles that Mr O’Brien had large borrowings for land and development, the “nuclear button” in terms of the banks exposure, when he, Mr Lyons, knew that was false and had then shredded the PWC report that could have “exonerated” Mr O’Brien.

Mr Lyons disagreed and said PWC had said the risk relating to land and development borrowings exposure isolated by PWC might relate only to “part of the [particular borrower’s] connection”.

Mr O’Higgins put to Mr Lyons he had falsely stated the PWC risk assessment of various borrowers was not in this particular report but in other reports.

Mr Lyons said he did not recall the particular page of the report and, because the copy of the report provided to him was in black and white, would not have seen the colours PWC used to identify particular risk assessment of individual borrowers.

He disagreed his treatment of the risk assessment issue amounted to “scandalous journalism”.

If the article was “read properly”, it was clear the €63 billion figure referred to related to the banks’ total land and development exposure, he said.

Mr O'Higgins also played an interview given by Mr Lyons to RTE's This Week radio programme on March 15th 2015, the day the articles were published.

Mr Lyons denied that showed his attitude in 2015 was that a small group of the biggest bank borrowers had disappeared off "into the sunset" and left the people of Ireland “holding the baby” at the time of the financial crisis in 2008.

He said he made no reference to Mr O’Brien during the interview and had no opportunity to outline what was said in the articles about Mr O'Brien, which was his loans were performing in 2008 and he went on to repay all his debts.

The interviewer had asked him, before beginning to record the interview, not to make any reference to Mr O’Brien because the lawyers had said "not to go near him", he said.

Mr Kehoe will continue his evidence on Tuesday.

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