Defamation case: Denis O'Brien tells Michael McDowell 'I’m second place to you in the vanity stakes'

Denis O' Brien arriving at the Four Courts today. Photo: Collins Courts.

Businessman Denis O’Brien has said he is not “self-obsessed” in believing he was “lumped in” with 22 borrowers allegedly blamed in newspaper articles for the 2008 financial crisis here.

"I’m second place to you in the vanity stakes,” he told Michael McDowell SC during cross-examination in his High Court action alleging defamation in several articles published in the Sunday Business Post (SBP) on March 15th 2015.

He said he was “maliciously” put into a category of borrowers where he should not have been and defamed because the articles wrongly meant he was “a member of a select group responsible for the property bubble in Ireland”.

He had made some property investments but was not a developer and disagreed it was not defamatory to describe someone as a developer in 2015. If you interacted with the public between 2008 and 2015 and said you were a developer and not a barrister, you “would get dog’s abuse”, he told counsel.

"I am not a property developer king and I didn’t bust the country.”

Mr O’Brien is suing Post Publications Ltd for substantial damages over the alleged defamation.

The focus of the articles, run over six pages, was what the SBP referred to as a "secret" report concerning exposure in 2008 of Ireland's banks, compiled by Price WaterhouseCoopers (PWC).

The report was provided to the government in November 2008 and obtained in 2015 by the newspaper but was destroyed shortly after publication to protect the source who provided it.

The articles include a front page article headlined "22 men and €26 billion" with a subheading: "The secret report that convinced Cowen the banks weren't bust."

Mr O'Brien claims the various articles wrongly meant he was among 22 borrowers identified with the downfall of Ireland and the bankruptcy of its banking system and injured his reputation.

The defendant denies defamation, denies the words complained of mean what Mr O'Brien says and denies malicious publication. It has also pleaded "fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest".

On Thursday, Mr McDowell said the SBP denied the "they" in a strapline “The files they didn’t want you to see” included Mr O'Brien.

Remarking Mr O’Brien had probably heard of the Carly Simon song, ‘You’re so vain’, counsel put to him the articles did not mean Mr O’Brien, or others, were being blamed for the 2008 financial crisis.

Mr O’Brien reiterated his view the articles, including one headlined "The Gang of 22", meant he was part of a “gang” of 22 responsible for the 2008 crisis. He did not know how counsel could say otherwise or suggest he was “self-obsessed” or like the person referred to in the song, ‘You’re so vain.”

He denied his interpretation of "gang" as referring to people engaged in wrongdoing or criminality was "excessive".

Mr McDowell put to him "gang" is used widely to describe different groups of people, such as the “gang of 22” in the Fianna Fail party who opposed Charlie Haughey.

Mr O’Brien said counsel, as a former Minister for Justice, knows what gang means and it is not "a loving term”.

He said he has never seen the PWC report but believed the newspaper had “sensationalised” it and the journalists involved had set out to do him damage.

When counsel suggested it was accurate to describe Mr O'Brien as among those under huge financial pressure in 2008 in the context of his having loans of some €750m to Anglo, Mr o’Brien said he was not under huge financial pressure and, had he had to, could “easily” have written a cheque for Anglo to repay his loans.

He had paid all his loans off and, at the request of Bank of Ireland and AIB because of a flight of deposits by multinationals from Ireland, put €600m on deposit in those banks, he said. The taxpayer never had to shoulder any burden from his loans, he added.

A file image of Michael McDowell, SC

Counsel said the SBP would say the 22 people referred to in the articles, including Mr O’Brien, all featured in the PWC report which had put Mr O’Brien at number ten in a list of 22 borrowers and it was in the public interest to publish the report.

Mr O’Brien said PWC should have analysed the banks' loan books in much greater detail.

He said it was possible the journalists got the PWC report wrong.

He said he is a "good borrower" who strongly believes in the confidentiality of people’s banking affairs.

Mr McDowell said there are times when people’s banking affairs become matters of public importance. If the Taoiseach was told in 2008 none of the banks would have difficulty meeting capital adequacy ratios, people were entitled to know that in 2015, counsel said.

Mr O’Brien said it would have been illegal for people to know that because the PWC report was a private government cabinet paper.

During other exchanges, Mr O’Brien said an experienced editor would have said he could not be described as he had been in these articles and, had the matter gone to the SBP owner, he believed the owner would have said the same thing.

He said he had received a letter from the owner of the SBP.

Mr McDowell said it "may be news to you but in most newspapers the owners are not in control, the editor is” and put to him the “widespread convention” is owners do not seek to influence editorial content.

Mr O’Brien said when one looks at some newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, he was sure their owners have influence and it could not be said “one cap fits all” in relation to editorial control.

In reply to counsel, he said he is a minority shareholder in INM and does not interfere with editorial policy there or with Newstalk.

The hearing continues before Mr Justice Bernard Barton and a jury.

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