Former editor denies Denis O'Brien graphic put businessman in 'bad company'

Former editor denies Denis O'Brien graphic put businessman in 'bad company'
Businessman Denis O Brien pictured at the Four Courts for a High Court action. Picture: Collins Courts

Denis O'Brien was among eight men listed in a graphic alongside a front page newspaper article headlined "22 men and €26 billion" because Mr O'Brien is well-known and is, in football terms, "Barcelona", a High Court jury has been told.

Ian Kehoe, former editor of the Sunday Business Post (SBP), denied the graphic, which listed the names of eight men below the words "Top Secret", put Mr O'Brien into "bad company".

Mr O'Brien was there because he was the tenth of the 22 largest bank borrowers in the State in 2008 as identified in a report by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC), he said.

He “emphatically” disagreed the word “they” in a front page strapline: “The files they don’t want you to see”, meant the 22 men and thus also meant Mr O’Brien and said “they” meant the government.

The articles did "no damage" to Mr O’Brien, “widely acknowledged to be the country’s richest man”, he said.

Mr Kehoe was the final witness in Mr O'Brien's action alleging defamation in separate articles published over six pages in the SBP on March 15th 2015.

The jury will either begin hearing closing speeches later on Friday or on Tuesday, followed by the judge's charge, before they will retire to consider their verdict.

The focus of the articles was a PwC report about the exposure of Ireland’s banks in 2008 which was given to the government in November 2008 but not made public. Journalist Tom Lyons got the report from a source in 2015 and shredded it shortly after the articles were published to protect the source.

Mr O'Brien claims the articles wrongly meant he was among a “gang” of 22 borrowers who “wrecked the country”, they defamed him and injured his reputation.

The defendant, Post Publications Ltd, denies the words mean what he alleges, denies defamation and malicious publication, and has pleaded "fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest".

Today, Luán Ó Braonáin SC, for Mr O'Brien, put to Mr Kehoe that the SBP, in order to be fair to Mr O’Brien, should either have left him off the list of 22 or divided the 22 "into the good, bad and ugly".

Mr Kehoe said the point of the articles was 22 people borrowed €26 billion, it was factually accurate to say Mr O’Brien was one of the 22, and it would be “grossly unfair” to go along with counsel’s suggestion.

The SBP “did something even fairer than the good bad and ugly thing”, it said Mr O’Brien went on to say he paid his debts.

'Not good enough'

Mr Ó Braonáin said Mr O'Brien was never in Nama and never cost the State a penny on his loans but the SBP did not make that clear. "22 words" about Mr O'Brien paying off his loans were "tucked away" in an article on pages 14 and 15 of the newspaper and that was "not good enough".

Mr Kehoe disagreed and said he stood over the articles and would publish them again.

Mr O Braonáin put to him one article headlined 'People of Influence, people of blame', written by Gavin Sheridan, suggested there was meant to be an association between the naming of names and the “assigning of blame”.

Former SBP editor, Ian Kehoe
Former SBP editor, Ian Kehoe

Disagreeing, Mr Kehoe said a reasonable reading of that article "is we don’t know what happened" and Mr Sheridan was listing questions he hoped would be answered by the banking inquiry then underway, including how 22 people ended up borrowing between 15-16 per cent of Irish GNP.

He denied the various articles meant the 22 people were responsible for the destruction of Ireland and its banking system. .

Mr O Braonáin put to him one article stated the 22 had exposure to land and development loans of €8.8 billion when Mr O’Brien had no such exposure and was among 8 of the 22 who had no such exposure.

Mr Kehoe said the SBP had not said Mr O’Brien had land and development exposure and had said the 22 had that exposure.

Asked about his having referred, in a 2011 tv programme, to a small room in the Nama building used for meetings with developers as a “holding pen”, he denied as “really unfair” counsel’s suggestion he was likening “named” developers to livestock.

In re-examination by his counsel Michael McDowell SC, Mr Kehoe said the SBP had not “hidden away” the information about Mr O’Brien having repaid his loans. In the articles on earlier pages, Mr O’Brien was mentioned just once and that was in the front page graphic, he said.

Asked about a reference in one article to "each" of the men being under financial pressure, he said Mr O'Brien had borrowings in 2008 of €1 billion, including €785m to Anglo and also had borrowings with AIB.

Both those banks were at risk of going out of business "in the morning" and, even in the context of Mr O'Brien's net worth, that would mean pressure to come up with such an amount of money in a short period, he said.

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