Independent News & Media (INM) chief Robert Pitt used whistleblowing legislation to complain around the time a dispute raged inside the media firm over the potential acquisition of Newstalk, it has emerged.
Yesterday, INM said that the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement — the ODCE — had asked it for documents involving plans it had to acquire Newstalk.
A controversy arose last year involving a disagreement between Mr Pitt, who is INM’s chief executive, and chairman Leslie Buckley about the value of a potential acquisition of Newstalk.
Denis O’Brien is a significant shareholder in INM and founder of Communicorp, which owns Newstalk. The news that the chief executive used whistleblowing legislation raises the heat over the controversy.
In a short statement last November, INM had referred to “an issue” between its CEO and chairman but did not identify the potential acquisition.
It said at the time that Mr Pitt had raised the issue with the company’s senior independent director.
Yesterday, in its 2016 results statement, INM said it was asked by the ODCE “to produce records in relation to the possible acquisition by the company of Newstalk and related matters that were subject of the company’s announcement” last November.
It said: “A requirement from the ODCE to produce books and records is a procedural matter that does not involve any conclusion that there has been a breach of law by the company or its officers.”
A spokesman for the ODCE said it does not comment on individual cases.
INM indicated it would look to the UK for any large-scale future acquisitions and to Ireland for bolt-on purchases. The company holds almost €85m in cash. It expected its proposed acquisition of Celtic Media Group, which includes six weekly regional titles, to close in June. That acquisition requires the authorisation of Communications Minister Denis Naughten.
The results showed revenues increased slightly to €323.4m in a 53-week period to the end of December. Pre-tax profit rose almost 12% to €41.8m, helped by lower costs and a smaller interest bill even as overall advertising revenues fell. On the outlook, the media industry faces “challenging times”, it said.
INM said talks with trustees continue over its plan to halt payments into two defined benefit pension schemes. Philip O’Sullivan, chief economist at Investec Ireland, said INM appeared committed to making acquisitions.
A dividend payout was “not on the horizon”, however, until INM resolved the issue over its pensions, said Mr O’Sullivan.
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