AGM adds to INM puzzle but offers no answers

Independent News and Media general meetings always seem to offer an extra ‘off-menu’ something or other — whether good or bad — to keep the interest of the casual observer piqued.

The media group has, in recent years, somewhat cornered the market in terms of interest-filled public meetings, the uneasy entertainment of the events becoming nearly as much a certainty of life as death and taxes, these days.

The run-up to yesterday’s AGM was dominated by the status of INM’s latest board dispute, between chief executive Robert Pitt and chairman/majority shareholder Denis O’Brien’s board representative Leslie Buckley, surrounding the valuation of a potential INM takeover offer for Mr O’Brien’s Newstalk radio station.

That reared its head in spectacular fashion with Mr Pitt abstaining from a vote to re-elect Mr Buckley as chairman, although all directors up for re-election (Mr Pitt was the only one who wasn’t) were sworn back in.

Yesterday’s meeting, played out against a backdrop of a disappointing set of results for the first half of INM’s current financial year, was largely about battening down the hatches.

Mr Buckley offered the merest of comments about the board unrest and shareholders were told that there was “nothing untoward or ominous” about the departure of senior independent director Jerome Kennedy, with a replacement already being sought.

Mr Buckley offered no comment on reports that the external review into INM’s corporate governance practices had returned no definitive findings. When asked about the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement’s separate ongoing probe — resulting from Mr Pitt’s protected disclosure to it over the Newstalk affair — he said such disclosures have to be handled in a proper and professional manner within a legal framework.

He added that it was “very unfortunate” that details of the board disagreements had leaked and told shareholders “this board is working day and night to get this issue resolved.”

Other than awaiting the outcome of the ODCE probe, INM shareholders are likely to remain frustrated after yesterday’s ultimately barren meeting.

Then again, who knows. While it’s hard enough to know what’s going on inside INM, the behaviour of some of its shareholders can be equally baffling. When Mr Buckley rightly opened yesterday’s meeting by paying tribute
to former INM chairman James Osborne, who died last week, one investor outrageously asked for more details on his death.

A veteran shareholder predictably asked about dividend payments and seemed genuinely surprised when told they wouldn’t be returning anytime soon — oblivious to the fact that the company he has invested in has lost more than a quarter of its market value since the turn of the year and needs a large portion of its cash reserves to cover its pension obligations.

Mr Buckley said he hoped next year’s AGM would show significant growth. One would hope that would stretch to shareholders in more ways than one.

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