An executive with Independent News and Media plc claims the company’s major shareholder, Denis O’Brien, was behind an allegedly unlawful attempt to oust him.
Karl Brophy, director of corporate affairs and content development at INM, yesterday sought a High Court order to prevent him from being dismissed. This was refused by the court but an injunction was granted restraining INM from acting further on its decision of May 8 to terminate his employment until a further hearing on Tuesday when INM will present evidence.
Mr Brophy got an order restraining the company and its servants from releasing, disseminating or divulging confidential information in relation to his employment and its termination, the validity of which is disputed.
The order, in place until Tuesday, also applies to parties outside the State with knowledge of the order, Mr Justice Daniel Herbert said.
Oisin Quinn SC, for Mr Brophy, told the judge his client had been “put in a position where the largest shareholder is trying to oust him and to rub salt into the wounds”.
Following the departure of INM CEO Gavin O’Reilly last month, and after Mr O’Brien had become the major shareholder, the new CEO Vincent Crowley met with Mr Brophy on Apr 27 and told him “there was a new regime in place and his employment was to be terminated”. Mr Crowley allegedly also said Mr Brophy was seen as “too close” to Mr O’Reilly.
He was also told that the recent coverage in Independent group newspapers of Denis O’Brien, and his taking control of INM, had gone “a bit too far.”
Mr Crowley also told him that he had not done enough to “recast the digital offerings” of INM although Mr Crowley accepted this had been a difficult task. Mr Crowley also added a caveat that he accepted Mr Brophy was “only following orders”, counsel said.
On May 9, Mr Brophy received a letter formally terminating his employment. His assistant was also let go after 24 years with the company, counsel said.
In an affidavit, Mr Brophy said the draconian manner in which INM sought to implement his dismissal was calculated to try and damage him. As well as being unlawful, he says, he believes it is “vindictively motivated” by a regime “which is essentially persons acting through the defendant [IMN] but according to the wishes of the defendant’s major shareholder Denis O’Brien.”
In January last, during an INM board meeting, one of Mr O’Brien’s nominees to the board, Paul Connolly, launched “what appeared to be a pre-planned attack on me” in which he referred to a 1998 article written by Mr Brophy in the Daily Mirror about Mr O’Brien. Mr Brophy said Mr O’Brien sued the Mirror and won €750,000 in libel damages. Mr Connolly had claimed Mr Brophy was retweeting stories about Mr O’Brien.
Mr Connolly then wrote to INM chairman James Osborne, asking that then CEO Mr O’Reilly “deal with” Mr Brophy on this matter, he said. It was fair to say, Mr Brophy said, that “Mr O’Brien is not exactly a fan of mine” particularly as Mr Brophy had also covered the Moriarty Tribunal.
Mr Brophy said Mr O’Reilly was a block to Mr O’Brien taking de facto control of INM without making a full bid. Tensions between them were heightened by reporting in Independent titles, including about Mr O’Brien’s appearance with ministers, he said.
Within hours of his conversation on Apr 27 with Mr Crowley in which he was told he was being dismissed, Mr Brophy received a phonecall from an Irish Times journalist asking him had he resigned, a claim he denied. He also received similar calls from the Sunday Business Post, Sunday Times, and Phoenix.
Mr Brophy said in response to other letters to withdraw the threat to his employment, INM denied it was responsible for media leaks. It said the formal notice of his redundancy was to take place 364 days hence and he was on “gardening leave” in the meantime, something not provided for in his contract, he said.
Mr Brophy said the decision to terminate his employment was on spurious grounds, firstly based on alleged misconduct and then redundancy without regard to his contractual entitlements and to the rules of natural and constitutional justice, he said.
His reputation will be “effectively destroyed” because of the manner in which INM is seeking to terminate his employment, he said.
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