The Independent minister admitted he told the PR official for INM he was “likely” to refer the company’s takeover of Celtic Media to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). But this was two months before the decision went public. The minister said this had been his “personal” opinion.
Opposition-party TDs quizzed Mr Naughten about the issue yesterday in the Dáil.
Mr Naughten insisted he had “acted to the letter of the law” and given “no insider information” away.
He said he took a call on November 10 or 11, 2016, on his mobile phone from Eoghan Ó Neachtain, a former government press secretary, who was acting on behalf of PR agency Heneghan for INM.
The minister then was assessing a proposed INM takeover of newspapers owned by Celtic Media.
He told the Dáil that it was “always likely” the deal would go to what is known as a phase II assessment, involving the BAI.
During his call with Mr Ó Neachtain, the minister said it was his “purely personal view that the likely course of action” would be to refer the media deal to the BAI. He also said he had told Mr Ó Neachtain he would await advice from his officials.
This was not passing on “inside information”, Mr Naughten told the Dáil, insisting he had “acted to the letter of the law”.
This is contrary to reports yesterday that the then-chairman of INM, Leslie Buckley, passed on the information to its major shareholder, businessman Denis O’Brien, saying that the deal would in fact be referred to the BAI.
It has also been reported that the corporate enforcement watchdog is concerned the minister may have breached stock-market rules by divulging “inside information”.
Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy asked why Mr Naughten did not reveal his opinion when answering a query on the media deal on December 6 that year.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald claimed the phonecall was “absolutely not appropriate”.
She suggested Mr Naughten had “misled the Dáil” by not answering queries — despite going on to tell the PR official his “personal” opinion on the deal.
The minister rejected this, stating: “I didn’t willfully mislead the Dail.”
Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley last night also questioned was it acceptable for a Cabinet minister to act the way he did. “I don’t know how you divorce a personal and ministerial opinion,” he told RTÉ.
Mr Naughten also admitted he had taken no note of the phonecall or told his officials about it.