In the case before the High Court in relation to INM, there was a further dimension to the public interest because of the nature of the business which was carried on by the company, the judge said.
A free press is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy. Journalists’ communications have a particular importance in that regard. Thus allegations of the accessing of journalists’ communications by unauthorised third parties raise issues of particular public interest,” Mr Justice Peter Kelly said.
He said anybody’s private data would be wrongfully accessed was a serious matter but in the context in which this had allegedly been done was even more so. The company occupied a dominant position in the media sector in the country and there was an obvious public interest in its proper governance.
It was, as pointed out by the late Justice Shanley, a legitimate objective of the State to lay bare dishonest stratagems which may have infected the affairs and governance of the company. It was legitimate for the director to see to it that the issues identified were investigated and, if found to have happened, dealt with effectively.
Having regard to the evidence which has been placed before me, I am of the opinion that the issue of the public interest in this case is one to which I must afford considerable weight.
Dealing with the company’s argument on the negative consequences resulting from the appointment of inspectors, he said INM alleged it had suffered and would continue to suffer financial harm and reputational damage.
The appointment of inspectors was always likely to cause damage to a company, but the court was not convinced the consequences were as serious as suggested.
“I find it difficult to accept that the board believes that INM’s very survival would be jeopardised if there were a general erosion of confidence, including a loss of advertiser and supplier confidence in the INM group such as would follow the appointment of inspectors,” Judge Kelly said.
As to reputational damage, it seemed to the court a good deal of that had already occurred as a result of what had been disclosed already.
It was a matter of public knowledge that the company’s former group CEO Robert Pitt and chief financial officer Ryan Preston regarded what had been taking place in the company so seriously that they made protected disclosures.
He said that from what had been disclosed to the court in evidence, the appointment of inspectors to ascertain the truth of what had allegedly been going on in the company was well justified and not disproportionate.
He said the director sought appointment of inspectors to investigate and report on the affairs of the company as the court should deem fit in its acceptance of the inspectors’ terms of reference apart from the exclusion of one particular term ruling out the necessity for a “roving investigation” of the company. Mr Justice Kelly said he felt there should be provision for an interim report to the court by the inspectors and postponed the making of his orders until tomorrow morning when he will deal with a number of issues including the matter of costs.