By Ann O'Loughlin
Businessman Denis O’Brien has alleged a number of newspaper articles defamed him by portraying him as one of the “developer kings” who “destroyed Ireland and bankrupted its banking system”.
Mr O'Brien is suing Post Publications Ltd, publishers of the Sunday Business Post (SBP). He was in court number 25 of the Four Courts when the hearing opened at the High Court today before Mr Justice Bernard Barton and a jury.
Luán O Braonáin SC, for Mr O’Brien, said the case concerned articles published in the SBP on March 15, 2015, including a front page article which referred to a "secret" report by Price WaterhouseCoopers (PWC), called 'Project Atlas', into Ireland's banks.
The article was headlined "22 men and €26bn" and the subheading was: "The secret report that convinced Cowen the banks weren't bust."
Above the headline was a stamp with the word "Confidential" and a strapline, "The files they don't want you to see", counsel said. Beside the headline and below the words "Top Secret" was a list of names, including Denis O'Brien's.
That meant Mr O'Brien was among the "they" referred to in the strapline, counsel said.
He said the article stated the PWC report "shows how just 22 men ended up owing €25.5bn to their banks" and named Mr O'Brien as one of the 22.
It was Mr O'Brien's case the articles identify the 22 with the downfall of Ireland and the bankruptcy of its banking system and mean certain things that injure Mr O’Brien’s reputation.
The defence does not rely on a defence of truth, he added.
The "main battleground", he outlined, will be what do the articles mean and do they say things that are defamatory.
He said the SBP is a well established Irish newspaper which, during 2014 and 2015, had a combined readership of 113,000 for its print and online edition.
These articles took up a lot of the March 15, 2015 edition and were portrayed by newspaper as "a big story".
He said the world economy went bust in 2008, the Irish banks were guaranteed and later bailed out by the State and those events were part of the focus of the articles which particularly addressed Project Atlas.
He said Project Atlas involved examination by PWC of loans and the PWC report was put together to let the regulator and Government know what the story was.
'A big story'
The SBP articles became a source of concern for Mr O'Brien because they portrayed him as "one of the developer kings who destroyed Ireland and bankrupted its banking system and as someone who had overborrowed in a disturbing way", he said.
He said the articles portrayed Mr O'Brien as someone who had received "cheap and easy" money from the banks and suggested that was in some way facilitated by improper influence on politicians, civil servants and bankers.
The articles also meant Mr O'Brien was someone whose identity as a borrower from the Irish banks was a "dark" secret that had to be suppressed and was now being revealed in a "daring expose", he said.
If a person has a bank account, they are entitled to confidentiality and that is not unusual but the articles do not deal with that kind of confidentiality, they convey there is some sort of secret designed to be suppressed, he said.
The front page article also said the PWC report shows the "developer kings" were "massively overstretched and failing in many cases to pay their company interest bills", he said.
A further article by journalist Tom Lyons stated then Taoiseach Brian Cowen was "in confident form" when he told the Dáil in November 2008 that Irish banks' capital levels would remain above regulatory thresholds for the next three years.
The article said Mr Cowen had said the PWC report confirms all of the institutions reviewed were in excess of regulatory capital requirements as at September 30, 2008, counsel said. It went on to say a read-through of the actual PWC report on which Cowen based his claims told a different story and presents "a frightening geography of reckless lending" in Ireland's banks.
The article said the PWC report does not confirm anything other than that Ireland's bankers still don't believe they will go bust and the report spends pages examining the banks' own loss scenarios, all of which turned out to be "hopelessly optimistic".
The article also said that PWC identifies the "nuclear button", "although it does not call it this" that "will destroy Ireland and bankrupt its banking system: non-cash generating land and development projects".
Mr O'Braonáin said we do know by March 2015 the banks were bust and the article seemed to be suggesting there was a report that may have got it wrong.
The case continues on Wednesday.