Denis O’Brien accuses newspaper of ‘hatchet job page by page’ in High Court trial

Denis O’Brien has told a High Court jury that articles in the Sunday Business Post which named him as among the 22 biggest borrowers from Irish banks in 2008 were a “hatchet job page by page”.

Being called a “buccaneer” borrower by the Sunday Independent in April 2012 was not derogatory but he objected to being described as part of a “gang” of 22 borrowers in the SBP articles of March 2015, he said.

Michael McDowell SC, for the SBP, said the dictionary definition of a buccaneer is a pirate usually operating in the Caribbean and asked Mr O’Brien was he seriously saying it was “a complimentary term”.

Mr O’Brien said buccaneer is not a derogatory term but a gang is.

Denis O’Brien

When counsel said a biography of Mr O’Brien by Siobhán Creaton referred to Mr O’Brien as one of a gang and again put to him gang is not a derogatory term, Mr O’Brien said he had not read that book or co-operated with the author.

Cross-examination of Mr O’Brien has concluded in his action alleging defamation in the SBP articles of March 15, 2015.

Their focus was a report by Price WaterhouseCoopers (PWC) given to the Government in November 2008 concerning the exposure of Ireland’s banks. The report was obtained in 2015 by the newspaper but destroyed shortly afterwards to protect the source. Written by journalists Tom Lyons, Gavin Sheridan and others, the articles include a front-page article headlined “22 men and €26 billion” with a subheading: “The secret report that convinced Cowen the banks weren’t bust.”

Mr O’Brien claims the articles wrongly meant he was among a “gang” of 22 borrowers identified with the bankruptcy of Ireland’s banking system and injured his reputation.

The defence denies the words mean what Mr O’Brien alleges, denies defamation or malicious publication and has pleaded “fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest”.

Journalist Tom Lyons told the court articles about the Irish banks’ 22 biggest borrowers in 2008 were in the public interest and identifying Denis O’Brien as one of the 22 was “not malicious”.

Mr O’Brien was named among 22 people identified as the biggest borrowers from Irish banks in 2008 in an “astounding” report by Price Waterhouse Coopers to the Government in November 2008 concerning the exposure of Irish banks, Mr Lyons said.

Articles published by the Sunday Business Post in March 2015 “faithfully reported” the PWC report and there was nothing malicious in including Mr O’Brien, who was “one of the good guys” in that he had paid off his loans over five years.

The PWC report put Mr O’Brien’s total indebtedness to Irish banks at €1bn, including some €785m to Anglo, and he was listed in the SBP articles in the same sequence as in the report, he said.

The articles named all 22 because that was demonstrative of the concentrated risks in the banks, they were lending too much money to too few people which was “a big deal” in the PWC report.

He said Mr O’Brien was in “strong financial shape” in 2015 as he was three years earlier when Mr Lyons was involved in writing another article, in the Sunday Independent, about Anglo Irish Bank’s top 13 borrowers.

There was a “fear factor” about including Mr O’Brien in the SBP articles but he and SBP editor Ian Kehoe decided they had “to be brave” and not leave Mr O’Brien out “because he is a special case or could sue us or affect our job prospects into the future”.

The PWC report addressed an “extraordinary time” in Irish life and the Irish public “deserved the answers”.

Mr Lyons was giving evidence in Mr O’Brien’s continuing action alleging he was defamed in the articles of March 15, 2015.

He told Michael McDowell SC, for the SBP, he is an award-winning journalist who was given the PWC report in 2015.

He said Anglo Irish Bank lost €30bn, making it the worst bank in world history and such losses, plus those of other banks, meant Ireland had to suffer years of austerity.

PWC was asked to examine the state of health of the banks which by November 2008 were guaranteed by the State, he said.

The PWC report was based on what the banks themselves told PWC and the Government thought, from the report, the problem was short-term liquidity and not long-term solvency.

Mr Lyons said he was never of the view Mr O’Brien’s borrowing brought down the country.

“That’s ridiculous, no individual could bring down the country.”

He considered publication of the PWC report in 2015 was in the public interest as the banking inquiry was underway and the report showed for the first time the banks misled the Government about the scale of their problems.

He did not blame PWC at all for that. Based on what the banks told PWC, PWC suggested total losses of between €8.6-€10.6bn when the ultimate figure was €64bn.

The case continues.