On May 28th Catherine Murphy, an Independent T.D for Kildare North and soon founder of the Social Democrats party, made a speech under parliamentary privilege about controversial media tycoon Dennis O’ Brien and his dealings with a state owned bank (IBRC). Murphy alleged that O’Brien had debts to the tune of 320m euro with IBRC and enjoyed the generous interest rate of 1.25% when she said the bank could and arguably should have been charging 7.5%. The cost to the state she argued is 500 million euro. In truth few were truly shocked by the revelations. The Irish Banking Resolution Corporation has since its beginning been mired in controversy and shrouded in secrecy. It is the end result of the fusion of two banks, Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society. Both nationalised on an infamous night in 2008 when the then government decided to effectively offer up the state as collateral for the private debts of six banks. Its own formation, was a hatchet job carried out in the dead of night by the subsequent Fine Gael and Labour government when elected representatives were given two hours and fifteen minutes to read the details and vote on its formation.
However, it was the media reaction to Murphy’s speech that shocked even the most cynical observer. One week previously, O’Brien’s legal team obtained an injunction through the high courts preventing RTE from airing a report on O’Brien’s debts with IBRC, claiming it was a breach of his right to privacy and would cause him financial damage. Joining with them in support of preventing the state broadcaster from carrying out investigative journalism was none other than Kieran Wallace, the man appointed by the government to conduct a review into IBRC. After Murphy delivered her speech it soon became clear that the injunction covered not only this RTE program but also any other reports on the topic. RTE news that evening mentioned that Catherine Murphy had delivered a speech but did not dare mention its content or play it on air. A reporter, Philip Hayes tweeted that the Drivetime radio show was going to air Murphy’s speech, however it failed to do so and the tweet, in Orwellian fashion was abruptly deleted.
Few doubt O’Brien’s control of Irish media. He controls the Independent News & Media which publishes the most widely read Irish paper the Irish Independent as well as the Sunday Independent, the Sunday World, the Irish Daily Star, the Evening Herald, the Belfast Telegraph and 14 regional papers. He also owns Communicorp which runs the popular radio stations Newstalk and Today FM as well as another 3 regional stations. However few would have imagined that one individual may be able to prevent any media outlet reporting on a speech made in the Dáil for fear of protracted legal battles and financial ruin. For many in the south of Ireland recently radicalized by the anti-water tax movement this has typified not just the corrupt and clientelist nature of the state but also the short comings of a mass media that is ether complicit in or impotent in the face of it. In the absence of a journalistic outlet willing to challenge the injunction; social media was used by many to share Murphy’s speech which was available from the Oirechtas website as well as coverage it received in the international media. It was largely due to this that the enforced silence became unworkable and seven weeks after it was due for broadcast RTE finally published the story.
This saga is far from over and O’ Brien is now taking a lawsuit against the Houses of the Oirechtas Commission for allowing Murphy to deliver the speech. Although one would expect that the general consensus among the political class to be is that this is an affront to democracy there has in fact been an element of bi-partisan sympathy and support for O’Brien. With one time Fine Gael spin doctor Frank Flannery stating in support for O’Brien that TDs’ privilege in the Dail “tramples on the rights of citizens” and is “very near a dictatorship” and Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea stating that “If someone offended by something said in the Dáil was a low-profile person who wasn’t as wealthy or famous as Denis O’Brien, nobody would question their right to go to court.” The fact that most people who are not as wealthy or famous as Denis O’Brien would lack the financial resources to take the Oirechtas to court appears to be lost on Mr. O’Dea. As does the fact that it is unlikely that your average joe soap would allegedly owe 320 million to a state owned bank. These are of course though, minor details. Since this controversy concerns have been raised about a company owned by O’Brien and its dealings with Dublin city council. Roankabin, a subsidiary of Siteserve the company O’Brien bought from IRBC, is one of six companies selected by Dublin city council to provide modular housing for families now living in emergency accommodation.
While the provision of temporary housing units is a welcome development for many of the 100,000 people now on the housing waiting list, many others have objected to the proposals on the basis that they may lead to ghettoization and a two tier housing system. The idea that these factory built homes will be nothing more than a temporary solution in a state where many refugees have now been trapped in the “temporary” direct provision system for years has unsurprisingly been met with much skepticism. However the possibility that the housing crisis may now be another business opportunity for well connected capitalists is the most serous question surrounding this proposal. With Dublin City Councillor Éilis Ryan commenting “The involvement of a subsidiary of the Denis O’Brien owned Siteserv makes me highly skeptical concerning this whole scheme. It would seem that the option of modular housing as currently proposed may be just another example of the government throwing subsidies, incentives and profits at private developers to put band-aids on the housing emergency we face in Dublin.” and adding that “The regular appearance of this network of companies in government deals shows the deep connections between politics and business in Ireland.”
While the use of modular housing to address the record level of homelessness has been the subject of much public discussion there has been no serous media scrutiny of Siteserv’s involvement in it. Perhaps in the wake of O’Briens injunction against RTE the feeling of many journalists is that serous investigation into this nexus of public money and private interests is a road best left untravelled. One salient point to be gained from this is not just that the rhetoric of liberal democracy and free speech is vacuous and hollow when money can buy free speech, but that it is so when money can be used to stifle someone else’s. The increasing dominance of corporations over public discourse necessitates now more so than ever before media that is independent and willing to challenge the powerful and to risk the consequences.
By Alexis O’Reilly