From top: Denis O’Brien, Dr Julien Mercille


Why does Denis O’Brien sue everyone?

Because he can.

Dr Julien Mercille writes:

The number of legal actions Denis O’Brien has launched against free speech over the last several months is dizzying. Let’s summarize them briefly and look at the related problems of media concentration and Ireland’s defamation laws.

1. In May, O’Brien obtained a legal order to prevent RTÉ from reporting on the state-owned bank IBRC (formerly Anglo Irish) and Siteserv. He did not want his banking affairs to be discussed in public. RTÉ abdicated and postponed airing the report.

2. A few days later, Catherine Murphy TD claimed in the Dáil that IBRC had apparently made loans to O’Brien on favourable terms. But he asserted that no media outlet could report on her declarations because he had a court judgment saying so. Almost [but not all; Broadsheet, The Sunday Times and Village magazine] the whole national media abdicated and waited to publish the statements.

3. O’Brien then sued the parliament itself and the State for allowing Pearse Doherty TD and Catherine Murphy TD to make claims about his affairs with IBRC.

4. O’Brien then sued the Dáil’s Committee on Procedures and Privileges (CPP) because it ruled that Catherine Murphy did not abuse Dáil privilege when she made claims about him.

5. Then, last week, O’Brien’s lawyers ordered the satirical news website Waterford Whispers News to take down an article about himself entitled “Denis O’Brien Receives 20 Year Jail Sentence For Mobile Phone Licence Bribe in Parallel Universe”.

6. Broadsheet immediately reproduced the article, and almost as immediately got a similar order to take it down. But it left the piece online.

7. O’Brien’s lawyers then went after Broadsheet’s internet provider, asking to take the article down. As I write these lines, the case is pending.

In short, the whole drama is so exciting that nobody needs to watch soaps and detective stories anymore: it’s all happening in real life.

Two enabling factors for the string of legal actions above are the concentration of media ownership and defamation laws.

Ireland’s mass media landscape is among the most concentrated in developed countries. Notably, we don’t have a single left-of-centre outlet. The Guardian has no equivalent here. The information we receive is thus coming from a quite narrow centre to right-wing spectrum. Sure, there are exceptions and some journalists produce excellent critical progressive stories, but unfortunately, they remain exceptions.

This partly explains why the mainstream media reaction to the above explicit attacks on freedom of speech has been relatively muted. By this I mean that one would have expected a more forceful defense of the right of journalists to investigate and report on matters of great public interest.

It doesn’t help that Denis O’Brien controls a large chunk of our national media. His Independent News & Media (INM) accounts for 40% of all newspaper sales in the country and includes the largest weekly and Sunday broadsheets, the Independent and Sunday Independent. His Communicorp group includes Today FM, Spin, 98FM and Newstalk, the country’s largest supplier of radio news.

But the government has failed to reduce media concentration and increase diversity. In June, Minister Alex White (Labour) issued some “Guidelines” that pretend to address that, but as observers quickly pointed out, they don’t.

The National Union of Journalists described the policy as “an abject failure of the government to tackle powerful media interests in Ireland”. Indeed, “Successive governments have allowed a small group of powerful people to gain control of the media” and the new Guidelines are “incapable of undoing that damage”. All we witness is “the transfer of power from one baron to another in the face of appalling political cowardice”.

The Irish Examiner, in a strongly worded statement, agreed with those criticisms and noted that ironically, the Guidelines had been released in the wake of the political storm that arose when Denis O’Brien prevented the national media from publishing Catherine Murphy’s statements against him. Such context could have provided at least a pretext for the minister to do something that had some bite, but the strategy has remained toothless.

To increase media diversity, progressive alternative media should thus be strongly supported. (And no, that doesn’t mean Facebook or Twitter).

Another issue is to reform Ireland’s defamation laws. In the cases above, such laws govern the balance between the right of the media to make claims about individuals like Denis O’Brien that could end up damaging his reputation (if, say, his banking affairs are exposed) vs. the right of Denis O’Brien to protect his reputation and restrict public debate about him.

The problem is that Ireland’s defamation laws are some of the most plaintiff-friendly in Europe: in other words, they really benefit the likes of Denis O’Brien when the media says something critical about him. In other countries where the value of free speech is more important, like the United States, it is the opposite situation: the law makes it difficult for people like Denis O’Brien to sue the media and win and it is thus easier to challenge powerful people.

The problem with Ireland’s laws is that they benefit the wealthy. That’s because launching a legal action against the media is often costly because lawyers need to be hired and cases can last for a long time. Therefore, it’s unlikely that an ordinary person will take the risk of launching and getting involved in convoluted legal processes.

And so we go back to the government’s role again, which has upheld defamation laws. It should reform them to protect freedom of speech, which is essential in a democracy.

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at UCD. His new book, Deepening Neoliberalism, Austerity, and Crisis: Europe’s Treasure Ireland (Palgrave) is out. Follow him on twitter:  @JulienMercille

Previously: Everyone Must Get Sued

76 thoughts on “So Sue Me

  1. fluffybiscuits

    Broadsheet.ie should consider crowd funding to fight any legal challenge that comes their way. I would happiy try to throw a few quid. I’d also say it might be no harm to ‘canvass’ other rivals of DOB for funding to fight any perspective legal challenge. Im sure a lot of his rivals would be like minded in that they would feel the current spate of challenges are both unjust and extremely unfair. IMO O Brien is coming after the BS host because he knows that any such issue going to court would see him lose potentially. As was described its the Streisland affect. Whereupon someone publicly complains and lodges a challenge to an issue they dont want to discuss amplifies it and makes it worse…

    1. jungleman

      I don’t think he minds losing frankly. He’s lost before and it was predictable that he would.

        1. Martina

          Nope. After he gets out of that cage he’s off to collect his ‘I got sued by Denis O’Brien’ T-shirt he pre-ordered.

    2. Cowenwatch

      “I’d also say it might be no harm to ‘canvass’ other rivals of DOB for funding to fight any perspective legal challenge.”

      The ex-owner of INM, Tony O’Reilly, is your man!

      “Perhaps Ireland’s first billionaire, as of 26 May 2014, O’Reilly is being pursued in the Irish courts for debts amounting to €22 million by AIB, following losses amounting to hundreds of millions of euro in his unsuccessful attempt to stop Denis O’Brien from assuming control of Independent News & Media.”

    3. Peter Ohanraohanrahan

      Or register broadsheet.ru and have at it through VPN’s and a string of fake email accounts that will take O Briens lawers a considerable portion of his billions to unwind and sue.

  2. mehhh

    “In short, the whole drama is so exciting that nobody needs to watch soaps and detective stories anymore: it’s all happening in real life.”

    I knew it, Mercille is a closet Nancy Drew fan. Wonder if UCD advertise lecturing positions on jobbridge or whatever the equivalent in Canada is….mmmm

    1. IIIII lllll IIIII lllll IIIII

      What an infuriatingly immature and irrelevant comment. Do you not care about your personal freedom?

  3. jon

    just about the only entity denis o’brien hasn’t sued by this point is the moriarty tribunal.

    funny, that.

        1. Tony Stanza

          The following High Court proceedings: 2004/817 JR, 2005/1115 JR, 2010/1371 JR, 2010/1420 JR

          Awaits patiently for moving of goalposts…

          1. jon

            all those cases are from before the tribunal even reported its findings.

            in other words they were obstructionist manoeuvres designed to slow the tribunal down, rather than challenge what it actually found (which of course hadn’t happened yet).

            moving the goalposts? i don’t think so to be honest. o’brien launched those suits to try and derail what he knew was going to be bad news coming down the tracks.

  4. mehhhh

    My personal freedom is not being infringed, thanks. As a BS reader, I am insulted though by this post.

    1. Yorick

      I assume he means Broadsheet, Waterford Whispers, Village, Phoenix, Look Left, and Irish Left Review.

      How many of those, other than LL and ILR could be reliably called progressive, or even left-of-centre, I do’t know; I don’t usually read most of them. Nonetheless, I suppose most, if not all, of them could be described as alternative.

  5. Footnoose

    You can be sure O’Brien’s legal employees are having a look at this post and any other pertaining to their client/employer.Hi fellas,even you’d have to admit Denis is a sinister [REDACTED].

    1. Lilly

      They’re happy to take a slice of his ill-gotten gains, which suggests a similarly dodgy moral compass as [TEDACTED].

  6. Jake38

    The reason that Mr O Brien sues everyone is because he is the only one that can afford the costs in the farce that is the Irish legal system.

    1. classter

      This is the part that baffles me – Lowry has so little respect for himself & for the nation he ‘served’ as minister. And that he can consistently top the poll in Tipp North boggles my mind.

      I understand how locally-active politicians can be popular, pols that ‘get things done’ but surely Lowry is a step too far – demonstratably corrupt. Are the denizens of Thurles, Templemore, Nenagh and Roscrea really so f**ing narrow-minded, so stupid not to see the damage they do to all of us by tolerating, even lauding this gombeen?

      1. Clampers Outside!

        He and Denis would be in jail if we lived in the UK. It really does beggar belief that.

        And that DOB can sue for “good name and reputation”. He’ll have to prove he has one.

        1. classter

          ‘He and Denis would be in jail if we lived in the UK’

          This is not true. How many people were jailed in all the different Cash-for-Honours, Cash-for-Influence, Cash-for-Access scandals? How about Tony Blair stopping the SFO investigation into BAE bribery in the Middle East? How about Murdoch’s entry to the British market & the abrupt change of heart of the Tories to excessive media ownership? Google how the UK’s motorway network was begun & who benefited from it.

          We should really stop measuring ourselves to the UK so much – there are many other places which do things so much better than the UK

          1. Clampers Outside!

            Not every case results in jail, but some have for bribing and accepting bribes, that’s my point. I didn;t say they had a perfect score on it, and I do believe that the evidence in Moriarty would have spurred a court trial if we were in the UK…but Enda’s sitting on it

    2. donkey_kong

      I often thought the same – not about the election results cos i know that answer – but about the whole bribery thing. for the fortunes to be made I often thought the buying of a FF vote in a rezoning was quite a pitiful sum.
      same thing with lowry. Haughey and Liam Lawlor seem to be the only few who did really well out of that – financially of course.

      anyway years ago I worked with a clever fellow (an actuary) from north tipp – i asked him about lowry and was surprised that he vote lowry number 1 each time. Why says I?
      To stick it to you dublin fcukers and your pious media, he ranted….continuing “all politics is local and he is great man for north tipp , nobody cares if he took some money of some fella ”

      1. classter

        Your mate may be good at arithmetic but if that was his logic for voting Lowry, then he is still fairly thick.

        Lowry might help soemone skip a queue for the hospital but if we had less Lowry’s there wouldn’t be so many queues. It’s all very well and good ‘sticking it’ to those feckers in Dublin, especially now that you can speak to your emigrant kids in some sh!t minign town in Australia by Skype.

    3. jon

      lowry never topped the poll at election time until he was ejected from fine gael as a result of the payola stuff. it was only then that his personal vote went through the roof in tipp.

  7. Roger the QC

    It is also worth remembering that [Redacted] is not the only [Redacted] in Ireland. There are a number of very rich and equally thin-skinned Irish businessmen who immediately resort to the law and the courts – or the chilling effect of such an approach – to prevent any discussion of their businesses. They know that they can afford to pay the huge legal bills which ensue, whereas the media outlet will either move to quickly settle or else keep clear of any critical comment or indepth investigation. The Irish legal system when it comes to defamation – and especially the process around any such action – is in need of urgent reform but is probably way down the to-do list for many reasons.

    The backbone shown by Broadsheet and Waterford Whispers here is deeply impressive, but I am sure Meaghers Solicitors know that there is little to be gained from purusing the latter two for damages etc (neither are The Irish Times or RTE where there’s a cash bank to be dug into – unless BS and WW are not telling us something). It makes you wonder if their client is insisting with these letters to simply soothe his ego. Quite remarkable that a multi-millionaire businessman with interests worldwide can be so deeply distracted by satire sites.

    1. Spaghetti Hoop

      I believe it to be ego-stroking also. Brandishing his money around to emulate his power….very Trumpish. I’ve never had a strong opinion of the man until now – but what a spoilt child he appears to be.

      1. jon

        you never had a strong opinion about o’brien until now, even though the payments to lowry took place fully 20 years ago and have been common knowledge for almost all that time?


    2. pedeyw

      Meagher’s aren’t not after a cash settlements, though. They want to shut them down. Criticism of any kind can’t be tolerated. The ironic thing is that the Irish Times and RTE are now more than happy to report on any legal threats issued by himself against smaller outlets so the Streisand effect kicks in and now everyone in the country know what a thin skinned egomaniac DOB is.

  8. Punches Pilot

    I think what we are forgetting is that he has exploited a supposedly democratic system to strip the nation of a huge amount of wealth. . It never ceases to amaze me what we tolerate in this country.

  9. Gabby Logan Outside

    Broadsheet or WWN have not being sued. His lawyers can order nothing, They are not a court.

    All they have is a solicitors letter which can be ignored. In fact I light the fire with such letters.

    Until he lodges papers in a court he is not suing Broadsheet or WWN.

  10. Mr. T.

    There are clearly junior legal staff trawling the web on retainer who then pass it on to a solicitor if a letter is to be sent. Loads of wealthy individuals and companies do this.

    Starbucks tried to sue a small coffee shop in the US for having a similar logo (which pre-dated Starbucks). Starbucks lost that case. But that was a stupid case brought about by corporate vanity and arrogance which probably ended up costing a few hundred thousand dollars and a lifetime of bad publicity via the internet.

    Stupid ****s.

  11. JT

    Simplistic analysis and conclusion, as interesting as the sound bites that echo in the chambers of PR . Suggest an in-depth analysis of Defamation Act 2009, Irish Constitution, impact of European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003 , a well researched comparison with US Freedom of Speech and implementation and then draw your conclusion.

  12. Owen C

    DOB is as entitled to bring someone to court, whether they be a person, a website or the Oireachtais, as anyone else in this country. I fail to see how it is so scandalous that he is doing so.

    He will likely lose his case and he will likely generate a massive amount of further negative and self defeating publicity as a result, but that shouldn’t be a reason for him not to be allowed to take this case in the first place or for this ability to somehow represent a right wing stranglehold on the media (the fact that a Murdoch owned Sunday Times was the only newspaper to publish the original DOB details is of course an delicious irony). Merceille needs to grow up, research the lows and how they fit in with the constitution, and not whinge whenever people he disagrees with do things he doesn’t approve of. If he wants a left wing media outlet in this country he should try and set one up by himself. He may find that the economics of it are not particularly attractive for investors.

    1. fluffybiscuits

      That is a perfectly valid point however it should also be balanced that people should only take a case with a genuine concern rather than something which may be perceived as very vexatious on the basis of the client having a personal slight against a satire website. Courts are there for more serious cases than perhaps maybe a person whose sense of humour failed them completely. Constitutionally everyone is entitled to a good name but this does not mean they are entitled to take some perceived slight which they misjudge wrongly as an attack on how they are viewed by their peers in society. If Julien Mercille were so inclined he could go all [REDACTED] on your ar$e and claim that you caused his reputation to be injerous via your statement on him needing to grow up but he is a reasonable likeable sort.

      1. Owen C

        1. In Merceille’s points 1-4 above, he deals with DOB and his head to head with the Oireachtas/RTE/banking details etc. Agree or disagree with him on this, but it is not exactly related to a “perceived slight”.

        2. Who decides what’s serious or not? I’m thinking “the courts” should.

        3. My request that Merceille “needs to grow up” is backed up by plenty of evidence. He would be laughed out of court just as quickly as he is laughed off of BS most weeks.

          1. Owen C

            1. he won the first, lost the second, and we’re waiting on the next two? But thats not the point. They were not spurious in nature.
            2. The public think’s he’s an idiot for doing what he is doing. So do I. Thats not the point either. He should be allowed do it if he wants.
            3. [redacted]

  13. tom

    Noble of Mercille to mention Village considering Julia’s sweetly disguised , bitchy attack of him. She was spot on though as his posts do amount to pub talk ,but would wonder whether Julia exists as have never seen her before in Village.

  14. Paolo

    He is so aggressive because he has to be. He knows that there is a very real possibility that criminal proceedings will be started against him and so he feels this aggressive, preemptive strike is necessary, despite the permanent damage it does to his reputation. That photoshopped Gilligan image may not be so whackey a scenario at all.

  15. Julia

    Tom, Julia is a bit busy at the moment,flinging her abacus and crumpled tort law book at the good doctor.

  16. windy

    “Ireland’s mass media landscape is among the most concentrated in developed countries.”

    Yes they are all mad left wing

  17. classter

    ‘Ireland’s mass media landscape is among the most concentrated in developed countries’

    Interesting. Is this true? Does Merceille have a measure of this graphed for different developed countries. Or even just a reference?

    Does he take any account of the fact that many/most Irish people consume media from outside the country as well as that within?

    I do agree on the need for laws to prevent/break-up excessive concentration of ownership.

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