Shareholder Calls for Newspaper Sell-off and O'Reilly's Head

19 November 2007

DUBLIN: International newspaper magnate Sir Anthony O'Reilly, one-time Irish rugby hero and latterly ceo of H J Heinz, is under fire from another Irish entrepreneur - telecoms billionaire Denis O'Brien, an 11% stockholder in O'Reilly's empire.

O'Brien is irked at O'Reilly's helmsmanship of Independent News & Media, in particular his willingness to support the group's lossmaking UK national daily The Independent and its equally unprofitable sibling The Independent on Sunday.

NewsCorp-owned rival UK daily The Times, which is diametrically opposed to The Independent's left-of-centre political stance on global and domestic affairs, lent a ready ear to O'Brien's complaints.

The Irishman got personal: "Tony O'Reilly would be better off retiring and going off to sort out Waterford Wedgwood. It would be better if he spent time on an old economy business. His three sons should go too; he is running an old-style fiefdom."

UK industry observers especially enjoyed the rich irony of the latter accusation within the columns of the Clan Murdoch-controlled title.

O'Brien continued his anti-O'Reilly diatribe. "The Independent has to go, as do other vanity projects. If he [O'Reilly] goes, and The Independent is sold, shareholders will save money. This is a company that is going nowhere."

Sir Anthony himself made no response but a willing champion, Gavin O'Reilly, scion and IN&M chief operating officer, stepped into the breach.

"If Denis O'Brien had been so concerned about this, he knows me very well, he could call me at any time. It strikes me that he is less worried about shareholders in Independent News and Media and more about Denis O'Brien."

And it seems that O'Brien does have cause for worry beyond the ambit of IN&M. He has been named in a decade-long investigation by the Moriarty Tribunal into alleged bribes to a government minister for the awarding of Irish telecoms licences.

A key witness, Barry Maloney, the first ceo of O'Brien's former telco Esat [now absorbed into O2], has given evidence to the tribunal that O'Brien paid the minister €140,000 ($204.8k; £100k). The tycoon denies doing so.

Meantime, according to The Times, O'Brien's wallet is around €50 million lighter as a result of his investment in IN&M - a situation that may account for his irascibility.

Data sourced from The Times (UK); additional content by WARC staff