Denis O'Brien tells defamation trial he should not have been included in 'gang of 22' identified in newspaper article

File image of Denis O'Brien

Businessman Denis O’Brien has told a High Court jury he should not have been included in a “so-called gang of 22” men whom he alleges were blamed in newspaper articles for the collapse of the Irish economy in 2008.

"I was the odd man out”, he said in evidence in his action alleging defamation in articles published in the Sunday Business Post (SBP) on March 15th 2015.

In the action against Post Publications Ltd, Mr O'Brien is seeking “substantial” damages, to include aggravated or exemplary damages on grounds of alleged malicious publication.

The "lurid" presentation of the articles was designed to bring Mr O'Brien "into a gang where he does not belong", his counsel Luán Ó Braonáin SC said.

The articles were run over six pages and their focus was what the SBP referred to as a "secret" report into Ireland's banks by Price WaterhouseCoopers (PWC), called "Project Atlas".

The report was provided to the government in November 2008 and obtained in 2015 by the newspaper but was destroyed within days of publication to protect the source, the jury was told.

Mr O'Brien is suing over articles, including a front page article headlined "22 men and €26 billion" with a subheading: "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".

Beside the headline, and below the words "Top Secret" was a list of names, including Denis O'Brien's.

It is claimed the front page article stated the PWC report "shows how just 22 men ended up owing €25.5 billion to their banks" and that it and other articles meant Mr O'Brien was one of the 22.

Mr O'Brien claims the articles identify the 22 with the downfall of Ireland and the bankruptcy of its banking system and mean certain things that injure his reputation.

The defendant denies defamation, denies the words complained of mean what Mr O'Brien says and denies malicious publication. It has also pleaded "fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest".

Today Mr O’Brien told his counsel Paul O'Higgins SC he has never seen the PWC report and was not involved in its compilation.

He said the other 21 men were involved in speculative property development and had significant exposure after land values collapsed in 2008 but he had no such exposure as he was not involved in speculative property development here.

He had some debts to Irish banks but was paying his interest and loans on a current basis and was in "good stead" with his banks.

Asked about a reference in the articles to "cheap and easy" money being provided to a small group of borrowers, he said he "certainly never got cheap and easy money from any bank in Ireland".

The jury heard one article stated Mr O’Brien had borrowings of €1 billion in 2008 and the PWC report had said, according to Anglo Irish Bank, his net worth in June 2008 was €1.3 billion.

PWC was reported to have said Mr O'Brien's loans were "currently performing" and his underlying wealth meant Anglo did not see a need for a provision at this time. The article said Mr O'Brien "went on to repay all his debts to Anglo" and "is "one of AIB and Bank of Ireland's best clients".

Asked about those references, Mr O'Brien said it was accurate but "a sop in the overall scheme of things".

"I should never have been in this series of articles because I was not a property developer."

In cross-examination by Michael McDowell SC, Mr O’Brien said it was defamatory in 2015 to be described as a developer because people blamed developers for the economic collapse of 2008 and bank bailout.

He agreed Parteney, a company linked to him, had bought a site in Donnybrook village in Dublin in 2000 and applied for planning permission in 2005 to build a 26-storey apartment block there which was refused. Permission was recently granted to build a six storey hotel on that site, he said.

He also agreed he had bought the Doncaster Rovers site in the UK, which was later sold; has invested some €40m in a golf and leisure resort in Portugal and had bought Canada House in Dublin in the late 1990s which was redeveloped in 2014.

None of that was “speculative” development and there was a distinction between what he was doing and the development engaged in by the other men referred to in the articles, he said.

When counsel suggested Mr O’Brien was a developer in 2015 by any "ordinary meaning" of the term and it was not defamatory to say that, Mr O’Brien said he was not in the category of those spending hundred of millions on buying large swathes of land for large scale developments.

He bought "to own and hold and to leave there, in some cases for more than 20 years".

The case continues tomorrow before Mr Justice Bernard Barton and the jury.

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