What on earth is going on at Independent News and Media? Why are Denis O'Brien, one of Ireland's most successful businessmen and a major shareholder in INM, and Gavin O'Reilly, chief executive of the group and son of shareholder Sir Tony O'Reilly, at each other's throats?
The weekend papers were awash with recriminations from both sides, following the war of words that erupted at Friday's Annual General Meeting (AGM). The peace of the past two years between the two camps is well and truly over.
The AGM at the Aviva Stadium was dramatic enough when director Leslie Buckley, one of three of O'Brien's nominees, was removed from the board (the first time this has happened in an Irish public limited company since 2001).
A furious Buckley accused O'Reilly of "actively canvassing company shareholders" to remove him in a tit-for-tat, over protests by the O'Brien camp that INM's corporate governance wasn't up to scratch.
In turn, O'Reilly denied that was the case, said he had voted to retain Buckley and accused the O'Brien camp of creating the tensions in the first place by complaining that one of the board directors couldn't be considered independent under corporate governance rules, because he had previously known O'Reilly from World Association of Newspapers and Newspaper Publishers.
What may have been troubling O'Brien, it transpires, is a suspicion that this director, Bengt Braun, vice chairman of Swedish publishing group Bonnier, was being lined up as chairman.
At the weekend it emerged that the incumbent chairman Brian Hillery, 75, was planning to step down. And O'Brien didn't think he was independent either.
Revelations in Sunday papers that Hillery was going to step down spurred O'Brien to call on INM to release a statement (which it duly did) on the strategy for finding a replacement.
In doing so, O'Brien took the opportunity to have a strongly-worded swipe at O'Reilly and Hillery, accusing them of being "delusional" in relation to the finances of the company. He also said Hillery's association with another O'Reilly company (Providence) made him an inappropriate chairman and the company has suffered "gravely" because of it.
"Independent News Media repeatedly informs the market of how well it is performing while the share value falls year after year. The statements of both the outgoing chairman and chief executive at the AGM were delusional in their total denial of the extremely chronic financial situation.
"The vacancy in the position of chairman presents the company with a real opportunity to appoint a new chairman who will work in the best interests of all shareholders. I think it is inappropriate that the outgoing chairman had such a strong involvement and business association with one shareholder for many years. Hillery was not an independent chairman and the company has suffered gravely because of this," said O'Brien in a statement.
So the make-up of the board is one issue that frustrates O'Brien.
But there's another back story and that concerns the editorial independence of the company's flagship papers, the Irish Independent and the Sunday Independent. More specifically, it concerns the papers' coverage of a protracted tribunal into the award of a mobile phone licence O'Brien won back in the 1990s.
The tribunal took 14 years to conclusde that a government minister had helped to "deliver" the licence to O'Brien's consortium.
In an article in the Sunday Independent provocatively titled "Ex-INM Director Gets Boot Over Interference", O'Reilly accused Buckley of trying to "interfere" in the coverage the paper gave to the huge controversy surrounding the circumstances in which O'Brien won a mobile network licence back in the 1990s.
Attempt to influence
"Unfortunately, Leslie Buckley attempted to influence and interfere with editorial coverage of our titles, particularly in relation to Sam Smyth's position as one of our main correspondents on the Moriarty tribunal [into the award of the mobile licence]," O'Reilly told his paper on Sunday.
He said he was constrained in what he could say because O'Brien was now suing Smyth. (Which leads to the obvious question: Why is a shareholder in a newspaper group suing one of its journalists? Surely there are other remedies?)
Buckley returned to the fray, accusing O'Reilly of using his paper to make "false and misleading" allegations and told the Irish Times he was "disappointed" he had not been asked for a comment by the Sunday Independent. He rejected the accusation that he had tried to interfere but admitted he had voiced concerns about the tribunal coverage in a phone call with O'Reilly.
A spokesman for Buckley said the concerns were raised in a phone call and "Leslie would be quite resolute that that doesn't constitute interference".
— Guardian News and Media Ltd.
Media barons: Billionaires square up
So what does it all mean? On one level it is a horrific boardroom face-off. On another, it's an important battle for control between Ireland's most significant media players. But on another it is an unseemly row between two of Ireland's most successful businessmen.
O'Brien is one of the country's recent billionaires and has a huge mobile phone business in the Caribbean. Sir Tony O'Reilly, was one of the country's first billionaires, was a former chairman and chief executive of Heinz, a former Ireland rugby cap and is very much the cream of Irish society — his wife recently showed the Queen round the national stud. He built INM over 30 years and although no longer involved day to day, the O'Brien camp see Gavin very much as Tony's man in INM.