Council leader plans probe into radio station contacts
Wexford County Council cathaoirleach Barbara-Anne Murphy is considering a disciplinary inquiry into council secretary David Minogue stemming from his contacts with South East Radio.
However, station general manager Eamonn Buttle said an independent inquiry into attempted editorial interference by the council over the past three years was needed to maintain public confidence in the local authority.
He called on Mr Minogue to correct the record regarding statements he made earlier this month to the press, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), Ms Murphy, elected council members and his general manager Tom Enright.
Mr Buttle accused the county clerk of defaming him by saying he, Mr Buttle, had leaked email correspondence between the two men to the press and said he was reserving his position.
Earlier this month The Irish Times revealed the contents of email correspondence between the pair in which Mr Minogue sought to establish three ‘criteria’ for the station’s coverage of the council in the context of council advertising with the station.
The Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, later commented on the dispute, saying a council should not use its advertising budget to try to influence the editorial content of a local radio station.
Mr Minogue attached the words ‘legally privileged’ to a recent email to the station manager, but Mr Buttle said in response that he did not see how any legal privilege could be attached to the correspondence.
Mr Minogue said he now accepts that Mr Buttle did not leak the email correspondence between them to the media. Mr. Buttle, in response, said; “I await your apologies in this regard.”
The call for an apology is contained in new emails between the two men, and between Ms Murphy and Mr Buttle, which have been seen by The Irish Times.
In January, the Public Service Standards Commission (Sipo) criticized Mr Enright in a report for raising the issue of advertising spending during a dispute over the station’s 2019 council coverage.
At a subsequent council meeting on January 14 to consider the Sipo report, elected members gave Mr Enright a standing ovation.
In the latest twist in the ongoing controversy, Mr Minogue, in email correspondence with Mr Buttle, again raised the possibility of the three criteria being agreed upon in a ‘service level agreement’. with the station.
“I insist that these are not conditions for continuing to advertise with [the station] or efforts to undermine the independence of the media, a position the council fully respects, and they should not be construed as such,” he said.
In response, Mr Buttle said it was ‘unconscionable that you continue to find it appropriate to seek the imposition of such editorial ‘criteria’.
He said that “in facilitating and engaging in free and open discussion and debate regarding the business of Wexford County Council, South East Radio is not and cannot be a ‘service provider’ to Wexford Council’.
“Neither South East Radio nor I can engage in secret discussions aimed at undermining freedom of the press. Even from this distance, it seems that you have not grasped this fundamental problem.
On April 1, Mr. Buttle responded strongly to Mr. Minogue’s suggestion that the board accept the criteria, which included that presenters would not express personal opinions. He said he found the proposal “staggering” given the Sipo’s January report.
In an April 13 response, Mr Minogue said he interpreted what the station executive said to imply that he, the country secretary, had acted in breach of local government law.
“In such circumstances, I have a legal duty as Ethics Registrar to report such a possible breach to Wexford County Council’s cathaoirleach, which I have done. I also felt compelled to report such a possible infraction to the General Manager.
The following day cathaoirleach Ms Murphy emailed Mr Buttle and informed him that she was in the process of exercising her legal duty to consider what action to take under Section 174 (8)(a) of the Local Government Act 2001, following the April 1 email criticizing Mr Minogue forwarded to him.
She noted that the law mentions investigative or disciplinary proceedings, referral of the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions or another course of action that might be considered appropriate, among the possible options.
“If I need any further details or clarifications from you, I will contact you,” she said.
Mr Buttle, in an April 20 response, said that since March 2019 the station had been continuously subjected to “inappropriate influence, threats (legal, financial and other) and editorial interference by the County Council of Wexford”.
He said it was “unconscionable” for Mr Minogue to continue pushing for agreement on his three suggested criteria.
“Therefore, to maintain public confidence in Wexford County Council, I respectfully request that you conduct an independent inquiry into this matter, which will review all internal and external communications issued by Mr David Minogue, Mr Tom Enright and [former cathaoirleach] Councilor Michael Sheehan to and about South East Radio from March 2019 to date (including the factual accuracy of Mr. Enright’s submission to elected members of Council on January 14, 2022).
“To do otherwise would, in my view, be an injustice given the seriousness of the situation and the level of public interest in this matter.”
Mr Buttle noted that in November the BAI had ‘dismissed a wide-ranging complaint from Wexford County Council which coincidentally incorporated the three ‘criteria’ set out in Mr Minogue’s email of March 25, 2022′ .
Mr Minogue said he was acting on his own behalf when he suggested the criteria in his email in March. However, Mr Buttle said he struggled to come to terms with this.