Independent News names O'Brien dissident investor

DUBLIN, March 27 (Reuters) - Independent News & Media INME.I declared Irish telecoms billionaire Denis O'Brien a dissident shareholder on Thursday, accusing its second-biggest investor of trying to destabilise the newspaper publisher.

“The board is now formally declaring Mr O’Brien a ‘dissident shareholder’, who consistently voices disagreement with the company’s strategy while continuing to buy shares and who is not acting in the best interests of all stakeholders,” the company said in a statement.

O’Brien, who owns 22.15 percent of the Dublin-based group, has been steadily building his stake over the last year, consolidating his position as its second-biggest shareholder behind Chief Executive Anthony O’Reilly who owns 26.7 percent.

O’Brien, owner of mobile phone company Digicel operating in the Caribbean and central and south America, could not immediately be reached for comment on the statement.

Last year he criticised corporate governance and close ties between board members at Independent News & Media INME.L.

O’Reilly and his son, Chief Operating Officer Gavin O’Reilly, rejected the criticism as partisan, but the spat and continued stake-building have triggered media reports of a feud between two of Ireland’s best known billionaires.

Independent News, which owns Britain’s Independent newspaper, the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish Independent and a string of titles in South Africa and Australasia, said a letter from O’Brien sent in 2003 may explain his motives.

“He wrote to the company on 3 July, 2003, alleging that INM (Independent News & Media) had ‘spent the last seven years trying to destroy my reputation’ and that he was ‘waiting for the appropriate time to rectify the damage’,” the group said.

“In the light of this, we believe it is reasonable to question Mr O’Brien’s emotive reaction to the legitimate news coverage,” the company added.

O’Brien has not said whether he plans to launch a bid for the group but the market considers it unlikely given O’Reilly has a big enough stake to block such a move.

Indeed shares in the company have more than halved in value since O’Brien announced last May that he had raised his then holding of 5 percent to 7.3 percent. (Reporting by Paul Hoskins; Editing by Quentin Bryar)