THE SHINE has come off former Independent News & Media (INM) chief executive Robert Pitt – the man who blew the whistle on INM’s trawl of journalists’ computers – as it emerges that he was up to the same tricks himself, albeit for different reasons.
Pitt’s relationship with his editors, and group editor-in-chief Stephen Rae in particular, was always fraught and had little to do with governance or corporate disagreements with Denis O’Brien’s board nominee, chairman Leslie Buckley.
The Phoenix reported in 2016 that former supermarket executive Pitt, like many corporate-minded executives, laid great emphasis on marketing rather than editorial content. The Indo hard-chaw hacks are hardly literary snowflakes, but they felt he had a certain disdain for journalists, whom he would sometimes jokingly describe as “non-profit-generating content providers”.
Pitt wanted to apply Tesco-type production techniques to his charges (such as KPIs or key performance indicators), which basically meant paying journalists by volume rather than content quality. He also tried to introduce marketing drives around glossy wedding magazines, wedding planning supplements and the like to the editorial agenda.
As reported at the time, both Rae and his right-hand man, group head of content Ian Mallon, had serious clashes with Pitt over editorial direction (see The Phoenix, 2/12/16).
Given his management style and corporate background, as well as his attitude to INM’s “content providers”, Pitt may have felt it was okay to seize their computers and search for the leak of Goldhawk’s story about Pitt’s effort to promote Richard Desmond’s autobiography. Desmond was, after all, joint owner of the Irish Daily Star and there had been serious disagreements with the porn baron in that period. (The sensitive Royalist, Desmond, had threatened to close down the joint venture when the Star published topless photos of Kate Middleton). But it showed that Pitt’s corporate culture was far removed from editorial precepts and tradition, even at INM titles.
Pitt also showed a certain naivety in thinking that the ever-so-devious source – who allegedly supplied Goldhawk with the revelatory letter suggesting reviews of Desmond’s book – would be so careless as to send it from their work computer with name and email address logged for the record.
Yet six or so editors – Rae, Irish Independent editor Fionnan Sheahan, Sunday Independent editor Cormac Bourke, Herald editor Alan Steenson, Star editor Des Gibson and Sunday World managing director Gerry Lennon – all had their computers seized and searched.
While Rae and Mallon are no longer with INM, there is some anger among most remaining journalists there at management’s failure to inform them of Pitt’s activities and that they had to learn of this in a rival newspaper.
The fact that Sunday Business Post journalist Tom Lyons put a raft of questions to INM before publication of the Pitt story last Sunday meant that management knew the story was about to break, but still kept their own journalists in the dark.
Meanwhile, Pitt’s stature as the Maurice McCabe of media has taken a bit of a nosedive and the story may even have brought a smile to Buckley’s face.