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TV reporter takes High Court action against Virgin Media

Veteran broadcaster Paul Byrne has launched High Court proceedings over internal disciplinary proceedings brought against him by his employer Virgin Media television.

Mr Byrne, who is the broadcaster’s southern correspondent, was suspended from his role following a live report he made on the afternoon of 9 February last concerning the death of a young boy in Co Waterford.

He claims that he was suspended after information he gave in the broadcast, which he claims was also carried by other media outlets, turned out not to be accurate.

At the time he had believes the information to be credible.

He claims his employer informed him that he was being suspended for allegedly breaching the broadcasters News Guidelines and Production Handbook, because he had failed to speak to his line manager about the matter in advance of the broadcast.

The disciplinary process, he claims, could result in his dismissal for alleged gross misconduct.

He denies any wrongdoing, and claims that the process engaged by his employer is flawed, punitive, disproportionate and should be set aside.

He also claims that the process lacks credibility and is in breach of his contractual rights.

As a result he is seeking a High Court injunction restraining Virgin Media Ireland Ltd, and Virgin Media Television Limited from continuing the disciplinary process against him.

He also seeks orders requiring the defendants to pay his salary and benefits, lift his suspension, and not appoint anyone to carry out Mr Byrne’s duties.

The court heard that in correspondence the defendants reject Mr Byrne’s claims against them and about the disciplinary process.

They said that given its role as a public broadcaster it deems the alleged breach as being “serious in nature” and informed him that “steps needed to be taken to avoid a repeat”.

Mr Byrne’s counsel Eoin Clifford SC told the court that the disciplinary process commenced by the reporter’s employer is “irredeemably flawed.” and “should be set at naught”.

Counsel said that as part of his client’s broadcast on 9 February Mr Byrne had stated that one line of inquiry being considered by the gardaí as part of the investigation into the child’s death was that the boy had allegedly been drowned and placed into a car.

His client had cited the allegation after checking it with at least two credible sources, and after two other media outlets had published the same information.

The information later turned out not to be true, and Mr Byrne was later suspended on full pay from his job.

Counsel said that his client is alleged to have broken the employer’s guidelines by not discussing the contents of the report with the news producer in advance of the broadcast.

It is Mr Byrne’s case that the requirement to speak to the producer in advance is not mandatory, and is a guideline, counsel said.

Mr Byrne has not broken any mandatory rule nor any contractual provision, counsel said.

Counsel said that during the investigation stage of the process his client wanted to bring a trade union representative, namely Mr Damien Tiernan of the NUJ, with him to the investigation meeting.

Under the defendants’ own grievance and disciplinary procedures counsel said that Mr Byrne is allowed to be represented at such a meeting by a work colleague or a recognised trade union representative, counsel said.

The employer refused to allow Mr Tiernan attend the meeting, because he does not work for the defendants, counsel said.

Mr Byrne attending a meeting with his employer by himself counsel said, and now contests the accuracy of the minutes of that meeting.

Mr Byrne had been invited to a disciplinary meeting, initially due to be held in Limerick on Wednesday (17 April), counsel said.

The defendants had agreed to put that meeting back by another week, counsel said.

A medical report had been supplied to the defendants stating that Mr Byrne is not fit to attend that meeting.

Counsel said that his client was informed that if he were not present the meeting will proceed in his absence.

The outcome of the meeting could have very serious consequences for Mr Byrne, counsel said, adding that an adverse finding against the plaintiff could result in his dismissal from his job.

Counsel said that his client who is “very much in the public eye” is very concerned for his reputation.

Counsel said that Mr Byrne was initially told he was being suspended on full pay, but that is no longer the case, and after a period of sick leave, and is only on partial pay.

The broadcaster’s claim came before Mr Justice Mark Sanfey, who on an ex-parte basis granted Mr Byrne permission to serve short notice of the proceedings on the defendants.

The judge, who acknowledged that he had only heard from one side, suggested that the two parties attempt to work out their differences outside of the court.

The case will return before the court next week.

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