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Independent Newspapers on form

INDEPENDENT Newspapers, the Irish media group that owns The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, reported a positive start to the year in all its markets yesterday.

Speaking at the company's annual general meeting in Dublin, Dr AJF O'Reilly, the chairman, said he was pleased with trading to date and looked forward to a meaningful increase in earnings per share for the year to come.

Economic conditions had improved in New Zealand while exchange rates were more positive in South Africa. In the UK, the Office of Fair Trading's recent decision to ban below-cost selling in the national newspaper market would hasten the return of The Independent to profitability, he said.

After the meeting, Gavin O'Reilly, managing director of Independent Newspapers (Ireland), said he believed that in two to three years' time The Independent would come to be seen as one of the most inspired investments made by Independent Newspapers.

In his statement, Dr O'Reilly said that the company had last year "started the long task of rebuilding the reputation of The Independent as the only broadsheet paper of genuine independence" in the UK. Adding that it would take patience, investment and talent to return the paper to the position it held in the late 1980s, he said that the company had won an historic victory in having its position on predatory pricing upheld by the Office of Fair Trading.

In his statement, Dr O'Reilly made much of the company's efforts to position itself for the digital age. "The importance that your group attaches to new platforms and new methods of communications is exemplified by the formation of Independent Digital, a worldwide division which will combine the best forces that our brand can command in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, the UK and Ireland," Dr O'Reilly said.

Strong progress is being made in South Africa, where the group has taken a 30 per cent interest in In Touch, a software developer specialising in the Internet and cellular technology industries. Under its managing director in South Africa, Ivan Fallon, the group aims to become the leading "portal" operation in the country.

Last year had also seen a dramatic worldwide restructuring and a decision to invest in a state-of-the-art printing plant in Dublin, Dr O'Reilly said.

The meeting agreed to change the company's name to Independent News & Media. The shares closed up 7.5p at 330p.