O'Reilly buys 24.99% stake: Battle for the 'Independent'

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THE BATTLE to control the Independent and the Independent on Sunday took a dramatic turn yesterday when Independent Newspapers, Tony O'Reilly's Irish publishing group, paid pounds 18.4m for a 24.99 per cent stake in Newspaper Publishing, the company that owns the two newspapers.

Institutional investors were offered pounds 3.50 a share in cash for up to a quarter of the company.

The move came within hours of a formal offer worth pounds 2.61p a share by a consortium consisting of Mirror Group Newspapers, Espresso International Holding, publisher of Italy's La Repubblica newspaper; Prisa, publisher of Spain's El Pais newspaper; and three founder directors of Newspaper Publishing - Andreas Whittam Smith, Adrian O'Neill and Matthew Symonds.

The bid, which values the whole company at about pounds 55.05m and is based on 77.9p in cash plus 183.7p in MGN shares, is for the 52.9 per cent of Newspaper Publishing not already owned by the consortium. There is an all-cash alternative of 250p a share.

If successful, the offer would mean MGN taking a 39.8 per cent stake in the company, Espresso and Prisa would increase theirs from 18.6 per cent to 25.1 each and the three founder directors would keep their 10 per cent stake.

Last night the consortium said it would press on with its offer regardless of Dr O'Reilly's move. Carlo Caracciolo, Espresso chairman, and Juan-Luis Cebrian, chief executive officer of Prisa, remained convinced of the advantages of a partnership with MGN. 'Our offer remains attractive to the vast majority of Newspaper Publishing's shareholders who were excluded from Independent Newspapers' selective purchases,' said a joint statement.

The National Union of Journalists chapel (branch) committee, representing journalists on the Independent and Independent on Sunday and which has opposed an MGN link, said staff were 'immensely relieved' at Dr O'Reilly's purchase.

Newspaper Publishing directors not involved in the consortium bid also welcomed Independent Newspapers as a shareholder, saying they appreciated the supportive statements it had made about working to secure the future financial position of the company.

Led by Ian Hay Davison, Newspaper Publishing chairman, and Patrick Morrissey, chief executive, the independent directors met Dr O'Reilly's representatives yesterday afternoon. Mr Morrissey said: 'We have been reassured that the immediate financial pressure has now been removed and this will enable us go ahead with the development of our titles.'

Dr O'Reilly seeks a seat on the board, and is likely to be supported in that by the independent directors. An early board meeting of all directors is being sought.