Media Headliner: How Tony O'Reilly came to be feted at Cannes

The Independent News & Media owner's lengthy career is matched only by that of Silvio Berlusconi, Alasdair Reid writes.

When Sir Anthony O'Reilly steps up to accept Media Person of the Year award at the Cannes Lions festival on 18 June, the citation may take a little longer to read out than usual. It's not that he embodies a larger media empire than that of any of the previous winners - the list does, after all, include Gunter Thielen, the chairman and chief executive of Bertelsmann; Sumner Redstone, ditto at Viacom; Gerald Levin, the boss of AOL Time Warner; and Italian magnate Silvio Berlusconi.

But of that roll of honour, only Berlusconi (former cruise-ship singer, construction magnate and current prime minister) can match O'Reilly for the sheer length, breadth and variety of his career.

Because O'Reilly is effectively on his third or fourth life. He was famous first as plain old Tony O'Reilly, a sporting star in the 50s, making his debut at 18 as a centre three-quarter for Ireland in 1955, before going on to win a further 27 caps and representing the Lions on tours to South Africa and Australia-New Zealand, where he set new try-scoring records.

He was famous again in the 60s as a business hero in Ireland, not least for developing the Kerrygold butter brand for the Irish Dairy Board. By the 70s, he had joined H J Heinz, transplanted himself to the US and been fast-tracked to the top of the company, becoming the chief executive in 1979 and, a decade later, the chairman.

By now he'd reinvented himself as Dr A F J O'Reilly, courtesy of a doctorate in marketing, and had begun to dabble more seriously in the media business.

He'd acquired a stake in the Dublin-based newspaper publisher Independent News & Media as far back as 1973. In the late 80s, at his promptings, the company began to broaden its horizons, acquiring a steady stream of assets in the rugby-playing territories of the southern hemisphere - not just newspapers, but radio stations, cable networks and outdoor companies, too.

It is now the largest newspaper publisher in South Africa, owning 14 titles, most notably The Cape Times and the Argus group in Cape Town, and is also the country's largest outdoor contractor. In the antipodes, it has a 40 per cent stake in APN News and Media, the publisher of The New Zealand Herald and a stable of regional titles in both Australia and New Zealand. It claims to be Australasia's largest outdoor contractor (active in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia Malaysia and Hong Kong) and the region's largest radio broadcaster. It has also recently become active in India, having purchased a stake in Jagran Prakashan Limited, a leading regional newspaper publisher, in 2005.

The company remains one of Ireland's most powerful news-paper publishers, notably through its ownership of the Irish Independent, but clearly it's the company's similarly named assets, The Independent and Independent on Sunday, that are of primary interest to a UK audience.

O'Reilly effectively stepped in to "save" the loss-making papers when Mirror Group Newspapers decided to ditch them in 1995. They have continued to lose money - how much exactly, the company won't say, although it did announce back in March that it has succeeded in trimming the losses by £1 million a year.

The company, now run princi-pally by O'Reilly's son, Gavin, has always insisted that these losses are not only sustainable but worth every penny in terms of the prestige they bestow. Owning a UK newspaper, it is argued, is a powerful "calling card", especially when entering into talks with prospective business partners. Ownership of the titles also helped O'Reilly to that most desirable of baubles, a knighthood in the New Year's Honours list of 2001, enabling him to assume his latest incarnation as Sir Anthony.

But the losses could also become the company's Achilles' heel - and they're certainly becoming the focal point of O'Reilly's increasingly acrimonious spat with his fellow Irish billionaire, the telecoms and commercial radio entrepreneur Denis O'Brien. O'Brien, who feels he has, over the years, received slightly less-than-generous coverage from the O'Reilly newspaper empire, began building a stake in IN&M in 2006.

By March 2008, he'd acquired more than 21 per cent and revealed himself as a "dissident" shareholder, calling for the Independent titles in the UK to be sold and declaring that Sir Anthony, then just short of his 72nd birthday, was past it.

Things could come to a head this week at IN&M's annual meeting. But it's true that charitable "legacy" projects, such as the Sir Anthony O'Reilly Library (an art deco power station of a building due for completion on Belfast's Queen's University campus next year), are occupying more of his time.

On the other hand, his energy and resourcefulness is not to be underestimated. In fact, everything about O'Reilly is prodigious. His first wife, Susan Cameron, the concert pianist and daughter of an Australian gold-mining magnate, Keith Cameron, bore him six children between 1963 and 1966. Granted, the last three came in the form of triplets - but that's still going it some. He has, at the last count, 18 grandchildren; and still, according to those who witnessed it, plays a passable game of tennis.

His third wife, Chryss Goulandris, a Greek shipping heiress and racehorse breeder, is even richer than he is. And no-one but O'Reilly would have the audacity to have James Bond (in Sean Connery) on the board, however briefly.

But the most prodigious quality he has is charm. This alone marks him out among media barons, so many of whom reveal themselves, despite their best intentions, as masters of all that is cantankerous and misanthropic. Those who've come under his spell say O'Reilly is quite easily the world's most charismatic media mogul.

Phil Georgiadis, the chief executive of The Independent's media agency, Walker Media, wouldn't disagree. "His hospitality is legendary and he is extraordinarily good company," he concurs. "From a purely UK ad industry point of view, he's best known for the absolute commitment he gives to the Independent newspapers. I think everyone in the industry appreciates that."