Blasphemy case against Independent lost

 

AN application by a Dublin man, to bring a criminal prosecutions for blasphemous libel against Independent Newspapers, (Ireland) Ltd, Independent Newspapers plc and the Sunday Independent editor, Mr Aengus Fanning, was dismissed by the High Court yesterday.

Mr John Corway, a carpenter, of Harolds Cross Cottages, Harolds Cross, claimed he was outraged and insulted by a cartoon in the newspaper on November 26th, 1995.

Mr Justice Geoghegan said there was not a clear prima facie case in the sense that it was one in which, at first sight, there was beyond argument a case to answer if the matter went before a criminal court.

The judge added that, even if the cartoon did constitute on a prima facie basis the crime of blasphemy he still would not give leave to institute a prosecution as he could not see that any public interest would be served.

It was an isolated cartoon in a national newspaper. There was no evidence before him that the newspaper made a practice of offending Christian or more particularly Catholic beliefs.

It was perfectly obvious what the purpose of the cartoon was upon proper examination of it and its context in juxtaposition to an article by Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien, whatever might be the understandings of some readers.

In his reserved judgment, Mr Justice Geoghegan said a Sunday Independent article by Dr Cruise O'Brien entitle "Catholic in their bones" dealt with what he perceived as the diminished influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland, in the context of the referendum result.

The article was introduced by a blurb: "Even with a Hierarchy struggling to cope with an erosion in their influence, the referendum campaign was a defining moment that showed many of us have difficulty in voting against church teaching backed up by more than a century of inherited authority argues Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien."

The cartoon consisted of a stout comic figure of a priest in an old fashioned surplice and a stole holding the host in his right hand and a chalice in his left.

"To the left were three caricatured Ministers, Mr Proinsias De Rossa, Mr Ruairi Quinn, and the Taoiseach, Mr Bruton. Above the cartoon were the words, "Hello, Progress - Bye Bye Father?"

Mr Justice Geoghegan said Mr Corway had applied to the High Court under Section 8 of the Defamation Act, 1961, for an order granting him leave to take a criminal prosecution for blasphemous libel. The provision in the 1961 Act went back to the Newspaper Libel and Registration Act, 1881.

As far as he was aware, there had been no modern application to the court under section 8 for leave to take a prosecution for blasphemous libel, but there had been at least two applications for leave to take a prosecution for criminal libel, using that expression in its narrower sense of meaning defamatory libel. Mr Justice Geoghegan referred to the principles laid down by the judge in one of those cases, who in turn followed certain English case law.

They said the applicant must establish a clear prima face case; that the libel must be so serious that it was proper for criminal law to be invoked; that although it may be a relevant factor that the libel was unusually likely to provoke a breach of the peace, that was not a necessary ingredient, and that the question of public interest must be taken into account.

Mr Justice Geoghegan said he was satisfied that analogous principles should apply to an application for leave to institute a prosecution for blasphemous libel.

It was clear from a 1917 case and earlier case law which it approved and followed that it was the essence of blasphemy and, ipso facto therefore, of the essence of blasphemous libel that the words or picture complained of constituted an attack on some tenet of the Christian religion.

It was clear the cartoon was not such an attack. It might have been in bad taste or it might have been shocking to many Catholics, but it was not an attack on any doctrine or belief of that church.

The caption "Hello, Progress - Bye Bye Father?" was obviously a play on the words used in a slogan of the No Divorce Campaign, "Hello, Divorce - Bye, Bye Daddy."

In an affidavit, Ms Wendy Shea, who composed the cartoon, said its central theme was the relationship between church and state immediately after the divorce referendum. She said she sought to illustrate the belief of many, including Dr O'Brien, that the Catholic Church's influence in Irish society was on the wane, ash shown by the passing of the referendum in spite of the church's opposition.

She said she did not intend to insult the feelings or religious convictions of any readers.

The judge made no order in relation to costs.

Last May, the High Court heard there were similar applications on behalf of Mr Corway, against The Irish Times and Mr Niall Stokes, of Hot Press.

Mr Colm Condon SC, for The Irish Times, said the three case should not be taken together, a the cases against the Sunday In dependent and The Irish Times involved cartoons and the action against Mr Stokes concerned a written article.