Senator Coffey ‘had to come to court to vindicate good name’

Decision made to sue newspaper rather than complaint to Press Council, court hears

Senator Paudie Coffey: had asked the paper, through his lawyers, to retract, apologise and offer redress. Photograph: Collins Courts

Senator Paudie Coffey: had asked the paper, through his lawyers, to retract, apologise and offer redress. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

A Senator who claims he was defamed in a newspaper story which he says called him a highway robber made a decision to sue rather than make a complaint to the Press Ombudsman, the High Court heard.

Senator Paudie Coffey said he had a constitutional right to vindicate his good name through the courts and believed he had to do so because of the serious damage to his reputation the article had caused.

He is suing Iconic Newspapers, publishers of the Kilkenny People, which ran the article in January 2016 headed “Coffey the Robber” with a photo of the then junior environment minister at his desk.

The article contained quotes from his Fine Gael colleague,John Paul Phelan TD, claiming Sen Coffey and the then minister for the environment Alan Kelly had banded together to commit “daylight robbery” by extending the administrative boundary of Waterford into Kilkenny.

Mr Phelan said there was an 18th century highwayman called “Crotty the Robber” who led a gang of bloodthirsty robbers and “now Coffey the Robber trying to do the very same.”

Senator Coffey says that was defamatory. The claim is denied.

Only option

During a third day of cross-examination, Rossa Fanning SC, for Iconic, put it to the Senator he had claimed his only option was to bring legal proceedings when he could have gone to the Press Ombudsman as other politicians have done.

Senator Coffey said he recognised there were other options but said he chose to exercise the same route open to every citizen under the Constitution to seek the protection of the courts.

He had asked the paper, through his lawyers, to retract, apologise and offer redress but heard nothing back for months and when he did, the paper dismissed his concerns and accused him of bullying, he said.

He did not enjoy sitting in the witness box but “there is right and there is wrong” and he was going to stand up for his good name.

The courtroom was the only place he would adequately resolve it, he said. He had “bared my personal life for the public to see because it was that important”.

Asked why he never rang the newspaper editor in the 10 month period between the publication and the letter from his solicitor seeking retraction and redress, he said he was involved in elections campaigns for the Dáil and Seanad and wanted to stay focused.

Disengaged

It was only in the months after the publication the damage to his reputation became clear, he said.

Asked why he had not sought an apology from Mr Phelan, he said he had “disengaged with Deputy Phelan”.

He said he did not respect what Mr Phelan had said but it was the newspaper that caused the damage by publishing it.

Mr Fanning put a number of articles from different Munster newspapers, some of which counsel said effectively accused Senator Coffey of cynical political opportunism over the boundary issue from as far back as 2015.

Senator Coffey replied it was an emotive issue as was the issue of a border anywhere.

None of the coverage referred to be counsel could be equated with the “robber” article, he said.

He also told the court he knew the contest for his Dáil seat in 2016 was always going to be marginal.

He described as “totally outlandish” a suggestion from Mr Fanning that representations were made on his behalf to the Taoiseach that he be appointed a junior minister.

Counsel said it was suggested he would benefit politically from such an appointment in view of the fact Mr Coffey’s brother had lost his council seat in Waterford in 2014.

“I have no knowledge of what you are talking about”, Sen Coffey replied.

Mr Fanning said Mr Phelan would give evidence that Paul Fox, who became Senator Coffey’s ministerial adviser, made representations to the Taoiseach.

The Senator said that was the opinion of Mr Phelan who “could easily be worried about his own seat”.

The case resumes on Tuesday before Mr Justice Bernard Barton and a jury.