‘Highwayman’ in Coffey article was ‘colourful allusion’, journalist says

Turn of phrase was in context of a proposed change to administrative boundary, court told

Paudie Coffey at the Four Courts  during the third week of his High Court action. Photograph: Collins Courts

Paudie Coffey at the Four Courts during the third week of his High Court action. Photograph: Collins Courts

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A reference to an 18th century highwayman in an article over which a politician is suing was “colourful allusion” in the context of an ongoing debate about a contentious issue, the journalist who wrote the article has told the High Court.

Sam Matthews said the use of the highwayman reference in the January 2016 Kilkenny People article was a turn of phrase in the context of a proposed change to the administrative boundary of Kilkenny and Waterford.

Matthews, who is being sued with his employer, Iconic Newspapers, publishers of the paper, was giving evidence on the eleventh day of the action by Fine Gael Senator Paudie Coffey’s action claiming he was defamed.

Evidence and speeches in the case ended and the judge will charge the jury today before asking them to consider their verdict.

The article was headlined “Coffey the Robber” and was comprised mostly of quotes from a press release from Carlow-Kilkenny FG TD John Paul Phelan over the boundary change issue.

The article said there was an 18th century highwayman in Waterford called “Crotty the Robber” and now “Coffey the Robber was trying to do the very same” by his support for bringing part of Kilkenny into Waterford.

Mr Coffey, who was a TD and junior minister at the time, said the article was a major contributory factor in his losing his Dail seat in the 2016 general election. Iconic denies the claims.

On Thursday, Mr Matthews told Iconic’s counsel Rossa Fanning it was in the public interest to publish the article which was was part of a “tapestry of coverage” about the boundary issue.

Asked about criticism that he did not contact Mr Coffey before publication, Matthews said Mr Coffey’s position on the issue was well known.

If Mr Coffey had wanted to contact him, the journalist’s email was at the bottom of the article, he added.

In a case where he was not sure of a person’s position on an issue, he would contact them but there was “nothing of dispute in this other than the colourful allusion to a highwayman”.

Mr Matthews also said he sent a tweet some days after the article with a picture of himself standing in front of a lamp post election poster of Mr Coffey stating: “Good morning from south Kilkenny or what will be Waterford in a few weeks if this divil on my shoulder gets his way”.

Calling someone a divil was “harmless”, he said.

Under cross-examination, Richard Kean SC, for Mr Coffey, asked Matthews about a “like” tweet from Sean Keane, deputy editor of the Kilkenny People, asking: “Is he Satan himself or a minion”. Mr Matthews said he thought that was “a misjudged attempt at humour”.

In his address to the jury, Mr Fannning, for Iconic, said the questions the jury would have to answer were no longer about whether Mr Coffey was a highwayman or robber but whether the article accused him of doing something untoward or improper as a minister of state in connection with the boundary issue.

Once Mr Coffey announced in June 2015 he had worked to establish the boundary review commission, he had “created the rod from his own back” and effectively signed “his own death warrant”, counsel said. If he had said he had nothing to do with the review he might never have been associated with it but he “brought it all upon himself”.

It was his pride, not his reputation that was damaged, counsel said. The jury should answer a “resounding no” to the question as to whether he was damaged.

Mr Kean, for Mr Coffey, said his client’s case had not changed and continued to be the same. Mr Coffey was a “courageous man” who had come to court as a last resort because of a refusal to take down the article from the internet, to apologise or compensate him.

It was not because his pride was hurt and it was not because he was thin skinned because he had taken criticism in relation to other things and never sued.

While he may have sought to claim credit for indirectly having something to do with setting up the boundary commission, he did not collude with anybody and this had nothing to do with is entitlement to succeed in this case.

Counsel also urged the jury to award aggravated and exemplary damages as well as compensatory damages.

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