Newspaper editor stands over ‘every word’ of Paudie Coffey story

Fine Gael senator has taken defamation case over article branding him ‘Coffey the Robber’

Fine Gael senator Paudie Coffey  is pictured at the Four Courts during his  High Court defamation action. Photograph: Collins Courts.

Fine Gael senator Paudie Coffey is pictured at the Four Courts during his High Court defamation action. Photograph: Collins Courts.

 

The editor of the Kilkenny People has told the High Court he decided to put the headline ‘Coffey the Robber’ on an allegedly defamatory article about a former minister of state and stands over “every word” published.

Brian Keyes said his decision to use that headline was because the words were in a press release from Paudie Coffey’s Fine Gael colleague, the Kilkenny-Carlow TD John Paul Phelan.

Mr Keyes was giving evidence on the 10th day of an action by Mr Coffey, a former Waterford TD who is now a senator, against Iconic Newspapers, publishers of the paper, over the January 2016 article.

Iconic denies the allegation that the article was defamatory.

The body of the article, in quoting Mr Phelan’s press release on a proposed change to the Kilkenny/Waterford administrative boundary, stated there was an 18th century highwayman in Waterford called ‘Crotty the Robber’ and that ‘Coffey the Robber’ was now trying to take part of the constituency.

Mr Coffey has told the jury that the article was a major contributory factor to him losing his Dáil seat in 2016.

Mr Keyes, who has edited the paper for 10 years, told Rossa Fanning SC, for Iconic, that the approach to using the press release was essentially to “top and tail” it by having an introductory paragraph and maybe another at the end of the story.

Parody

He said there was no new allegation in the article in relation to the boundary issue as claims of “land grabbing” and “robbing land” had been made in the media over the previous months. It was a parody and “obviously a play” on the names Coffey and Crotty, he added.

“If we got that now, I don’t think we would do it any differently, that is exactly how I saw it at he time and how I see it now,” Mr Keyes said.

Asked should he have contacted Mr Coffey before publication, Mr Keyes said it was a political statement about an ongoing issue and contacting Mr Coffey would be like asking DUP leader Arlene Foster now what she thought of Brexit. Mr Coffey always had a right of reply, he added.

Mr Keyes also said the article, which is still available online, had about 200 “hits” between publication date and the general election about five weeks later, and 904 hits by the end of 2016.

Since this trial began, there had been “a spike” in hits of between 400 and 500 bringing the total hits to 1,588.

He said the online interest in the story was insignificant in comparison, for example, to a story about a Kilkenny chip shop being closed down by the health authorities, which got 22,000 hits in 24 hours.

Cross examined by Barney Quirke SC, for Mr Coffey, he denied there was any intention to damage Mr Coffey.

Asked in what context was Mr Coffey “committing a criminal act”, Mr Keyes said he was not accused of committing a criminal act. He agreed he stood over “every word” published in the article.

The case continues.