PR adviser says reference to Paudie Coffey was ‘purely parody’
Fine Gael senator suing publisher over story comparing him to 18th century highwayman
Neans McSweeney, whose McSweeney Media provides services to Minister of State John Paul Phelan, is pictured at the Four Courts. Photograph: Collins Courts.
A public relations consultant who came up with the idea of comparing a politician to an 18th century highwayman in a press release has told the High Court it was meant as a “parody”.
Neans McSweeney, whose McSweeney Media provides services to Minister of State John Paul Phelan, sent a press release which became the basis for an article in the Kilkenny People in January 2016 headed ‘Coffey the Robber’.
The story quoted Mr Phelan criticising his party colleague Paudie Coffey, then a minister of state and Waterford TD, in relation to a row over moving the administrative boundary between Waterford into Kilkenny.
Mr Phelan said Mr Coffey, now a senator, had been “banding together” with then minister for the environment Alan Kelly to commit “daylight robbery”.
He went on to say there was an 18th century highwayman in Waterford called ‘Crotty the Robber’ and now ‘Coffey the Robber’ was trying to do the very same”.
In High Court defamation proceedings, Mr Coffey claims the article falsely called him a criminal and meant he he was guilty of misuse of public office, a thief and of severe ill repute.
Iconic Newspapers, publisher of the Kilkenny People, denies the claims.
In evidence on Tuesday, Ms McSweeney told Rossa Fanning SC, for the publisher, that she came up with the ‘Coffey the Robber’ idea. She said that months earlier she did PR work for Waterford City and County Council which had commissioned a play on the highwayman William Crotty.
Ms McSweeney said the reference to Crotty was “purely parody” and, in her press release the word ‘Coffey’ in ‘Coffey the Robber’ was in italics to reinforce the parody.
Under cross-examination, Richard Kean SC, for Mr Coffey, put to her that it might be parody or spoof to her but to the ordinary person on the street, it was highly offensive to call someone a robber.
Ms McSweeney said malice was not intended. The purpose of the release was to encourage Kilkenny people to make submissions to a boundary commission which was reviewing the matter, she said. The purpose was not to “take down anyone”.
Mr Phelan denied he was malicious in the press release and said the impact “would be a joke”. He was under continuing cross examination at the start of the third week of Mr Coffey’s action.
Barney Quirke SC, for Mr Coffey, put to Mr Phelan that he was a member of the same party as Mr Coffey and he was calling him a criminal and saying there was serious wrongdoing in relation to the boundary issue.
Mr Phelan said the context was clear, he was not calling either Mr Coffey or Mr Kelly highwaymen or accusing them of robbing anything.
Play on words
He said he and Ms McSweeney, in preparing the press release, were making a play on words.
Mr Phelan disagreed with counsel that a tweet during the 2016 election campaign by Sam Matthews, the journalist who wrote the article and who is a co-defendant with Iconic, was inappropriate.
In the tweet, Mr Matthews referred to Mr Coffey as ‘this divil’.
Mr Phelan said ‘divil’ could mean anything from being complimentary to “giving out” about someone.
He agreed that a replying tweet from Sean Keane, deputy editor of the Kilkenny People, saying ‘Is he (Coffey) Satan himself or a minion’, was not appropriate.
The case continues before Mr Justice Bernard Barton and a jury.