Defamation win by man jailed for child pornography

 

A MAN who is serving a sentence for possessing child pornography after pleading guilty has a “residual reputation” which deserves to be protected from defamation, the Circuit Civil Court has ruled.

In the first such ruling under the Defamation Act 2009, Judge Joseph Matthews ordered the Star on Sundayto publish a correction of its defamatory statements about Barry Watters, and made an order prohibiting the newspaper from further publishing the defamatory statements.

The action was taken by Watters following the publication of an article under the heading “Larry’s Secret Shower Buddy” claiming he had a “seedy” and “weird” relationship with Larry Murphy, who was described as “the Beast of Baltinglass”. Murphy was recently released after serving a sentence for the abduction, rape and attempted murder of a woman in 2000.

James MacGuill, solicitor for Watters, sought a correction and apology from the newspaper, saying his client had no relationship of any kind with Murphy and that each of the statements published about his client was untrue.

When this was refused, Watters asked the Circuit Civil Court for an order directing the publication of a correction, no republication of the defamatory material, and costs. The case was heard on October 18th. Judge Matthews delivered a written judgment yesterday. He said this was the first application of this kind under the 2009 Act, which introduced a new remedy into defamation law.

This permits a plaintiff who considers him or herself to have been defamed, instead of suing for damages, to seek an order in the Circuit Court that the publication publish an apology, correction or retraction and desist from republishing the defamatory material. The action is heard without a jury.

Hugh Mohan SC, for Watters, acknowledged that his client was serving two sentences for possession of child pornography, to which he had pleaded guilty. He said he had sought to address his offending behaviour by attending for counselling at the Granada Institute and submitting to psychiatric and psychological evaluation.

Since his conviction he had sought treatment of his addiction in the Arbour Hill sex offenders programme. While he accepted his reputation had been damaged by his actions, he claimed that it was further damaged by the false allegations, which suggested he was not sincere in seeking rehabilitation and in his expressions of remorse, and that he condones the crimes for which Murphy was convicted.

He said the article also affected his client’s family, with whom he had been open and honest, and in particular his elderly parents.

He said he was stressed as a result of the article and placed on suicide watch in Arbour Hill prison for 72 hours. The governor of the prison had written to say there was no truth in the allegations, in a lengthy letter Judge Matthews described as important.

In a replying affidavit for the newspaper, its managing director, Paul Cooke, described in detail the offences for which the plaintiff was convicted, and stated he had 26 other convictions. Mr McGuill stated in response that he had no other convictions, that there were two people of this name in Dundalk, and the newspaper had conflated the two, attributing to his client offences with which he was never charged or convicted.

Eoin McCullough SC, for the Star on Sunday, argued that Watters, due to his conviction for child pornography, could have no reputation in the eyes of right-thinking people. He also argued that stating someone had a homosexual relationship was not defamatory in this day and age.

Judge Matthews said that to argue that the plaintiff was, because of his previous convictions, beyond the pale of reputation, was to ignore certain relevant considerations. These were his voluntary admission of guilt; his efforts to address his addiction; his attempts to rehabilitate himself; and his seeking to be open and honest with his family. He therefore had a “residual” reputation capable of being damaged.

If an early admission of guilt was a mitigating factor in sentencing law and policy it should be for reputation in defined and particular circumstances. He ordered a correction to be published, the terms of which are to be agreed between the parties. Failing that, the court could order the publication of a summary of its judgment.