18th century highwayman reference was 'colourful allusion', Coffey defamation trial told

A journalist says a reference to an 18th century highwayman in an article he wrote was "colourful allusion" in the context of an ongoing debate about a contentious issue.

Sam Matthews told the High Court 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.

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

The article was headed "Coffey the Robber" and comprised mostly of quotes from Carlow-Kilkenny FG TD which came from a press release over the boundary change issue.

It 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 him losing his Dáil seat in the 2016 general election. Iconic denies the claims.

Mr Matthews told Iconic's counsel Rossa Fanning it was in the public interest to publish it. The article was part of a "tapestry of coverage" about the issue, he said.

Asked about the criticism that Mr Matthews did not contact Mr Coffey before publication, he said Mr Coffey's position on the issue was well known and if he (Coffey) had wanted to contact him, the journalist's email was at the bottom of the article.

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 him (Matthews) standing in front of a lamppost 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".

He said calling someone a divil was harmless.

Richard Kean SC, for Mr Coffey, asked Mr Matthews about a "like" tweet from Sean Keane, deputy editor of the Kilkenny People, saying "is he Satan himself or a minion". Mr Matthews thought it "a misjudged attempt at humour".

Counsel for both sides completed their speeches to the jury today. The judge's charge will take place on Friday when the jury is expected to go out.

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 for state in connection with the boundary issue.

Once Mr Coffey announced in June 2015 that 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". 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 not his reputation that was damaged, but his pride, he said. He urged the jury to 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.

He 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, counsel said. 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 had 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 this had nothing to do with is entitlement to succeed in this case.

He urged the jury to award aggravated and exemplary as well as compensatory damages


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