The Irish Mail on Sunday's decision to print 26,000 Sunday Tribune look-alike editions was a “carefully executed plan” to deceive consumers, a judge was told today.
Associated Newspapers Ireland, owners of the Irish Mail on Sunday, is being prosecuted at Dublin District Court for breaching consumer protection laws. The newspaper group has pleaded not guilty to six charges.
Following two days of evidence, Judge Conal Gibbons today heard submissions from lawyers for the National Consumer Agency (NCA) and Associated Newspapers Ireland.
The consumer agency brought the case after complaints by readers who bought the “special edition” on February 6 last thinking they had purchased the Sunday Tribune, days after it went into receivership.
A receiver was appointed to the loss-making Sunday Tribune on February 1 and two days later a decision was made not to bring out a final edition on February 6.
The Irish Mail on Sunday then distributed 26,000 “special editions” to shops on the east coast. They featured a “wraparound” cover with a heading saying “a special edition designed for readers of the Sunday Tribune”.
The defunct paper's editor Noirin Hegarty has told the court that the edition in question looked like the Sunday Tribune which prior to closure had a circulation of about 25,000 copies.
Defence counsel Mr Neil Steen submitted today that the case was brought against his client following “a media fire-storm”.
Five people had given evidence saying they had been deceived by buying the edition. However, Mr Steen argued that this did not mean that the average consumer had been misled and the witnesses were “an unrepresentative sample”.
He also asked the court to note the evidence of Associated Newspapers Ireland that the price of the edition was different to the Sunday Tribune, “Irish Mail on Sunday” was printed in bold on the front page and some of their columnists and their sports section were listed there.
On the back page, there was also reference to it being a promotional edition of the Irish Mail on Sunday.
Mr Steen also said that some 9,000 copies were sold and the consumers who gave evidence represented 0.01% of those who bought the special edition.
Jonathan Kilfeather SC, for the NCA, submitted that the evidence of the paper's editor Sebastian Hamilton and Paul Henderson, Managing Director of Associated Newspapers Ireland, was evasive. It had to be dragged out of them that the so-called special edition “looked a lot like the Sunday Tribune”.
Mr Kilfeather said the defendant clearly intended in a “carefully executed plan” to deceive the consumer and asked shops to place the edition in slots previously reserved for the Sunday Tribune. A packing note sent to shops referred to the edition as: “Sunday Tribune alternative issue”.
He argued that the court must decide what the average consumer might do and the defence was suggesting that customers would have to leaf through a newspaper to check it is not a cover put on by a rival title.
Judge Gibbons adjourned the case until December 16 when he is to give his verdict.
During the hearing, Sebastian Hamilton, editor of the Irish Mail on Sunday, defended the decision to publish the edition – saying it was a marketing exercise to gain new readers and not an attempt to mislead people.
Five people gave evidence that they bought the paper thinking it was the Sunday Tribune and the court had also heard that several shopkeepers thought the paper they had in stock was the Sunday Tribune and later learned it was the Irish Mail on Sunday.
Associated Newspapers Ireland face six charges and could be fined up €18,000 and have to pay the NCA's legal costs if found guilty.