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Paddy Power at Knock A bit of fun or offensive and hurtful to the devout?

It will remain to be seen if any citizen offended will make a formal complaint either to An Garda Síochána or to the ASAI, writes Jason O’Sullivan.

THE RECENT CONTROVERSIAL publicity stunt by bookmakers Paddy Power has caused much consternation amongst the general public and in particular those devout to the Catholic faith. The marketing tactic involved Paddy Power projecting a 70-foot image of the Virgin Mary holding aloft Sam Maguire on the front-facing facade of Knock’s Basilica in County Mayo.

The stunt occurred on August 18 during the National Novena at Knock Shrine and ahead of the much anticipated semi-final match between Mayo and Kerry. The rationale for the prank was to create a so called apparition of their own as “to provide the county’s (Mayo) long suffering footballers with some divine inspiration”.

The story was reignited this week on RTÉ’s Liveline hosted by Joe Duffy, where many listeners and contributors relayed their disgust and dissatisfaction at the cheap shot Paddy Power was having at the Catholic Church and its followers. Many expressed it was a provocation of their religious beliefs and amounted to blasphemy. One offended contributor remarked that the bookmaker would never have attempted a similar PR stunt on a mosque as to not offend the Muslim faith.

Paddy Power were delighted with extra coverage

There was little doubt that Paddy Power were delighted with the follow up coverage and had a spokesperson on during the radio segment, who expressed some regret but was viewed as disingenuous and half-hearted by some of the listeners.

This isn’t the first time that Paddy Power has gotten into trouble on the subject of religion. In 2006 they had to withdraw an advert showing Jesus and the twelve disciples piling up gambling chips in a casino, a scene based on the famous Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper.

The Advertising Standards Authority Ireland (ASAI), the self-regulatory body for the advertising industry, determined at the time that the advert was in breach of its code, in that “the representation of the Last Supper as a casino, with the familiar Christian imagery replaced with items used for gambling, could cause serious offence”.

The ASAI code explicitly states that “marketing communications should respect the dignity of all persons and should avoid causing offence on grounds of gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race or membership of the traveller community” and “not ridicule or exploit religious beliefs, symbols, rites or practices”.

Alleged blasphemy

Furthermore, the issue of alleged blasphemy had been highlighted in recent times with the Garda investigation of Stephen Fry following a complaint over comments the well-known UK writer and comedian made on RTÉ’s The Meaning of Life hosted by Gay Byrne. The complaint was made under Section 36 of the Defamation Act 2009.

The Act prohibits the offence of a person publishing or uttering blasphemous matter that is “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion”.

A person found guilty of this offence could be “liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €25,000”. The investigation against Stephen Fry was eventually dropped in May this year on the basis that there were no injured parties.

The Defamation Act 2009 was enacted under former Justice Minister Dermot Ahern’s tenure and the controversial inclusion of the provision relating to blasphemy received much criticism at the time and subsequently. Many commentators argue that it is draconian and against freedom of speech.

Following the Stephen Fry story, the Social Democrats declared its plans to introduce two Private Members’ Bills designed to safeguard freedom of speech and abolish blasphemy as a crime, whereby co-leader Róisín Shortall called the offence of blasphemy “archaic, obsolete and unnecessary”.

Dermot Ahern recently attempted to defend his decision in 2009 for the inclusion of blasphemy on the basis that the offence was “written into the Constitution and was included in the previous Defamation Act” and that it was implemented in such a way “that it would be virtually impossible to prosecute”.

This point is true to an extent given that under the legislation there is a wide varying defence available to those accused of blasphemy. It first must be shown that the outage created was intentional and if even shown, the defendant can still reply on a full defence if they can prove “that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.”

Haunted bread

Limerick comedian Blindboy of the Rubberbandits also came under media scrutiny earlier this year following his comments on RTÉ’s Late Late Show, when he referred to communion bread at Mass as “haunted bread”. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), rejected the complaints made on the basis that while the particular comments were deemed offensive by those who had complained, the Regulator considered it “legitimate for a panellist to articulate their own personal views”.

The debate for abolishing blasphemy in Irish law is a likely topic for future government agendas but such repeal will require a referendum as to do otherwise would be deemed as unconstitutional.

It will remain to be seen if any citizen offended will make a formal complaint either to An Garda Síochána under relevant legislation or to the ASAI on the basis of an alleged breach of its advertising code. Some will argue that it was simply a bit of fun and those people who are complaining are playing into the marketing hands of Paddy Power by giving airtime to the topic. Others will argue that real offence and hurt was felt by those devout to their religion and to the sacred place of Knock Shrine.

There are bigger issues of course currently facing Irish society and its people, the housing crisis, recent flooding and the economy as a whole which can make complaints against Paddy Power or other entities regarding this subject matter appear quite trivial for the majority of the general public.

However, religion for many can provide much needed comfort and support to those who are struggling as a result of these very issues and other concerns. For such deep rooted religious beliefs to be then perceivably ridiculed or mocked for revenue gain, by an organisation that itself promotes and facilitates gambling, a very real and prevalent problem itself for modern society, denotes a saddened irony.

Jason O’ Sullivan, is a Solicitor and Public Affairs Consultant at J.O.S Solicitors.

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