Badmouthing the pope in heated news room does not amount to harassment

pope-benedict-xviHeafield v Times Newspaper Ltd (Religion or Belief Discrimination) [2013] UKEAT 1305_12_1701 (17 January 2013) – read judgment

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has found that  the use of bad language was evidently merely an expression of bad temper and not intended to express hostility to the Pope or Catholicism and that it did not constitute harassment within the meaning of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.

Background

The Appellant, a casual sub-editor on the Times Newspaper, was a Roman Catholic. He was working at the Times during the visit to the United Kingdom of the Pope in 2010. During March the Times was preparing a story about the Pope relating to allegations that he had protected a paedophile priest.  There was some delay in producing the story, and one of the editors in the newsroom, a Mr Wilson, shouted across to the senior production executives “can anyone tell what’s happening to the fucking Pope?”.  When there was no response he repeated the question more loudly.  The Appellant was upset and offended what he heard.  He raised a complaint, which in his view was not properly progressed, and he then brought a claim in the Employment Tribunal for harassment and victimisation on the grounds of his religious belief.

Legal Framework

The definition of harassment was at the material time contained in regulation 5 of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. In essence,  it requires “unwanted conduct” leading to harassment which must violate the complainant’s dignity, and create an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’ for him.

The Tribunal held that the use of bad language was evidently merely an expression of bad temper which may have constituted “unwanted conduct” but it was not intended to express hostility to the Pope or Catholicism. Neither elements constituting harassment had  been proved. First, the Tribunal found that Mr Wilson did not know that the Appellant was a Roman Catholic; but, more generally and perhaps more pertinently, it found that there was, to put it shortly, no anti-Catholic purpose in what he said.

What Mr Wilson said was not only not ill-intentioned or anti-Catholic or directed at the Pope or at Catholics: it was evidently not any of those things.  No doubt in a perfect world he should not have used an expletive in the context of a sentence about the Pope, because it might be taken as disrespectful by a pious Catholic of tender sensibilities, but people are not perfect and sometimes use bad language thoughtlessly: a reasonable person would have understood that and made allowance for it.

In this appeal, the Appellant contended that the Tribunal erred by considering Mr Wilson’s “motive” in saying what he did and that was immaterial to the question of whether his remark was “on the grounds” of the Appellant’s religion.

The EAT’s ruling

The appeal was dismissed. In the view of Underhill J,  the Tribunal’s approach had been entirely orthodox. The context in which the phrase was used was relevant to its effect and, in the present case, was such that it was not reasonable for the Appellant to feel that his dignity had been violated or that he had been subjected to an adverse environment.

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6 thoughts on “Badmouthing the pope in heated news room does not amount to harassment

  1. Sounds like an entirely sound judgment to me. The term ‘Pope’ notwithstanding is clearly known/used to identify the head of the Catholic Church is a word used to identify a particular individual i.e. the Pope and no different to shouting ‘what’s happening to fuc*!*g Steve or Paul or Sarah.

  2. I think The Honourable Justice Underhill got it absolutely right when he cited a passage from an earlier judgment (Richmond Pharmacology v. Dhaliwal, 2009 ICR 724) which stated inter alia ‘…it is also important not to encourage a culture of hypersensitivty or the imposition of legal liability in respect of every unfortunate phrase.’ The concept of reasonableness is applicable here and the appellant was being overly-precious in his reaction to a request for a story under conditions of pressure within a newspaper working environment. I also suspect that his real motivation was to extract compensation from the newspaper on largely spurious grounds.

  3. One of those cases which prompts the answer “I should jolly well hope so too” – and the report suggests an alternative to the word “jolly”.

    I wish I could have heard the judge read it out. About a million years ago I heard part of Eveleigh J’s summing up in the Virgo police corruption case, and I have fond memories of him saying in his very upper-class public-school voice “Then, members of the jury, we are told that the defendant said ‘Come on, don’t be a c*nt, take the f*cking money'” – and the effect was incongruous.

  4. I find this hilarious and a waste if money. You can see its not directed at the Pope. It’s not a personal comment to the appellant? In fact its nothing to do with the appellant in fact it wasn’t even a personal comment about the Pope? I don’t understand how this got to Court in the first place? What happened to Article 10. Right to freedom of expression?

  5. It also proves why claimants should pay issue fees as in the courts and costs should follow the event, also as in the courts.

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