‘Fucking Pope’ outburst in Times newsroom ‘frightened and intimidated’ a sub-editor

NEWSPAPER sub-editors are a frightening breed, and – having been at the receiving end of their wrath on several occasions during a long career journalism – I can vouch for the fact that their outbursts frequently contained language that would make an old salt turn red to the roots.

Thousands turned out to demonstate against Ratzinger when he visited the UK in 2010

Thousands turned out to demonstrate against Ratzinger when he visited the UK in 2010

Seemingly unaware of the nature of the beasts, an exceedingly tender Catholic sub-editor last year took the Times newspaper to an industrial tribunal, claiming religious harassment and victimisation after a senior sub-editor, irritated by the delay of a report on Pope Razinger – soon to be ex-Benedict – shouted across the newsroom to senior production executives:

Can anybody tell me what’s happening to the fucking Pope?

Mr B Heafield’s case was dismissed by the tribunal, and the sub-editor then took his case to appeal – and has lost again.

The appellant, a practising Catholic, worked as a sub-editor for the newspaper. In 2010, the paper ran a series of articles dealing with allegations of child abuse in the Catholic Church and allegations of “cover-ups” by the Church.

Heafield was unhappy about the coverage and believed that the newspaper was displaying anti-Catholic sentiment by printing the articles.

On March 12, 2010, the Times was working on a story concerning an allegation that the Pope had, in a previous role, protected a paedophile priest. This story was allocated the working title “the Pope”.

As the deadline approached for the newspaper to go to print, a senior sub-editor – a Mr Wilson – realised that the story had not yet arrived on his screen. He then fired off his “fucking Pope” question. When no-one responded, he repeated the question, again raising his voice.

Heafield argued that he found the comment to be offensive and complained that he had felt intimidated and frightened by it.

The Tribunal, however, found that there had been no intention to cause offence and that, although Heafield had been upset by the comment, it was not reasonable for the comment to have had the effect of creating a hostile environment for him.

Neither had the comment been made on grounds of religion, when examined in context.

On January 17, at an employment tribunal appeal, Mr Justice Underhill upheld the original finding 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.

The judge 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.

Hat tip: Glenn