Cohen on Craig

via Yahoo! News

Call me old-fashioned but media-related defamation actions involving political figures simply aren’t the fun they used to be.  In the latest, Colin Craig was reported by RNZ this past week to be weighing the merits of what would surely be a less-than hilarious defamation action involving the former Conservative Party leader and his erstwhile press secretary Rachel MacGregor.

RNZ reported that papers have already been filed but that they would only go ahead if Mr Craig’s other defamation case involving the blogger Cameron Slater did not go in Mr Craig’s favour. That case has now finished and the judge will deliver a decision later.

The initial report was followed by yet another report stating that perhaps Mr Craig was, in fact, not considering a defamation action against Ms MacGregor. This back-pedalling prompted at least one commentator to speculate whether Mr Craig might yet sue RNZ for defaming him for having suggested he was looking at a defamation action.

Don’t even joke about it.  Of course, he won’t sue RNZ.  He’ll sue Whaleoil for repeating that RNZ said it.

But it has some precedence

Having money helps. Part of the reason why the defamation beat has long held a particular appeal to the wealthy and powerful is because, in a country where libel payouts have tended not to be large, they are the only ones who can spend the necessary time and money.   Sir Robert Muldoon was one of the first political figures to fully go down that route, albeit with a tendency to claim relatively small amounts (which he would usually donate to a charity) and costs.

Sir Robert wasn’t always successful. He once unsuccessfully tried to sue Sir Bob Jones, and a number of other cases floundered. There also went David Lange, whose Bunteresque appetite for defamation writs ran rampant for more than 10 years until the former prime minister tried to sue the publisher of North & South for running a political column that suggested his abrupt decision to step down in 1989 happened because he found the job “too much like hard work.”

Not only was the case unsuccessful, it created a new qualified defence of “political speech.”

Commentators have it slightly easier when they offer sincerely held, factually based opinions providing they can’t be shown to be motivated by malice.   With the media now enjoying a greater measure of protection from litigious politicians, the boot has curiously moved to the other foot. Politicians and political institutions are nowadays just as likely to be the ones on the receiving end of a writ.

Leaders both bruised Labour leader Andrew Little and former prime minister Sir John Key both emerged a little bruised after media-related claims in recent years – the first after an ill-judged press release issued about a political donation made to the National Party; the other in the wake of the slightly risible teapot tape saga in which Sir John ended up reaching a confidential settlement with the freelancer Ambrose Bradley.

The freelancer Jon Stephenson also received a confidential settlement from the public kitty after the Defence Force admitted it had misrepresented his work in a press release.

For a time, Mr Craig’s antics threatened to eclipse all the others in sheer entertainment value, with some of the best episodes at least on a par with a YouTube video showing cats using cutlery.   A threatened case against the satirical website The Civilian was quite amusing.

As everyone but Mr Craig knows, satirical news sites don’t produce real news but satire – and mistaking one for the other, he threatened to sue over the accuracy of a quote in an alleged conversation between himself and God.

Three years ago he threatened the same against former Greens leader Russel Norman for having the temerity to suggest the Conservative leader was socially conservative.

As the cool kids on Twitter say, it’s getting to a point where this particular public figure ought to issue a writ against himself for being a public goose.    Defamation is technically not a crime but a tort or civil matter. But it can certainly be a criminal waste of time.

But that’s the point.  The waste of time and money is the actual objective.  To win would be a bonus.  Especially when starting from absurd positions.   But the Courts appear happy to accommodate the needs of deep pocketed litigants allowing the merit of the case to be way down the list and insisting everyone deserves a day in court.

 

– David Cohen, NBR

 


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