Today in the defamation case brought by Earl and Lani Hagaman against Labour leader Andrew Little the judge will sum up the case who will then hand over the decision making to the jury. Unless there is a quick decision we may not find out a verdict until next week.
Yesterday the lawyers gave their closing addresses.
Labour leader Andrew Little was “unfair, cruel and cynical” when attacking millionaire hotel owners involved in a Niue resort deal, a High Court jury has been told.
However, Little’s defence team said he was acting in his moral duty as leader of the opposition when questioning government involvement in the deal.
Little’s lawyer John Tizard said…
…Little had “a social or moral duty as the leader of the opposition to respond to questions raised by members of the public”.
The thrust of his comments were aimed at the Government, not Earl Hagaman, due to his suspicion and concern about its track record.
While the Hagamans claimed Little had made allegations of corruption “as a matter of fact”, Tizard said he had simply raised questions about the donation and contract award and requested they be answered by the Auditor General.
“It’s not an allegation that it wasn’t above board, it’s a question of whether it was or wasn’t above board.”
Little did what he could in the time he had to check the facts of the issue, and confined himself to the matter at hand rather than making irrelevant assertions.
Except there doesn’t appear to have been any facts to check – Little has (in a round about way) conceded there were none to back his allegations.
“You will make what you will of his evidence, but I suggest to you you may well conclude if anything Mr Little was overly upright in what he saw as his responsibility as leader of the opposition.”
While Little had used strong language, Tizard said he was expressing his opinion in a way that many others would choose to do.
“The mere fact it was colourful does not mean it was inflammatory.”
Comments reported in stories on TVNZ and RNZ were “cut and paste exercises” where only a small excerpt of his overall remarks were broadcast, and the jury could not be sure he had been fairly represented.
It started with a statement put out by Little.
The Hagamans’ lawyer Richard Fowler QC said…
…Little’s comments went beyond a neutral position that the issue required investigation, as his use of the phrases “stinks to high heaven”, “murky” and “dodgy deals” showed.
“As has been said before, what’s the worst possible thing for a businessman? Pretty hard to think of what’s worse once you go to the c-word – corruption.”
While the Hagamans accepted Little had to hold the Government to account as leader of the opposition, “that does not entitle you to go off and defame innocent people”.
“If they were collateral damage, if that’s what it was…that still doesn’t change anything in terms of fundamental liability.”
He had failed to undertake any significant investigation into the issue or speak to Scenic Hotel Group before commenting, and had employed “very loose facts”.
“There is more than a whiff in the evidence of Mr Little going about what he was doing on the basis he didn’t particularly care because of course the person at the other end of this corruption continuum if you like…was in fact a National Party donor.”
“Hanging the Hagamans out to dry was unfair, cruel and cynical.”
He questioned why, if Little did not believe his comments were defamatory, he had apologised and made an offer of $100,000.
Little’s late efforts to extract himself from a tricky situation may not have been a helpful move.
His slowness and apparent difficulty in making a comprehensive apology could also be a problem – he still hasn’t given a “sorry I got it wrong” apology.
Both lawyers mentioned Earl Hagaman’s poor health (he is dying) but that shouldn’t affect legal arguments.
From what I can see this mostly comes down to two things:
- The responsibility of the Leader of the Opposition to hold the Government to account.
- The responsibility of politicians to make sure they have solid grounds for making serious accusations against the Government and by association if not directly against private citizens and companies.
The judge will have more to say about what the case hinges on. Then it will be up to the jury.