Craig v Slater – trial summary

Steve Braunias covered the Colin Craig versus Cameron Slater defamation trial for NZ Herald and summarises in Craig v Slater: The end of the affair – here’s a summary of that.

Craig claimed Slater libelled him on Whaleoil. Slater counter-claimed Craig libelled him in Dirty Politics and Hidden Agendas, a piece of fulminating junk mail delivered to 1,623,402 letterboxes. Their judge-alone trial was set down for three weeks. It dragged on for four, fizzling out on Thursday afternoon.

What was all that about? What was the point of the exercise, what was the moral of the story? Can any sense be made of it?

The key questions are what Justice Toogood makes of it. In short, who defamed who (or not), and what value damages can be applied if any.

The judgment could provide a useful legal guide to what is appropriate for a blog to publish when revealing alleged wrong doing of a politician, and also what is an appropriate level of response to a perceived political attack.

The problem they had with each other dated back to 2014, at the last election. Craig’s Conservative Party lost out on getting into Parliament and one of the factors may have been the abrupt and most newsworthy departure of his press secretary, Rachel MacGregor, 48 hours before election day. She later accused Craig of sexual harassment and took his ass to the Human Rights Commission. It was settled in mediation.

There it might have remained, but Slater posted spectacular revelations on his blog which set out to expose Craig as a lunging, panting, poetry-writing sex pest. Craig said: “See you in court!” Slater more or less responded: “Not if I see you first!”

Craig filed for defamation against Slater, and Slater filed for defamation against Craig. The trial combined these counter claims.

Craig defended himself. He learned on the job; he was amateur, and rambling, and now and then was the cause of much vexatiousness to Justice Toogood, but he kept his cool and was methodical, sometimes effective.

Slater was able to sit back in the far corner of the public gallery and chew gum. He was represented by Brian Henry and Charlotte Foster.

(Henry’s) closing addressed the matter of costs; his client, he said, was seeking $450,000, and then there was his own fees, which were $12,000 for every day of the trial.

$450,000 is a lot more realistic than the over $16 million mentioned in opening arguments in the trial.

Craig and Slater were like shadows of their former selves at the trial; 2014, the setting of much of what was said in court, was when both were key players in New Zealand politics, were taken seriously, were in the public eye.

Craig has disappeared since he stepped down as leader.

Slater, too, seems like a blast from the past. His media profile was immense until the wrecking ball of Nicky Hager’s 2014 book Dirty Politics.

The influence of both in politics has diminished significantly since their very public clash.

Which left the sex, or the absence thereof. Henry argued that it was entirely fair and accurate of Slater to write that Craig had sexually harassed MacGregor when she worked for him as press secretary.

Craig argued it was a total slander. It didn’t happen; it couldn’t happen; for it was his duty to tell the court that MacGregor found him sexually attractive, that they had an “emotional affair”, that she came onto him on a flight to Napier … They were chaste, but their sexual longing was epic. It was, Craig stressed, a love story.

“It’s a figment of his imagination,” said Henry.

“Weird,” said MacGregor, over and over, describing Craig when she appeared in court. She was subpoenaed to give evidence against Craig at the trial. She might be described as a hostile witness, which is to say her contempt for Craig was thick, constant, thorough.

Notably more hostile than when she appeared as a witness in Williams v Craig.

Craig told the court that they had different stories: “One of them must be right. They both can’t be true.” And so he set about trying to establish a reasonable doubt as to the accuracy of MacGregor’s story.

The credibility of Craig versus MacGregor is a critical aspect of the case. It is for Justice Toogood to work this out.

…from Madeleine Flannagan, the Orewa lawyer who Craig called to give evidence. She told the court an astonishing story. As Henry later said, in his closing address, “In my 42 years in the law, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Flannagan said she had acted for the Craigs when they were wanting to adopt a child. Their application, she said, faced a potential barrier when Slater made it public that he had information MacGregor wasn’t the only person to fall foul of Craig, that there were “other victims”.

What to do? Flannagan came up with a novel idea: she would phone Slater, who happened to be a friend, and ask him what he had on Craig – without revealing that Craig was her client. Slater took her call to mean that her client was, in fact, another “victim”. He was very, very eager to want to believe that, she said.

Craig had fought to get Flannagan admitted as a witness. It was a victory he must have savoured. Her evidence was designed to make Slater look bad in court. Well, it was a hell of a way to go about it. As Slater subsequently said to Henry on the witness stand, “I’m lost for words, Mr Henry, at the betrayal of someone who I considered a friend.”

Reported during the trial:

Justice Kit Toogood asked Slater: “You say you felt betrayed, but did you not betray her express injunction that this [conversation] cannot go anywhere else?”

“I did dance around on that but I guess technically I did,” Slater said.

This is another key aspect of the trial because it seems to be the potentially Slater’s biggest vulnerability – whether his claims of a ‘second victim’ were true or not, whether based on fact or assumption.

UPDATE: Slater has revealed that he tried to suppress information about Flannagan “to protect a source”:

Flannagan seems to be under the impression that I called her as a witness. I did not. It was Colin Craig. What she does not know is that up until Colin Craig declared her to be his witness I had sought and won suppression orders for her name, her practice and her location. Colin Craig opposed all of those.

I sought to protect a source until a) the judge ordered me to file a confidential memo to him only naming my source and the circumstances of our conversations and b) it was revealed by Colin Craig that she was his lawyer. After that the gloves came off and rightly so too.

Presumably he also preferred that her evidence wasn’t heard in the case.

‘Whaleoil staff’ have suggested that Slater is unhappy that this evidence was allowed. It will be up to Justice Toogood to decide how much veracity and weight it will be given.

Braunias:

Craig brought 13 separate causes of action against Slater in his defamation claim. He made what seemed to be a pretty good job in arguing that at least a few of Slater’s remarks were a nonsense – the accusation that there were “other victims”, and that Craig paid MacGregor a kind of hush payment of $107,500 to settle her sexual harassment complaint. Neither stacked up.

Equally, though, Henry raised strong arguments that Slater’s opinions ought to be protected by qualified privilege. The nature of Craig’s resignation as Conservative Party leader, for example, was the subject of perfectly legitimate media inquiry, he said; Slater was just one of many media commentators expressing strong opinions about that, so what was the problem?

Henry put it even more long-winded than that. Justice Toogood attempted an edit.

“Is it your point, Mr Henry, really this – once Mr Craig elected to call a press conference, to say, ‘I’m standing down’, that created legitimate media and public interest, and from there on in, any allegation that Mr Slater, or anyone else for that matter, was acting with an improper motive, can’t be sustained?”

“Yes, Your Honour,” said Henry, “that is a very apt summary.”

‘Whaleoil staff’ claims that Slater and Whale Oil only initiated the story and other media took over from there, but as I remember it WO also kept pushing it hard – including the later ‘second person’ claim of sexual harassment.

Such exchanges raised vaguely interesting issues about media practice, and press freedoms. But they were minor kinds of skirmishes. The trial kept coming back to its central theme – whether Craig sexually harassed MacGregor, or whether she returned his feelings.

The only two people who know the truth are Craig and MacGregor, and he has his version and she has hers, but very often it really didn’t look too good for Craig in court. MacGregor’s hatred for him was intense. Her denials of his story were vehement, disgusted, complete.

The judge will need to decide whether those expressed feelings now were true back in 2014 or have escalated since.

Press gallery journalist Barry Soper gave evidence, and talked about the widespread rumour that Craig and MacGregor were having an affair.

Craig: “Did you form any impression?”

Soper: “I thought the relationship was a very familiar one.”

“I did not sexually harass Miss MacGregor,” Craig droned, repeatedly, in his closing address on Thursday. He was stating things for the record but sometimes it felt as though he was talking to himself. “Ours was an affectionate, mutually appreciative relationship … Myself and Miss MacGregor took place in a workplace romance … At the very least, Miss MacGregor had feelings for me.”

He read out her texts and emails that were produced as exhibits. “Hug, hug, hug,” he recited. “Smiley face … Hug, hug.

An unwelcome personal relationship under pressure in a professional environment? Or at least some mutual involvement until it turned sour? Relationships gone bad and then raked over can both amplify and suppress.

The key points as I see it:

  • The nature of the relationship between Craig and MacGregor while MacGregor worked for Craig. I think it was inappropriate in a professional employer/employee situation, but whether it was sexual harassment is under dispute.
  • According to ‘Whaleoil staff’ Slater accepts he got the ‘second person’ claim wrong so how this affects the outcome may depend on whether Flannagan’s evidence is allowed.
  • Whether Slater’s posts at Whale Oil were an appropriate use of a blog/media in the circumstances, or whether they went to far.
  • Whether Craig’s response via press conferences and the pamphlet delivered throughout the country was acceptable in the circumstances, or was excessive.

Justice Toogood needs to work this all out in a legal context.

I won’t make any predictions, I have not heard the evidence and have only seen reports of the trial.

The verdict may favour one or the other of Craig or Slater, in which case both damages and costs may be awarded.

But if defamation is found proven against both of them then I presume the judge will decide on damages for each, and also costs, and they may partially or totally balance out to not much or nothing.

Hopefully the decision will be accepted and that will be the end of this matter, but both Craig and Slater have been involved in drawn out legal actions involving appeals so it may drag interminably on if either of them choose to take the decision to another level.

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14 Comments

  1. Tipene

     /  June 4, 2017

    The fatal flaw in Slater’s “bully-blog” approach in this entire matter was to assume that Craig, like so many before him whom Slater had “hate-jacked”, would not fight back.

    Power really is as power is perceived, and Craig predicted (rightly, as it turns out), that Slater didn’t actually have the stomach for a real toe-to-toe, away from the shield of his keyboard.

    That’s why Slater eventually had to hire himself a Lawyer – Slater realised (too late) that he was in way over his head regarding this matter.

    Those who had an agenda against Craig seemed to have “captured” the acclaimed (and unproven) MacGregor sexual harassment narrative for their own ends, and then allowed themselves to be led by the nose to the legal gallows as a result.

    Result?

    Williams: Million dollar – plus legal bill, for no recompense, and now most likely unemployable in his profession.

    Stringer: Lost his case to Craig, and his reputation as a thoroughly untrustworthy person is cemented for all time -who would hire him?

    Slater: We will wait and see – Hagar softened him up, Craig might yet finish him off.

    [Deleted, too much personal agenda rather than case commentary, and unknown legal situation. PG]

  2. Gezza

     /  June 4, 2017

    Nice summary from both Braunias & you imo PG. Eminently readable. I’m on someone’s side, but I’m not saying who. Will be interesting to see how precedent-setting His Honour’s decision is.

  3. Alan Wilkinson

     /  June 4, 2017

    I got bored halfway through. Did anyone come out looking clean? Did the judge get through the trial without rolling his eyes or shutting them? Truly bizarre.

    • Gezza

       /  June 4, 2017

      Al, you’re sounding like Trumpy. I’m not downticking ya, but ya came close.

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  June 4, 2017

        And I care? I’m sure this will be memorable for His Worship – should feature in his memoirs as a major test of his character and stamina.

        • Gezza

           /  June 4, 2017

          Well, I hoped you might, tbh. I don’t just hand out up or down votes willy nilly you know. ☹️

          • Alan Wilkinson

             /  June 4, 2017

            That’s certainly a triumph of hope over experience, G.

            • Gezza

               /  June 4, 2017

              You’re a hard bastard Wilkinson. A bastard’s bastard.

            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  June 4, 2017

              That’s the nicest thing you’ve said about me today, G.

  4. PDB

     /  June 4, 2017

    Both deserve scorn but I can see Slater coming out the so-called ‘winner’ with a small settlement in his favour.

    Two victims or not doesn’t really matter if proven that Craig had at least one sexual harassment victim. In the end the mail out of the ‘mister x’ pamphlet was a total over-reaction and that should be enough to see Craig lose.

  5. NOEL

     /  June 4, 2017

    Only thing I Want to know is slater a journalist or a blogger and the impact of a defamation decision on eithrr.

    • duperez

       /  June 4, 2017

      Changes in the world sees a weirdness with niceties and distinctions needing to be made between being a journalist and a blogger.

  6. Alf Garnett

     /  June 4, 2017

    Give the pair of them nothing. That will be justice served.

    • Gezza

       /  June 4, 2017

      Astronmical Court costs each … might be good. They could recover it eventually from the Movie Rights.