Shadbolt, Southland Times no guilty of defamation

Invercargill mayor says that a defamation case in which he was found not guilty the local government equivalent of the David Lange defamation case.

The case pitted a city councillor against her mayor (and the local newspaper).

RNZ – Defamation trial: Not guilty verdict good for councils – Shadbolt

A jury on Friday found Mr Shadbolt and the Southland Times newspaper not guilty of defaming Karen Arnold in a series of columns in 2014 and 2015.

Ms Arnold had argued she was portrayed by the mayor in the columns as unprofessional and a leaker of confidential documents.

Mr Shadbolt said the verdict was highly significant for freedom of speech.

“If we really want to criticise our mayors or if our mayors want to cristicise their councillors, it certainly gives a lot more room for them to do that and I think as a result it will lead to much healthier debate around the council table.”

Mr Shadbolt said his case was the local government equivalent of the David Lange defamation case 20 years ago.

Stuff (which includes the Southland Times): Defamation proceedings against Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt and Stuff fail

Invercargill City councillor Karen Arnold had sued Shadbolt and Stuff, formerly Fairfax Media, for defamation over comments made by Shadbolt in four columns published in The Southland Times in 2014 and 2015.

She claimed a number of defamatory meanings could be drawn from the columns, which discussed her position on council matters, including the council’s trading company Holdco and a proposed kākāpō display.

The meanings alleged by Arnold included that she was dishonest, had leaked confidential documents, had colluded with a defunct ratepayers group and had acted inappropriately by engaging in debate about the “kākāpōrium” after declaring a conflict of interest.

The jury found Arnold had proved some of the alleged meanings, but did not find any of these to be defamatory. However, after the verdict, the judge granted her lawyers’ request to make a court application to determine whether the verdicts for the first three columns were legally sound.

Arnold is considering whether to appeal.

Stuff editorial director Mark Stevens said he was pleased with the jury’s decision.

“We always felt that at the heart of this case was the very important editorial principle of freedom of expression and it’s great for the industry and the craft of journalism to have this outcome”.

Speaking outside the courthouse Shadbolt said he was “absolutely relieved” by the decision, which came three years after the statements in question.

During the trial his lawyer had warned a decision against his client could have a chilling effect on political speech, however Shadbolt said the jury had sided with “freedom of speech and freedom of expression”.

“It’s a landmark case and it’s also a defence not just of sincere conversation, but of satire, humour, being able to enjoy politics, which I’ve always tried to do.”

Shadbolt said the decision had confirmed those in local government could “express ourselves”, but rejected the working relationship between him and Arnold would be strained as a result: “I think both parties will be very keen to get back … to work”

That working relationship must have changed after this.

In his closing address, Stuff’s lawyer Robert Stewart asked the jury if the meanings alleged would be evident to a reasonable reader or to someone “who sees conspiracies that don’t exist”.

Arnold’s lawyer Peter McKnight said the meanings were clear. He told the court Shadbolt “loathed” his client, that there was no factual basis for his statements and he was simply “out to give Karen Arnold some decent swipes”.

The sentiment was denied by the Shadbolt camp. His lawyer Felix Geiringer said that while it was true the pair did not “get on”, he was within his rights to criticise her and otherwise he was giving his opinion on local political matters.

Some big name out of town lawyers there. It won’t have been a cheap trial for any of the parties.

Arnold alleged Stuff was irresponsible and reckless in the way it published the columns, in part because only one staff member – long-term Southland Times features editor Mike Fallow – checked them without referral to editor Natasha Holland or a lawyer.

This, in McKnight’s reckoning, was “totally irresponsible”. However, Stuff’s chief executive Sinead Boucher said she would have personally published the columns and the checking process they went through was appropriate for a modern news organisation.

Geiringer told the jury freedom of speech was particularly important in this case. He argued there would be a chilling effect on political speech and publishers’ willingness to provide a platform if the jury found against his client.

Their decision would have, he said, a “substantial impact on the society we live in”, whereas McKnight contended it was “very important that we as a society protect the reputations of politicians from unwarranted attack”.

There is a well known precedent that specifically applies to criticism of politicians.

The case provided a basis for the Lange defence – a legal precedent that allowed news organisations to report harsh criticism of politicians, provided they were not reckless or motivated by malice – to apply not just to parliamentarians, but local body politicians.

TEARA: David Lange, defamation and media freedom

In the October 1995 issue of North and South magazine, political scientist Joe Atkinson suggested that former Prime Minister David Lange had been too lazy to take on the difficult aspects of that job. The accompanying cartoon played with the article’s suggestion that Lange suffered from ‘false-memory syndrome’ in his portrayal of himself as prime minister – as well as his comments about hotel breakfasts in New Zealand.

David Lange, defamation and media freedom

Lange considered the article (and cartoon) to be defamatory and took Atkinson to court in 1996.

After the case went through a series of courts, the Court of Appeal eventually decided that journalists had a defence of ‘qualified privilege’ – meaning that they could criticise politicians on the basis of their ‘honest belief’. The findings in the case have given New Zealand media greater freedom to comment on the performance of politicians.

The Southland case is different in that it was a councillor versus the mayor.

 

1 Comment

  1. Gezza

     /  March 20, 2018

    I suppose the case is important to Southlanders. Dunno exactly what Shadbolt said though – the article doesn’t say. This was interesting:

    “Arnold alleged Stuff was irresponsible and reckless in the way it published the columns, in part because only one staff member – long-term Southland Times features editor Mike Fallow – checked them without referral to editor Natasha Holland or a lawyer.

    This, in McKnight’s reckoning, was “totally irresponsible”. However, Stuff’s chief executive Sinead Boucher said she would have personally published the columns and the checking process they went through was appropriate for a modern news organisation.

    In other words – don’t bother too much with any checking.