Williams versus Craig in the Supreme Court

The Jordan Williams versus Colin Craig defamation saga reached the Supreme Court this week. Most media must be over this spat as it was largely ignored.

But for those who aren’t over it yet, Asher Emanuel covered it well for The Spinoff – ‘Who do you despise more?’ Jordan Williams and Colin Craig at the Supreme Court

The jury seem to have despised Craig the most, but the trial judge said that tainted their decision.

Here’s the ‘the very abbreviated version” of the background:

Earlier this year an appeal court said that these long-running defamation proceedings had “exposed serious flaws in the characters of both protagonists”, which is also a fair description of the events which led to this week’s Supreme Court hearing.

In the weeks before the 2014 general election, polls showed the Conservative Party to be a genuine prospect to enter parliament. Two days before the vote, Colin Craig’s press secretary, Rachel MacGregor, resigned unexpectedly. The party ended up falling a percentage point short of the threshold required to make it.

After the election, MacGregor told Williams, an acquaintance of hers, that Craig had sexually harassed her. She later filed a claim of sexual harassment with the Human Rights Tribunal, which was settled in mediation with Craig in early 2015. The settlement included a confidentiality agreement and she considered the matter at an end.

Despite promising MacGregor and her lawyer he would keep her story and documents she’d entrusted to him confidential, Williams used the information in what a judge later described as a “campaign” to have Craig removed as leader of the party. Williams told the party board members, informed Garth McVicar of the Sensible Sentencing Trust that he should prepare to fill the party leadership, and authored posts for Whale Oil under the pen name “Concerned Conservative” alleging Craig sexually harassed MacGregor as well as publishing a poem Craig had sent her.

Craig responded by calling a press conference to announce a pamphlet he’d put together about “the dirty politics agenda and what they have been up to in recent weeks”. There had been a campaign of defamatory lies about him, he said. He’d never sexually harassed anybody, claims otherwise were false, and in the next 48 hours he would be suing Jordan Williams, Cameron Slater, and a member of the Conservative Party board member John Stringer for $300,000, $650,000 and $600,000 respectively.

At a cost of $250,000 he had the pamphlet — replete with strange capitalisation, a cartoon and an obviously fictitious interview between Colin Craig and a Mr X (actually also Colin Craig) — sent to 1.6 million homes.

Williams sued Craig, saying Craig had defamed him by calling him a liar and implying Williams was dishonest, deceitful, a serial liar, not to be trusted, and lacking in integrity. Williams won and was awarded $1.27 million, the largest defamation award ever made in New Zealand. (The trial judge did, though, find there was some evidence that Williams had been dishonest and deceitful, and could not be trusted.)

Both Craig and Williams had their reputations tarnished by the trial, but the jury decided that Craig’s responses to Williams’ attacks were excessive.

The appeal court worried that the size of the original award was more about punishing Craig than vindicating Williams’ reputation. Indeed, Craig’s lawyer had said, pretty candidly, that the he thought the jury “hated” Craig.

And Williams’ reputation was not worth $1.27 million.

“The trial process revealed that Mr Williams had accused Mr Craig of sexual harassment against Ms MacGregor but himself harboured offensive attitudes towards women,” the court said, referring to Facebook messages between Williams and Cameron Slater published by the hacker Rawshark and put in evidence by Craig.

“A damages award should restore Mr Williams’ reputation to the status it ought it to have enjoyed if this element of his character was known publicly. The law must be concerned with the reputation he deserved and compensate accordingly.”

Williams won’t have been well known to the general public but many of those who followed politics and ‘Dirty Politics’ are likely to have not rated his reputation highly before his spat with Craig.

And this week the spat reached the Supreme Court.

The precise legal issues involved are particularly technical and arcane — for instance, which elements of the defence of qualified privilege are for a judge to decide, and which are for a jury.

But the essence of each party’s case is simple enough. Williams wants the jury’s verdict to stand, including the enormous damages award. He disagrees with the trial judge’s decision to order a retrial of the whole case, and the appeal court decision that any damages should be far more modest.

Craig, presumably, just wants it all to go away. The jury shouldn’t have taken away his defence. He had been defending his political standing, his lawyer explained. He had retaliated to “protect his reputation as a man, a husband and a father.” Williams, by contrast, was overly hasty, exaggerated his claims, breached various assurances of confidentiality, was uninterested in evidence which contradicted his views, et cetera.

In this case, the privilege Craig relied on is the right to respond to an attack on one’s reputation. Williams attacked Craig, so Craig was entitled to respond. But there are limits. For instance, Craig would lose the defence if he was mainly motivated by “ill will”, including if he didn’t believe what he was saying was true.

Craig’s lawyer said he honestly believed that he had not sexually harassed MacGregor, and that the relationship was close and to some extent reciprocated. The judge’s instructions to the jury made it seem like it was easy for Craig to lose his defence, the lawyer argued.

Williams’ lawyer said Craig knew he sexually harassed MacGregor, he knew his remarks about Williams were false, and the defence was not available to him, as the jury decided.

The lawyers, who must have already cost their clients huge amounts of money, went over all of this over two days in front of five Supreme Court judges.

The outcome will be awaited. The jury’s verdict could be reinstated. A retrial could be ordered, either in whole or just on damages, which retrial could in turn give rise to further appeals, and so on and so on. Unfortunately, the courts cannot substitute their own view on damages unless the parties consent. And agreement to let the court assess damages has not been reached, despite some pleading from the appeals court.

In time a verdict will come out, but that will only determine who this saga will proceed to yet another court.

And that’s not all for Craig. He is still waiting for a verdict on his defamation and counter claim versus Cameron Slater, now well over a year after the trial. perhaps that has been waiting to see the outcome of this saga, as any monetary award would have to add up alongside whatever Williams ends up with being awarded.

And that’s not all for Slater – Blomfield v Slater trial date set

A defamation proceeding brought by Matthew Blomfield against Cameron Slater that was started in the District Court in 2012 will finally go to trial in the High Court in October. It will be judge only (no jury), and is expected to run for four weeks or six weeks (two recent judgments give different durations).

It’s hard to see there being any winners out of all of this, financially at least. The cost of taking defamation to court is horrendous, and as Williams and Craig have found out the cost to their reputations can be high as well.

13 Comments

  1. artcroft

     /  September 7, 2018

    I spoke to a friend recently who had known Craig well in the mid nineties. He said Craig was a generous, well regarded family man who opened his home to many in trouble. Sad to see today’s situation.

  2. Bill Brown

     /  September 7, 2018

    The Blomfield V Slater case won’t go ahead as [Deleted claims with no substantiation, and your record of accuracy is not good. We’ll see how this pans out. PG}

    • Bill Brown

       /  September 8, 2018

      [Deleted]

      All facts PG.

      [No, they are claims from you. I can’t trust your claims given your past record here under many pseudonyms, and your attempts with others to prosecute me based on bull.

      I’m not going to allow you to use Your NZ in your obviously ongoing feuds. Especially as you may be involved in future legal proceedings related to this I don’t think it prudent to let you loose here. PG]

      • Bill Brown

         /  September 9, 2018

        No feud Pete – just watching all unfold

        Maybe your a good bloke ?

        But know this – when the Blom chips are down it’s a mess

        • I think you’re a lot closer to this than just watching.

          Things sure look messy all round, but I’m happy to wait and see what the courts decide.

          • Bill Brown

             /  September 9, 2018

            Let’s see what plays out this week

            I don’t have a thing to worry about

            • Have to wait a lot longer than that. The trial isn’t set down until October. And going by other defamations it could be some time after that before a judgment comes out.

            • Bill Brown

               /  September 9, 2018

              Toogood J is the man of record for the Craig V Slater case – looks like (and who can blame) that the outcome of the Williams case seems to have kept the judgement from being finislised

            • Bill Brown

               /  September 9, 2018

              I will send you all the docs – then you can read up on what’s what

            • Six years worth of docs? I’m happy to wait for an outcome/judgment, if that ever happens.

  3. Gezza

     /  September 7, 2018

  4. Tipene

     /  September 7, 2018

    “Heav’n has no rage like love to hatred turn’d / Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d.”

  1. Williams versus Craig in the Supreme Court — Your NZ – NZ Conservative Coalition