NBR found to have defamed Steven Joyce

A column written by Matthew Hooton and published in NBR in March 2018 has been found to have been defamatory. Hooton himself apologised for assertions he made and contributed to costs, but the publication itself claimed otherwise, held out and ended up in court and now on the losing end of a judgment.

Joyce did not seek financial damages, instead seeking a declaration NBR at it’s publisher Todd Scott had defamed him and also costs, which could be substantial, defamation cases can be legally very costly.

Newsroom: Joyce defamed, NBR and publisher must pay

A High Court judge took just one week to decide the business website NBR and its publisher had separately defamed former finance minister Steven Joyce – and to order them to pay the ex MP’s legal costs.

The case is unusual in two respects. First, NBR held out against Joyce despite the author of the column that defamed him, Matthew Hooton, having apologised, retracted his statements and paid Joyce $5000 in costs 18 months ago.

And second, its publisher was found to have defamed Joyce by tweeting comments related to the column and Hooton, one of the first defamations by Twitter by a public figure.

The column, published in March 2018, included claims that Joyce had won just four votes other than his own in the National Party leadership contest, that he had used his proxy Communications Minister Amy Adams to try to help his “friends at Chorus”, and that he could “blackmail” the new leader Simon Bridges.

Scott later tweeted that “sources are solid” and Hooton had retracted his column for reasons other than it having been incorrect.

During the preliminary phases of the case, the parties went to judicial mediation under the Defamation Act. They heard from Justice Pheroze Jagose that the passages of the Hooton column could carry defamatory meanings – it could be taken by an ordinary reader to have accused Joyce of unethical and improper behaviour in pursuit of his own political ends.

He recommended NBR consider conceding and publishing a correction. It declined to do so.

Now, after a two-day hearing in the High Court at Auckland, Justice Jagose has found both NBR and Scott did defame Joyce.

JOYCE v HOOTON [2019] NZHC 3356 [17 DECEMBER 2019]

[1] The plaintiff (“Mr Joyce”) seeks declaratory and indemnity costs relief under s 24 of the Defamation Act 1992 (the “Act”) against the second defendant (“Fourth Estate”), which publishes The National Business Review (“NBR”) in print and website formats. Relief pleaded for my recommendation of a s 26 correction was not pursued.

[2] Mr Joyce alleges two specific passages in a NBR article titled “Joyce sacking first test of Bridges’ leadership” (and, in its print format, subtitled “National MPs have finally been allowed to express what they really think of the party’s unelected strategist”), published on 2 March 2018, are defamatory of him.

[37] I emphasise my meanings are the passages both imputed Mr Joyce’s preparedness to engage in poor conduct “in pursuit of his (rather than his party’s) political objectives”. They are not imputations of his poor conduct more generally. The limitation springs from the subject matter of Mr Hooton’s column. Their distinction from Mr Joyce’s pursuit of what may be his party’s political objectives also is important; even untrue allegations of sharp party-political conduct may not be defamatory.18 Although that is to find meanings divergent from those Mr Joyce pleads, their circumscription is less injurious than claimed by him, and I thus am free to find those lesser meanings established.19 Nonetheless, they are meanings of sufficient seriousness, of Mr Joyce’s significant and self-serving impropriety, to climb above defamation law’s disregard of trivialities.[41] Mr Joyce pleads against Mr Scott his three tweets “were intended, and would be reasonably understood to mean” the two passages were:

true, or not materially different from the truth;

retracted by [Mr Hooton] for reasons other than that they were untrue; responsibly and properly published by [Fourth Estate].

Mr Joyce pleads the tweets “accordingly amounted to a republication of the [passages’] defamatory imputations”.

[42] The pleading is of an innuendo: the tweets were “used in a defamatory sense other than [their] natural and ordinary meaning”.

[52] I do not see Mr Scott’s joinder as disproportionate at all. As I have explained, Mr Joyce is seeking vindication not only from the article’s defamatory comments, but also from Mr Scott’s (first and third) tweets’ endorsement of their truth. Mr Joyce seeks declarations both Fourth Estate and Mr Scott are liable to him in defamation. The coincidence in time – of Mr Scott’s first tweet with the NBR’s replacement of the article on its website, with Mr Hooton’s apology – identifies the separate defamatory nature of Mr Scott’s endorsement. There can be no suggestion Fourth Estate is vicariously liable for Mr Scott’s tweets, or the resource committed by Mr Scott’s joinder otherwise is disproportionate to Mr Joyce’s interests in being vindicated also from their innuendo.

[60] I declare Fourth Estate and Mr Scott separately each are liable to Mr Joyce in defamation. I award Mr Joyce solicitor and client costs against separately each Fourth Estate and Mr Scott.

Newsroom:

Joyce told Newsroom Tuesday night he was pleased to be vindicated. “It was important to me to set the record straight. It was about restoring my reputation and being made whole again in terms of meeting my costs.”

He had not sued for financial damages, just the judge’s declaration that NBR and Scott had defamed him and the costs order.

He said: “I tried to operate with integrity in my political career and in a place where I tried my absolute best. It meant a lot to me to be able to restore that after what was a pretty vicious article.”

Asked if he now expected an apology from the NBR or Scott, Joyce said he had not sought that in the High Court hearing. “If they had apologised at any point earlier in the process and paid the costs, we would not have needed to be here now.”

While Hooton’s apology had been welcome, “it was really important that the publisher makes the restitution in terms of the apology”.

Scott’s tweets had undermined Hooton’s apology. “The court has decided that’s not okay …. It was clear and obvious, and the judge has taken it to be clear, that they were effectively a re-statement, that the original story was accurate.”

Joyce said his costs had been significant as they covered the initial complaint, the mediation, an earlier aborted trial and the trial last week.

With Hooton having conceded his column was defamatory and apologising it must have always been a difficult case for NBR to defend.

Leave a comment

10 Comments

  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  18th December 2019

    The current owner of NBR is a bit strange but possibly politics is just not his thing. Or law.

    Reply
  2. Corky

     /  18th December 2019

    Does the NBR have a future after this?

    Reply
  3. Reply
  4. Duker

     /  18th December 2019

    Notice its decided by a High Court judge. No wonder its expensive for legal fees. No real reason these sorts of cases cant be held in District court.

    Stunned that the Judge only took a week to decide,up to a month should be the norm , rather than the 6-12 months that seems to be usual.
    I always saw long long time for decisions was a situation where litigious people have their file put to the bottom of the drawer by busy judges- thinking one of Slaters cases

    Reply
  5. duperez

     /  18th December 2019

    I’m just trying to sort out what all the general comments specifically mean.

    “It could be taken by an ordinary reader to have accused Joyce of unethical and improper behaviour in pursuit of his own political ends.”

    By my reading there were three claims:
    – Joyce had won just four votes other than his own in the National Party leadership contest,
    – he had used his proxy Communications Minister Amy Adams to try to help his “friends at Chorus”,
    – he could “blackmail” the new leader Simon Bridges.

    I can’t see the number of votes in a leadership contest, them being announced or the accuracy of them being matters likely to figure in consideration of ‘unethical and improper behaviour in pursuit of political ends.’

    The other two matters? I’m sure Steven Joyce would never in his career have used colleagues, especially powerful ones, to help friends in business enterprises or even contemplated that he could ‘blackmail’ a colleague for political advantage. I can’t think of what would have motivated Hooton to imagine that he could or would.🙃

    Reply
    • Duker

       /  18th December 2019

      What not mentioned is the elephant in the Room – Chorus- who benefited by a $900 mill cash injection from the government for 45% non voting , non dividend shares when Joyce was Communications Minister. National had claimed to be a free enterprise government and made much fuss of selling off shaes in Air NZ , and major power generators, as government ‘shouldnt be in business’

      Reply
      • Blazer

         /  18th December 2019

        and the bridging loan by the Govt for TV3 …an entity which included former Joyce company.

        Reply

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