John Stringer loses defamation case against Colin Craig

Ex-Conservative Party member John Stringer has lost a defamation case against his former party leader Colin Craig, adding to the list of court failures in the aftermath of the attacks on Craig run on the Whale Oil blog.

[1] In July 2015, after the implosion of the Conservative Party, Mr Colin Craig and Mrs Helen Craig said Mr Craig had been the victim of dirty politics as the Party’s former leader. They named three individuals as responsible, including Mr John Stringer, a former Conservative Party Board member. They gave a press conference and published a booklet saying so and distributed it to 1.63 million households in New Zealand. Mr Craig made other public statements saying so. The booklet was moderated, anonymously, by Mr Stephen Taylor. Party officials, Mrs Angela Storr and Mr Kevin Stitt, emailed updates to Conservative Party members about Mr Stringer and Mr Craig’s booklet and legal proceedings.

[2] Mr Stringer sues the five of them for defamation…The defendants fairly characterise their statements as falling broadly into six categories of meanings regarding Mr Stringer, that he: lied or is a liar; engaged in attack politics; coordinated with others to target Mr Craig; seriously breached the Conservative Party’s rules; acted unlawfully (by defaming Mr Craig); and betrayed others. The defendants did publish the statements complained of, most of which were defamatory of Mr Stringer. But, I hold:

(a) Mr and Mrs Craig have qualified privilege for all of their defamatory statements because they were made in response to Mr Stringer’s attacks on them. The force and vigour of their responses were not out of proportion to his, were not made in bad faith and were made for the purpose for which the privilege is accorded. With one exception, Mr and Mrs Craig’s defamatory statements of fact were also true or not materially different from the truth. Their defamatory statements of opinion were their genuine opinions and based on facts that were true or not materially different from the truth.

(b) Mr Taylor knew his moderation of the booklet would encourage its publication and he had the opportunity to influence, significantly, whether the statements were published. So, at law, he also published the defamatory statements. But the defences of qualified privilege for response to attack, truth and honest opinion protect him as they do the Craigs.

(c) Mrs Storr and Mr Stitt’s statements were made in discharge of their duty to communicate with party members and therefore benefit from the defence of qualified privilege of a duty to publish. They were also either true or their honest opinions.

[3] Accordingly, Mr Stringer’s claims all fail….

[10] By early 2015, there were persistent leaks of Board information to the media and, in particular, to Whale Oil, then one of the most read blogs in New Zealand. It is now clear, including by Mr Stringer’s admissions under cross-examination at trial, that Mr Stringer had been feeding information to the Deputy Editor of Whale Oil, Mr Pete Belt, from at least 15 November 2014…

[11] On 28 February 2015, in chairing a Board meeting, Mr Dobbs reminded Board members of their confidentiality obligations. All Board members, including Mr Stringer, re-signed the Party’s Code of Conduct which said, among other things, that “[a]ll media correspondence with regard to The Conservative Party of NZ business must be issued through the Party Leader, President or Press Secretary”.They also all signed a confidentiality agreement …

[12] Despite this, on 5 March 2015, Mr Stringer provided further suggestions to Mr Belt about possible stories regarding the Conservative Party…

Feel free to say you approached me, “but he declined to comment, citing Board confidentialities” but did say there were some widespread concerns over various matters the Party was seeking to resolve as amicably as possible.

In all other respects, cite “A Party member.” (Don’t mention Board as source). Is it better that we chat?

Stringer sent a text to Jordan Williams:

Pathetic jellyfish on Board wouldn’t even agree to release stmnt accepting CCs resignation last night. Done with them. Going nuclear. Time to carpet bomb the Colin Craig cult compound, make sure this clown doesn’t come back …

Getting so drawn into this now; and WO and I are gonna take him on if he goes us legally; wod kinda like opportunity to actually site the folders if at all possible, read the texts. I’m only responding to hearsay and accusations so far.

More from the judgment:

[19] On 21 June 2015, Mr Stringer emailed Mr Watkin at TV3, saying Whale Oil had a “‘nuclear bomb’ re Colin and may disclose this week”

So Stringer, Williams, Pete Belt and Cameron Slater were all involved to various extents at Whale Oil.

[102] It is simply not credible that Mr Stringer did not understand the effect of feeding information to Mr Belt. Mr Stringer was sending emails to Mr Belt about scandalous topics of current interest. Mr Stringer is an experienced political operative. His wife attested to that. 

A person of Mr Stringer’s experience with the media would have expected that the information and allegations he was sending Mr Belt would end up on the Whale Oil blog. I do not believe his protestations to the contrary. Indeed, his email of 26 February 2015 was explicit in asking Mr Belt to “hold off publication” because of a “witch-hunt” due to a previous Whale Oil post. Mr Stringer’s email to Mr Belt of 21 June 2015 said “not for publication yet, lets wait for Magic Hands replies”. And despite Ms Rankin expressing to him her outrage about the Walden report being leaked to Whale Oil, Mr Stringer continued to feed stories to Mr Belt, as he had leaked that report. 

It was entirely foreseeable that providing salacious allegations and confidential information to the Deputy Editor of the Whale Oil blog would result in it ending up on that blog. I consider the evidence establishes Mr Stringer knew full well what he was doing when he emailed Mr Belt. He was providing a stream of leaked information and damaging allegations about Mr Craig for possible publication on the Whale Oil blog, including when he was a member of the Board of the Conservative Party. He was working with Whale Oil to attack and undermine Mr Craig.

[159] If successful, Mr Stringer sought declarations, damages, aggravating damages and, apparently, punitive damages against the defendants, amounting to a total of over $3.5 million dollars. I agree with the point Mr Akel offered in submission, that it is too late for Mr Stringer to put punitive damages under s 28 of the Act in issue, when he failed to do so in his pleading. I also accept Mr Akel’s point that Mr Stringer’s own conduct would be relevant to any damages award if he were successful. He provided a link to, and argued against the booklet, republished the three Party updates on his own blog and even used the term “Judas” as a heading for one of his own cartoons on his blog.And I accept the defendants’ submission that the amounts claimed are divorced from reality. But, as it is, Mr Stringer has not succeeded in any of his claims.

[161] Mr Stringer’s suit was misconceived. I dismiss his claim.

The public accusations against Colin Craig that destroyed the already failed Conservative Party led to a number of defamation trials that have kept courts busy for years.

This all blew up in 2015, driven by Cameron Slater and the Whale Oil blog, with Jordan Williams supplying information he had access to in confidence, Williams deemed the public good justified breaching that confidence, but dirty politics and self interest seemed to be prominent.

The ‘public good’ seemed to be an attempt to destroy the Conservative Party (it succeeded), or to oust Craig as leader and install different leadership.

Slater and Whale Oil also tried to have Auckland mayor Len Brown deposed just after the 2013 election with what amounted to a series of sleazy attacks. Brown served his term and then stood down.

Following a flurry of accusations and counter attack from Craig, Williams went to court and had a big win (awarded 1.27 million by a jury) against Craig, but that has been set aside after legal challenges and appeals, and was finally settled last December: Colin Craig receives apology, compensation from Jordan Williams

A long and bitter court feud between former Conservative Party leader Colin Craig and Jordan Williams has been settled, with an apology and compensation from Williams.

In the first High Court case, a jury had found overwhelmingly for Williams and awarded him $1.27 million in damages – a record for defamation awards in New Zealand.

But the Supreme Court found the High Court jury had been materially misdirected and the case should be run again.

“My options are to settle, however much it sticks in the throat, go bankrupt, or incur huge debt to fight on,” said Williams.

“With the comments the appeal judges have made about limits to damages in defamation, no one rational would go for the retrial.”

On Tuesday, Craig sent out a press release saying he’d received a full apology and a payment from Williams, after Williams admitted making false allegations about him.

It means a retrial of a case in which Williams accused Craig of defamation will not go ahead.

“I wish to apologise publicly for the untrue statements I have made about Mr Craig,” the apology from Williams said.

Now John Stringer loses defamation court battle against former Conservative party leader Colin Craig

Former Conservative Party leader Colin Craig has won a legal defamation battle with the party’s ex-board member John Stringer.

During a High Court trial in August 2019, Stringer claimed the booklet – Dirty Politics and Hidden Agendas – sent to 1.6m households by Craig and his wife Helen in July 2015, hurt his political aspirations.

He took the Craigs to court for defamation, as well as Stephen Taylor, who moderated the booklet, and party officials Angela Storr and Kevin Stitt, who emailed supporters updates about Stringer and the booklet.

At the trial, Stringer claimed the booklet was designed to defame him “to as wide an audience as possible” and alleged he was involved in a “dirty politics conspiracy”.

Stringer also used Whale Oil in the stoush and afterwards so yeah.

In 2016, Stringer ran for a Christchurch City Council seat in the Papanui ward, but lost to current councillor Mike Davidson.

He claimed members of the public subsequently told him “that Colin Craig stuff” hurt his campaign.

Before the 2017 general election, Stringer was actively considered by NZ First as a potential candidate in South Canterbury’s Rangitata electorate.

However, Stringer said the person organising his candidacy later said the party wanted to withdraw it, “because I was one of those dirty politics brigade fellows”.

In a recently-released judgement on the matter, Justice Matthew Palmer found the Craigs were covered by qualified privilege for their statements as they were made in response to Stringer attacking them.

“The force and vigour of their responses were not out of proportion to his, were not made in bad faith and were made for the purpose for which the privilege is accorded.”

Their statements were factual, with the exception of one, he said.

“Their defamatory statements of opinion were their genuine opinions and based on facts that were true or not materially different from the truth.”

He added that as moderator of the booklet, Taylor was technically the publisher of the defamatory statements when it came to the law.

However, the defence of qualified privilege and truth and honest opinion protected him also.

As it was Storr and Stitt’s duty to communicate with party members, they were also protected.

Justice Palmer dismissed Stringer’s defamation claim, which he said was “misconceived”.

I think there was a lot ‘misconceived’ in the attack on Craig and his counter attack.

Williams must be out of pocket by a substantial amount.

Slater is bankrupt due to multiple defamation failures (he appeared to see defamation as a money making scheme, especially after the original award in Williams’ favour when Slater launched into his own case against Craig.

Craig made now monetary claim against Stringer who was already not in a position to pay anything.

Dirty politics via Whale Oil has been an expensive own goal for a number of people using the blog to attack people.

Judgment: Stringer v Craig [2020] NZHC 644 (3 April 2020)

 

Leave a comment

3 Comments

  1. Griff.

     /  6th April 2020

    Conservative Party
    Karma.
    NZ is a better place for their efforts in collective self immolation..

    Reply
    • Duker

       /  6th April 2020

      I hope NZ has passed the Ceasar wanna -bes stage who think their money will make them political king makers
      Far far better to have a big fat cheque and get Simon to kiss your shiny ring

      Reply
  2. Duker

     /  6th April 2020

    “with Jordan Williams supplying information he had access to in confidence”
    That means he was getting it from Mcgregor herself….the in confidence bit was a smokescreen as Williams has always been a political animal and nothing would have stayed secret. The whole story has hallmarks of a bad KGB honeypot thriller .
    Stringer was a sort of paid operative/ for one of the earlier Christian parties at the start of MMP era and was a colleague of Farrars in the Nats ‘research unit’

    Reply

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