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.

 

30 years of Rogernomics

Apparently today is the 30th anniversary of Rogernomics.

Stuff: Towns full of weeping women: Rogernomics, 30 years later

It was 30 years ago today. Former Cabinet minister Michael Bassett would go on to describe the anticipation, the nervous excitement, in his book Working with David: Inside the Lange Cabinet: “During the last days of March 1987 ministers held on to their hats, hoping that the first day of the SOEs wouldn’t result in too many April Fool’s Day jokes.”

April 1 was a Wednesday. Did it turn out to be funny? Not really. As Bassett writes, within a week of the radical conversion of government departments into State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), 4732 people had taken voluntary redundancy and another 100 went for early retirement. That is close to 5000 redundancies in one week, largely in small town and rural New Zealand.

Then-deputy prime minister Geoffrey Palmer predicted it would be the biggest change in New Zealand public sector history. He was right. It came as a kind of blitzkrieg. Then-finance minister Roger Douglas argued that it had to happen quickly. Bassett: “Speed was enormously important to managing change. As [then-minister of labour, state services and State Owned Enterprises] Stan Rodger would observe years later, sometimes there were so many rabbits loose in the field that opponents of change weren’t sure which to try to shoot.”

“In all, 19,133 departmental workers in Lands and Survey, Forestry, the Electricity Division, Civil Aviation, State Coal and the Government Accommodation Board were affected by the changes,” Bassett wrote.

Act fast and keep them guessing. In the 1980s, this was called Rogernomics rather t

Muldoon sought Reagan’s help in NZ election

David Fisher has been searching the database of CIA files that has just become available online. It shows that Robert Muldoon sought help from President Ronald Reagan to help him get re-elected in 1981.

Inside the top secret CIA files on New Zealand – who they spied on and what they said

The papers repeatedly mentioned Muldoon’s appreciation of the relationship with the US and a 1981 briefing from the CIA to the White House showed it was reciprocated.

A memo to President Reagan pointed out Muldoon had a “difficult” election that year and the visit to the US was an “opportunity to show the New Zealand people that he is an international leader of some stature who is taken seriously in Washington”.

It was suggested Muldoon would welcome an “expression of hope” from President Reagan “that he will emerge victorious”.

I don’t know whether Reagan publicly supported Muldoon. He had taken over as US president in January 1981.

National won the November 1981 election with a majority of just one after a recount gave them a 150 vote majority in the Gisborne electorate.

1981 was dominated by the Springbok tour, and National campaigned on their ‘Think Big’ policy, but a word from Reagan (if he gave it)may have made a difference.

By the time of the key 1984 election, the CIA prepared a full biography of Muldoon.

“Now in his 14th year as Minister of Finance, he fancies himself as one of the senior statesmen on the international financial scene.”

It described Muldoon’s success with NZ’s economy as “limited” but said it had “not deterred him from preaching international monetary reform to world leaders … at every opportunity”.

Muldoon’s ‘success’ was less than ‘limited’, his mismanagement and interventions had just about wrecked the New Zealand economy.

The country’s economy was in a dire situation when National under Muldoon lost the snap (or schnapps) election in 1984 in a landslide to Labour under David Lange.

The CIA also warned that a Labour victory “would create difficulties in the US relationship”. It was also concerned at the resurgent nuclear-free movement which was being pushed by Labour.

Self interest. The nuclear ships ban that eventuated led to the US creating difficulties for themselves in their relationship wit New Zealand, pretty much out of spite.

“Unable to come up with policies of its own to cure New Zealand’s economic ills, Labour sees political benefit in identifying with a fear of nuclear contamination that is widespread and growing in New Zealand and which spans the political spectrum,” the CIA report stated.

So Labour duped the US just as they duped the New Zealand voters.

Before Lange was sworn in a foreign exchange crisis arose. The NZ dollar was overvalued and following the announcement of the snap election in June traders started selling it off on the assumption that Labour would win the election and devalue the currency.

Muldoon refused to follow Lange’s instruction to devalue the currency, making the dollar’s situation more untenable, but eventually relented.

Lange’s government had to deal with a severe balance of payments crisis as a result of the deficits fueled by Muldoon’s  two-year freeze on wages and prices and his maintenance of an unsustainable exchange rate.

This prompted the incoming Minister of Finance Roger Douglas to launch into economic reforms that were largely successful in starting a cure of New Zealand’s economic ills (Muldoonitis).

It would be interesting to know whether it was common for New Zealand politicians to seek public support from US presidents in our elections, and whether any presidents openly chose sides.

CIA database online

The CIA has just put a large database of documents online.

Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room

This includes things like the declassified President’s Daily Briefs (PDBs) from the Nixon and Ford presidential administrations.

It also has documents related to New Zealand. David Fisher has done some searching.

NZH: Inside the top secret CIA files on New Zealand – who they spied on and what they said

…reveals internal Central Intelligence Agency reports which detail the inner workings of New Zealand political parties, briefings on our Prime Ministers and the times we have upset the most powerful nation in the world.

Among the 13 million pages of records are almost 4000 CIA documents which reference New Zealand, dating from as early as a 1948 report on US claims to islands in the Pacific.

The bulk of the CIA’s previously top-secret reports come from the 1970s and 1980s with a strong focus on New Zealand’s move towards becoming nuclear-free.

The most recent report discovered by the Herald is from 1988, when the CIA wrote of its perceived increase in “racial tension” as a result of Waitangi Tribunal findings.

On New Zealand’s nuclear stance:

The CIA’s belief former Prime Minister David Lange accidentally backed himself into a corner on the nuclear-free issue, and US concerns the policy could spread throughout the Pacific.

While it stated that “Lange has privately assured US officials that he is personally satisfied that nuclear propulsion is safe” and it was weapons over which he held concerns, the CIA stated that Labour’s policy appeared to cover both.

A report after Lange became Prime Minister blamed “his penchant for speaking off the cuff in press interviews” which had “inched him into a trap from which he could not extricate himself”. The CIA believe that sank Lange’s expectation the US would be forced to compromise on his terms.

The revelation that New Zealand’s nuclear free stance – for which we were punished for decades – didn’t make any difference to the US from a military perspective.

This isn’t surprising, the nuclear issue was mostly political posturing from both New Zealand and the US, although it was important for New Zealand as being prepared to hold our ground against the attempted coercion of a super power.

On Muldoon:

A detailed biography of former Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon and detailed accounting of his pro-US sympathies, including that Muldoon saw himself as a world leader in financial leadership despite “limited achievements” at home.

 

In a 1978 report, Muldoon was described as “second to none in his high regard for the US” who believed “more than his predecessors” that NZ needed the US for security. However, with “characteristic bluntness” Muldoon had told the US that he felt it did not do enough to balance out NZ’s contribution to the Anzus relationship.

McCarthy and communism:

A McCarthy-era report into communism in New Zealand – a concern which was present throughout the documents into the late 1980s.

Pervasive through the reports was the CIAs fear that Soviet Russia would take advantage of the situation, with reports detailing suspected communist activity across the Pacific and inside the Labour Party.

Ken Douglas – mentioned in the CIA reports – was in trade union leadership at the time and said he was not surprised to be mentioned. “That was just a reaction to the Cold War hysteria that was around at the time.”

More in Muldoon sought Reagan’s help in NZ election.