On 12 April 2017 Judge Katz J delivered a judgment in the defamation case brought by Jordan Williams against ex leader of the Conservative Party Colin Craig.
Judge Katz put aside the jury award of a record amount of damages of $1.27 million, ruling that it was excessive and would have amounted to a miscarriage of justice.
Unless Williams decides to walk away from the case it looks like it will have to go to another trial.
The full decision is here (PDF, 528KB)
Law Professor Andrew Geddis has a good summary of key legal points here: How to lose when you win. This explains Judge Katz’s reasoning well.
However Geddis avoids naming a person and a blog closely involved in the case – Cameron Slater and Whale Oil. Judge Katz describes how Williams used both to attack Craig, which prompted Craig’s retaliation that the jury ruled ill willed enough and/or took improper advantage of the occasion.
So I’ll have a look at the blogging aspects aspects of the case and connections made to Dirty Politics that are mentioned in the judgment.
 Ms MacGregor appears to have had little or no knowledge of what Mr Williams was doing. However, she had, by this time, become suspicious that Mr Williams may have taken copies of the letters Mr Craig had sent her, which she had stored in his office safe. On the morning that Mr Williams was scheduled to meet with Messrs Day and Dobbs she sent him an email requesting that he return the letters to her. She further stated in her email:
Do not copy them. I do not want them to be used against Colin. I want this whole thing to go away and for there to be no more trouble.
Mr Williams disregarded Ms MacGregor’s request.
 Mr Day met with Mr Craig on 19 June 2015 (the morning after he and Mr Dobbs had met with Mr Williams) and told him what an “informant” had told them. Mr Craig, by this time, was fairly sure who the informant was. Mr Craig agreed to stand down to enable the Board to undertake a full investigation of the issue.
Slater and Whale Oil get involved.
 That same morning Mr Williams, using the nom de plume “Concerned Conservative”, sent a draft blog post to blogger Cameron Slater for publication on the Whale Oil website. The draft blog post made allegations against Mr Craig of sexual harassment, a pay-out to a former staff member, and inappropriate touching. Mr Williams attached (without Ms MacGregor’s knowledge or consent) a photo of a poem Mr Craig had sent to Ms MacGregor, entitled “Two of Me”, and a photograph of Mr Craig’s signature at the bottom of a letter to Ms MacGregor.
 The Whale Oil website published the blog post immediately prior to (or possibly simultaneously with) a press conference called by Mr Craig to announce he was stepping aside. Over the course of the next three days, Whale Oil published a number of further articles containing allegations about Mr Craig and speculating about the leadership of the Conservative Party. Mr Williams was involved in instigating or drafting most of that material. These actions contributed to (but were not the sole cause of) what was described at trial as a subsequent “media firestorm.”
Those familiar with Whale Oil may recognise this modus operandi – providing Whale Oil with material that is either posted anonymously or under the authorship of ‘Cameron Slater’ as part of a sustained campaign against someone.
Similar tactics were described in Nicky Hager’s 2014 book Dirty Politics, including involvement of Williams with Slater, and the use of Whale Oil.
 On 29 July 2015 Mr Craig called a press conference, during which he read out the Remarks to the media. The Remarks included a number of statements about a group referred to as the “Dirty Politics Brigade”, identified as including Mr Williams, Mr Slater and Mr Stringer. Some of the key passages from the Remarks (with the words Mr Williams specifically complained of in italics) are as follows:
Today is a good day because this is the day we start to fight back against the Dirty Politics Brigade who have been running a defamatory strategy against me.
The first of the 2 major announcements today is the publication of a booklet that outlines the dirty politics agenda and what they have been up to in recent weeks. There is a copy here for each of you to take away after the statements today.
Although I was broadly aware of the dirty politics agenda, I have after all read Nicky Hager’s book, I had not expected to have such close and personal attention from them.
In our booklet we reveal that there has been a campaign of defamatory lies to undermine my public standing, a campaign that in the Dirty Politics Brigade’s own words they describe as a “strategy that is being worked out”. I shall briefly cover some of their lies so you have a taste of what the booklet contains.
The first false claim is that I have sexually harassed one or more persons. Let me be very clear, I have never sexually harassed anybody and claims I have done so are false.
The second false claim being bandied about by the Dirty Politics Brigade is that I have made a pay-out (or pay-outs) to silence supposed “victims”. Again this is nonsense. Take for example the allegations around my former press secretary. Let me be very clear, the only payment I have made to Miss MacGregor since her resignation is an amount of $16,000 which was part payment of her final invoice. It was a part payment because I disputed her account which I had every right to do. Claims of any other amounts being paid and especially the suggestions of large sums of hush money being paid are utterly wrong and seriously defamatory.
Again in a similar vein is the false allegation that I have sent sexually explicit text messages or “SEXTs” as they are known. Once more this is not true. I have never sent a sexually explicit text message in my life.
We identify in the booklet 3 key people in the campaign against me. Each of these will be held to account for the lies they have told. Formal claims are being prepared and I expect these persons will have formal letters from my legal team within the next 48 hours. Due to the serious, deliberate and repetitive nature of the defamatory statements I will, for the first time, be seeking damages in a defamation claim.
The first defamation action is against Mr Jordan Williams. I will be seeking damages from him of $300,000.
The second defamation action is against Mr John Stringer. I will be seeking damages from him of $600,000
The third defamation action is against Mr Cameron Slater. I will be seeking damages from him of $650,000.
Today the line is drawn. Either the dirty politics brigade is telling the truth or I am. The New Zealand public need certainty about the truth of these claims. This is about who is honest. Is Colin Craig telling the truth or is it the Dirty Politics Brigade. Let the courts judge this matter so we know whom to trust.
 The Leaflet was made available at the press conference and subsequently distributed nationwide to letterboxes. Key passages included the following (the words of specific complaint are again emphasised):
We are a nation that believes in a fair go. We want our referees to be fair and every game to be played in a sportsmanlike way. We do not like corrupt people, and honesty is one of our core values. We must therefore reject the “Dirty Politics Brigade” who are seeking to hijack the political debate in New Zealand.
This booklet details the latest action by the Dirty Politics Brigade, this time in an attack on Conservative Party leader, Mr Colin Craig. […]
Williams is a well-known member of the Dirty Politics Brigade having already been identified in the “Dirty Politics” book as “acting as an apprentice to … Slater”. He is a lawyer and currently works full time as a political lobbyist.
It was Williams who gathered the initial information and accusations against Craig. His source was Craig’s former press secretary Rachel MacGregor with whom Williams had a romantic relationship.
Using the information he had gathered, Williams built a compelling story of MacGregor’s alleged harassment which he supported by an “attack dossier” of information. His presentation of events was in part her story (as he says she told it to him), some personal notes by MacGregor regarding the matter, and selected details of alleged correspondence from Craig to MacGregor.
The allegations presented by Williams included claims that (a) Craig had sent MacGregor “SEXT” messages, (b) MacGregor had resigned due to harassment but was lured back by big money, and (c) Craig stopped paying MacGregor for 6 months and put sexual pressure on her with requests she stay the night.
These are false allegations and easily proved so. Sexually explicit texts, resignations, and invoicing/payment records are by nature documented events.
Once Williams had put together the “attack dossier” he provided the details to Cameron Slater [Whaleoil] which ensured that there would be a media agenda at work against Craig.
Williams however did not stop there. He also had confidential meetings/discussions with people including some of Craig’s key supporters and Board members. In these “confidential” discussions Williams would attack Craig’s character undermining support for him. Williams was always careful that Craig did not know of the meetings, that no copies of the supposed “evidence” were taken, and that his [Williams’] involvement was kept secret.
Later the judge details examples of where Williams was not successful in his claims, with a number of things proven to be true (and therefore not defamatory).
 In my view the fact that the jury awarded the full amount of damages sought by Mr Williams strongly supports the inference that the jury must have concluded that Mr Williams was entirely successful in his claim, or almost entirely successful. He was not. Several of the defamatory imputations he pleaded were proved to be true at trial. For example, the allegation that Mr Craig had sent sext messages to Ms MacGregor was a key plank of Mr Williams’ attack on Mr Craig’s reputation. Mr Williams pleaded that Mr Craig defamed him by saying that he (Mr Williams) had lied when he told people that Mr Craig had sent sext messages to Ms MacGregor. The undisputed evidence at trial, however, was that Mr Williams did tell a number of people that Mr Craig had sent Ms MacGregor “sext” messages and that this was not true. This information had a significant impact on those who heard it and was a key factor in the pressure on Mr Craig to step down as leader of the Conservative Party.
 It was open to the jury to conclude that, initially at least, Mr Williams may have been mistaken as to the existence of sext messages from Mr Craig to Ms MacGregor. The over whelming weight of the evidence at trial was inconsistent with any continued mistaken belief, however, as pressure mounted on Mr Williams to produce evidence of the sext messages, which he was unable to do. Further, Mr Williams told at least one witness that he had seen copies of sext messages, when he had not.
 Mr Williams also pleaded that Mr Craig had defamed him by saying that he (Mr Williams) had lied by falsely alleging that Mr Craig had made a pay-out (or pay-outs) of large sums of money to silence Mr Craig’s victim(s) of sexual harassment. The evidence established that Mr Williams did tell people that Mr Craig had paid large sums of money to settle Ms MacGregor’s sexual harassment claim. Mr Williams acknowledged, however, that he knew that any settlement sum was likely to be small, not the large figure he had mentioned.
 There was also undisputed evidence at trial that provided at least some support for a number of the other defamatory imputations pleaded, such as imputations that Mr Williams had been dishonest, deceitful, and could not be trusted.
Examples of undisputed evidence at trial that supported such imputations included
- Mr Williams’ admitted breach of his undertaking to Ms MacGregor to keep her information and documents as confidential as if he were her lawyer,
- his disclosing of her confidential documents to Messrs Day and Dobbs within hours of Ms MacGregor requesting their return,
- his lying to Ms MacGregor about going to Hamilton to meet with Messrs Day and Dobbs,
- his claims that he had seen copies of “sexts” from Mr Craig to Ms MacGregor when he had not,
- his creation of the nom de plume “Concerned Conservative” to provide confidential information and a draft blog post to Cameron Slater for publication on the Whale Oil website,
- and his subsequent denials to Ms MacGregor when he was confronted regarding this.
[Paragraph separated into points – Ed]
That list isn’t very complimentary about Williams’ behaviour and trustworthiness.
It shows how Whale Oil was used in a similar way as described in Dirty Politics. More may be revealed about this in the Craig v Slater defamation case due to be heard in a judge-alone trial set down for next month.
One interesting point – “…as pressure mounted on Mr Williams to produce evidence of the sext messages, which he was unable to do. Further, Mr Williams told at least one witness that he had seen copies of sext messages, when he had not. ”
I think there has been a number of claims made on Whale Oil in relation to this and in relation to Dirty Politics of evidence that I believe has never been produced.
And it reminds me of another sustained campaign at Whale Oil to oust a politician – just after the 2013 local body election when Len Brown was re-elected mayor of Auckland. At one stage claims were made that there was evidence of ‘lewd text messages’ sent by Len Brown.
That actually resulted in a post at 2:30 pm, 15 October 2013 – EXCLUSIVE: Len Brown’s lewd text messages – that showed some texts claimed to have been sent by Brown. I think there may be doubt about that they were written by Brown (note that I have no reason to believe that involved Williams at all, someone else with some history of fabricating evidence trying to hide their identity could have done that).
In December 2013 Whale Oil post Sex Sells that was listed that as third on a list of their top 50 posts for the year. This post included this image:
Since then Slater (or posts under his name, there’s no guarantee who wrote them) has kept bragging about being dirty and has promised to carry this on in 2017.
Still (as of now) on Whale Oil on Twitter:
Coincidentally or not this post appeared at Whale Oil yesterday:
Our critics would have you believe that it is a free-for-all in blog land, and that we destroy lives at will and without any sense of restraint.
When I started helping out with Whaleoil some years ago, I had to decide where I was going to draw the line. And where I ended up drawing it is exactly the same as the way Cam operates.
I suspect that line but be drawn a bit more carefully over the next couple of months. The ongoing promotion of ‘Dirty Politics’ as what they are might not help in several possible court cases that I can think of.
Our interest does lie with news and current affairs. If you are the subject of our attention, it may feel intense and extremely personal. But if it was personal, we wouldn’t stop when you stop.
An example would be Colin Craig. His public and private dealings were intensely followed due to his unorthodox political style. This was then exacerbated as stories developed around him such as his press secretary quitting 2 days before the election. And his subsequent media appearances, publications and court appearances have kept him “on the field”.
Yet Colin is no longer offering himself to the public as a public servant to be elected. So our attention has pretty much gone away. Apart from the court cases, which are of personal interest to us, we don’t really talk about Colin anymore.
That’s not how it has sounded at WO, but they have to be careful what they say now because of pending court cases.
What we are doing now, is having a hard look at the new leader of the Conservative Party, his strategies, communications and background. To the new leader, this may appear quite personal. But it is clear Whaleoil was never personally interested in Colin Craig. Because our attention shifts along as Colin has, for now, left politics.
I know for a fact that Whaleoil has changed lives. Bringing things to the public’s attention has destroyed careers. Marriages. Businesses. Relationships.
How do we sleep at night?
We sleep because we know that we didn’t make the mistakes. We simply bring them to the public’s attention. And we sleep because as soon as the person withdraws from the public eye, we move on too.
That’s an odd way of making excuses for destroying people’s careers.
And given what Judge Katz has written “we know that we didn’t make the mistakes” looks like it should be treated with scepticism, if not scorn.
As Judge Katz said the defamation trial found evidence that Williams disguised his identity on Whale Oil and supplied material for Slater to post in a sustained attack against Craig and the Conservative Party.
When I see a familiar looking political activism post on Whale Oil some of the first things I wonder are a) who actually wrote it or supplied the material to be written up, b) is this part of a wider campaign against someone and b) is there money involved?
Whale Oil still fills an online niche for people who like their style and content, but if they keep promoting a dirty style of political activism they will struggle to be seen as serious or credible media.
And most people with any ambition in politics will not want to be associated with the Dirty Politics gang at Whale Oil.