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.

NBR’s ‘piss poor launch’

NBR has been going through some challenging times, especially since Todd Scott took over. This won’t help:

I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work.

But NBR is getting nowhere near perfection. I’m not sure why they have dropped out the current audit in ‘Latest newspaper sales and figures’:

This won’t help either:

Joyce threatens NBR and Hooton

Another MP has threatened media and a political commentator with legal action, this time over critical claims in an NBR column by Matthew Hooton

Newshub: Steven Joyce threatens Matthew Hooton and NBR with legal action – reports

National’s finance spokesperson Steven Joyce is threatening the National Business Review (NBR) and Matthew Hooton with legal action, Newshub understands.

On Friday, NBR published a column in which Mr Hooton was highly critical of Mr Joyce.

A source told Newshub that NBR received an “aggressive” letter about the column, which said it has until 5pm on Monday to retract or apologise.

The NBR’s publisher Todd Scott says Mr Joyce won’t be getting either a retraction or an apology.

He told Newshub if Mr Joyce is successful in launching legal action, NBR will subpoena a number of senior National MPs including Simon Bridges and Amy Adams.

Hooton promoting his column:

In today’s NBR, I kindly provide some useful advice to the new National Party leader over his upcoming reshuffle, while dangerously commenting on his, Natalie and their kids’ magazine appeal.

The column is behind a paywall at NBR: Joyce sacking first test of bridges’ leadership

Opinion: National MPs have finally been allowed to express what they really think of the party’s unelected strategist.

That sounds like Hooton is trying to put pressure on Bridges and Joyce. Hooton is not elected either, and his motives are questionable given he is a professional lobbyist. He should disclose any client interest if there is any, or should state that this political activism is a personal crusade only.

This comes after NBR have (apparently) sacked Hooton as a columnist. A recent exchange between Fran O’Sullivan and NBR publisher and owner Todd Scott:

That debunks claims of a niche blogger with huge chips on both shoulders and his supposed ‘sources’.

UPDATE: From Hooton on Facebook:

Just on this NBR thing: I rang Todd Scott early on Saturday afternoon after seeing his tweets and he confirmed he didn’t want to run my weekly column anymore. That’s absolutely his prerogative. A weekly column is a privilege not a right, and it his newspaper and he can decide who writes in it.

He was very clear that he appreciated I had never once abused my position as a columnist by mixing my commentary role with my commercial activities, and that all he was wanting to do was protect the NBR brand from future allegations of that nature. Fair enough.

On the Joyce matter, he said he would back me and his editors to the hilt, and he has been as good as his word.

For what it’s worth, I think the NBR is now a far better business newspaper than when I joined it as a columnist nine years ago and that has much to do with the investment Todd has made in the first-class news team. Good luck for the future guys – and sorry Deborah LaHatte that, in nine years, I’m not sure I ever quite made deadline!

UPDATE 2: NZH – Steven Joyce claims NBR column ‘highly defamatory’

National Party MP Steven Joyce has confirmed he made a formal complaint to NBR about a column which was highly critical of him, saying it was “highly defamatory.”

The column last Friday was by right-wing commentator Matthew Hooton following Joyce’s unsuccessful bid for the leadership of the National Party.

Joyce said the column was “highly defamatory and includes a significant number of factual inaccuracies”.

It is understood the letter from Joyce’s lawyers sought a retraction and apology.

NBR has not yet agreed to do either and it is understood any legal action Joyce took would be defended, including calling National MPs to give evidence in court should it get that far.

Politicians throwing around legal demands and threats are at risk of ‘the Streisand Effect’, drawing far more attention to critical comments than would otherwise have happened – and NBR is a low circulation publication behind a paywall.

This can hardly help Joyce in his political career that must be at a crossroads after his unsuccessful bid for leadership.

It’s hard to see this turning out well.