Week in Review

Joyce defamed, NBR and publisher must pay

A business website and its chief get a Christmas gift from the High Court that they had not been expecting

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 double defeat for NBR and publisher Todd Scott also represents the first time, according to NBR itself, that it has lost a defamation case in court.

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. 

"They are meanings of sufficient seriousness, of Mr Joyce’s significant and self-serving impropriety, to climb above defamation law’s disregard of trivialities."

Of the Scott tweets, the judge says: "The meaning of those two tweets is the article is, or at least its defamatory imputations are, true, as based on ‘solid’ sources. As untrue, they also are defamatory of Mr Joyce, and at least to the same degree as the article."

While NBR and Scott's lawyer, Phil Ahern, had argued it was disproportionate to add Scott's tweets to the claims against NBR's column, Justice Jagose found: "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."

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.

"It was never a situation where I would try and get some big damages."

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."

The defamation process was long and costly. "I'm sure that makes it harder for people to defend their reputations. It's not something you would volunteer to do. From my perspective I would very much have preferred not to have gone through it.

"It shouldn't be easy, I suppose. There is a balance because you want to allow for robust debate. But this, to me, was over the line."

Joyce said his costs had been significant as they covered the initial complaint, the mediation, an earlier aborted trial and the trial last week. He expected to be repaid. "It is a viable newspaper. That's for Mr Scott to work out. Obviously he could still appeal. We'll have to wait to see what happens."

Get it early – This article was first published on Newsroom Pro and/or included in Bernard Hickey’s ‘8 Things’ morning email of the latest in-depth business and political analysis. Get it early by subscribing now or starting a 28-day free trial.

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