On the skeeviest defamation trial of 2016 and its media-fed origins
New Zealand news outlets can’t get enough of Colin Craig and Jordan Williams’ branch-by-branch fall down the defamation tree. Fair enough, Joe Nunweek says, since they made both men.
Given that we’re a reasonably authoritarian offshoot of the Anglosphere (love cops, love borders, simply love television about both) it’s surprising how much virtually everyone in Australasia loves the slow-roast of a well-cooked politician. In pricey and humid Auckland, ex-Conservative leader Colin Craig’s protracted defamation trial is no different.
As of week one of five before a rare civil jury, the unpacking of its details has been tawdry in the etymological sense. Both parties are offering hopelessly cheap or ostentatious versions of genuine sentiment, whether it’s defendant Craig’s robotic attempts at sex poetry or plaintiff Jordan Williams’ bringing of the suit as a matter of honour amongst serious men (at any level, defamation tends to involve some act of political leverage, by defamer or defamee– few in New Zealand have been of sympathetic aims or ends).
Less funny is the experience of Rachel MacGregor, a communications professional who was harassed and humiliated first by unwanted attention, and now by the coverage of its (re-)litigation. In fact, Craig and Williams, gaping losers the both, are frustrating figures to still be making headlines at all, a pair of figures the media enabled, took seriously yet not seriously enough, then reaped a bumper crop from.
People on elite expert forum Twitter.com pointed out that having been accused of sexual harassment and its indecorous cover-up, Craig has joined the disgraced ranks of perverts and criminals that have fronted failed Christian conservative parties in New Zealand. This is an exaggeration – Graham Capill, a convicted child abuser and former leader of the Conservatives’ spiritual predecessor, Christian Heritage, looms large and awful, but most who came before Craig were law-abiding citizens, disgracing themselves on political performance and shitty statements alone.
The pace and coherence of social liberalism in this country can be debated. Likewise, faith-based values in mainstream political parties have often fed into into progressive and compassionate policy. Either way, our electoral rejection of aggressive evangelical conservatism runs decades deep – a true Christian conservative party, for all the talk, has never been in the running for electoral representation in New Zealand.
That’s great, so why the fuck are we continuing to indulge their once-a-decade trending in a pageant of puff pieces and horse racing? Capill enjoyed the soft and reputable coverage of Sunday profiles with his wife and quotes-for-balance on everything from abortion to modern art until he stepped down. Magazines covered his successor, Ewen McQueen, as a young hip ‘next generation’ figure who liked surfing.
Craig first came to prominence in late 2009 as a wealthy property manager, bankrolling a “march for democracy” to protest the repeal of section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961 (the defence that had previously permitted the use of reasonable force on a child). Herald reporter Simon Collins’ introduction of Craig was sober and straightforward, but its context wasn’t. “Will you march to support action on the smacking referendum?”, the paper asked at the time, an exhortation from people who probably personally never beat their kids senseless but enjoyed a lively debate anyway.
And ‘lively debate’ is really the story of Craig’s political existence, a man that rarely registered in polls beyond the margin of error, but went on to receive platforms and attention that vastly outsized them. In October 2011, leveling out at a whopping 1.1%, MediaWorks already breathlessly suggested that his Conservatives could be the kingmaker in a coalition of the centre-left or centre-right. The party habitually received more coverage than the Maōri Party or (pre Dotcom-meltdown) Mana, both of which polled the same or higher.
In the ensuing months, Craig got his views on very fait accompli stuff like marriage equality and affordable contraception (they’re bad!) canvassed extensively. In return, the sensible pundit class got away with saying things like “the timing is right for Colin Craig to come into the New Zealand Parliament” and “Key's tacit backing now makes Craig more relevant than ever before” in their weird little two-line paragraphs.
If history is anything to go by, a new figure (maybe Christine Rankin, maybe just an email chain letter that achieves sentience) will emerge by the 2020 election as a ‘different’ conservative candidate. They will be wryly covered beyond all sense of proportion by people who don’t actually believe in or agree with anything they say, and they will still not reach parliament.
Long-form treatment, though sort of contemptuous, still fed the beast - profiles by good writers like Guyon Espiner would mock Craig’s bigoted and incurious views but respect the genuine sentiment behind them. He was characterised as a naive nice-guy on the fringes of pragmatic and cruel politics – a double-bluff on us all, since it turns out he's being alleged to have been a manipulative bully who gaslit MacGregor as ‘mentally ill’ when it suited him.
In a chicken-egg scenario, the constant attention likely helped to inflate the Conservatives’ vote to just shy of 4% in 2014(still not as well as Christian Heritage performed in 1996, 4.4% after partnering with another Christian micro-party). Apart from making Craig a quasi-celebrity, the country’s commentators upped his odds of becoming an elected representative too. Even the party’s disintegration a year later, revealing a rising disruptive force to be a bunch of born-agains in golf slacks who couldn’t organize a beer in a pub, was hailed as “the worst implosion of a political party in our history” by Patrick Gower. No one was particularly self-reflexive on their role in talking up a horse-race that, if the Conservatives had somehow been elected, would have rendered Parliament ungovernable.
If history is anything to go by, a new figure (maybe Christine Rankin, maybe just an email chain letter that achieves sentience) will emerge by the 2020 election as a ‘different’ conservative candidate. They will be wryly covered beyond all sense of proportion by people who don’t actually believe in or agree with anything they say, and they will still not reach parliament. If world trends are anything to go by, they will still get to make people’s lives miserable by saying a lot of terrible things about Muslim radicalisation, climate refugees, and people using their preferred bathrooms first.
Taxpayers’ Union executive director Jordan Williams is a political operative bringing a defamation suit for accusations that he lied in his capacity as a political operative. To me, this is like a top criminal lawyer getting het up for being told they “defend killers” or a debt collector being told they make people cry for a living. Your job is not going to be pretty, but you chose it.
Lecturing the media-type people who indulged Colin Craig for a very long time is remiss unless we do the same for Williams. Yet another poster child for banning debating clubs in our schools and youth political wings in our universities, his pre-Taxpayers Union role as a protégé for the weird right is well-documented in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics.
It’s a CV that involved running flack against supporters of NZ’s proportional voting system during his position as spokesperson for a reversion to First Past the Post, and also entailed a lot of carrying water for bloggers like Cameron Slater in chasing their obsessive and crawlingly insiderish vendettas of the hour (Winston Peters, Rodney Hide, Auckland mayor and loathed sex-participant Len Brown).
In his book, Hager has this to say about the establishment of the ‘union’:
“It should have been obvious that the (New Zealand Taxpayers Union) was a political tool. Not long before Williams had been the public face of the anti-MMP campaign and then part of Don Brash’s ACT Party leadership coup. It was the same few people with a new device for influencing politics, but the group and its stated motives were largely taken at face value. Most news media reported uncritically on the NZTU’s launch and frequent press statements, which were quoted 93 times in its first six months. In June 2014, Fairfax Media entered into a collaborative project with the NZTU called the Ratepayer’s Report, an unusual move for a media organization. Rather than being treated as a news source, the NZTU needs greater scrutiny.”
If you look past the NZTU’s countless and extremely good insights into what it thinks public money shouldn’t be spent on (MPs with disabilities engaging with rural media, protecting Maōri sites of significance under Auckland’s new Unitary plan, national rail. rap music) you find…well, not much of anything. Public money should be spent sensibly and fairly, and it’s worth unpicking those instances where it isn’t to understand the cultures, systems and practices in those institutions where it stops happening. Good places to begin such enquiries include the inefficiencies within our welfare system that seem to be based on punishment rather than saving time, the huge amounts that were allocated to Housing NZ’s unaccountable investigations unit, the Commerce Commission’s priorities of which cons to investigate and prosecute and when, the closing of multiple Legal Aid offices across the country without any apparent consideration of the ancillary costs. If you think these issues are trivialised by being spoken about in the same breath as two bad dudes waging a court case on their respective reputations, you’re right.
We barely have the journalist ecology with which to do this, and NZTU’s deluge of ‘Gotcha’ press releases, focused on spending much less and not spending much better, are no substitute.
Tone for tone, Williams and his organisation have kept being treated with the queasy legitimacy Craig enjoyed – easy-going profiles where you may not agree, but at least you’ll find they keep things colourful. The difference is an insidious competence. With too much money and not enough savvy, the Conservatives’ brand of Hotmail bling made covering politics fun for its jaded recorders; NZTU’s methods simply make covering it easy.
All this is not to say that Williams shouldn’t have been disqualified from public life by the conduct outlined in Dirty Politics and the associated conversations that were later leaked. But he hasn’t been, and that’s largely at the acquiescence of the papers and news outlets that have kept running what he peddles since. Craig’s sustained embarrassment this week shouldn’t obscure that.
The ethical thing to do would be to treat both plaintiff and defendant as vile and irrelevant, to not reward the revenge tactics of awful people by attributing them political significance, to leave the victims in the situation some grace and space, to acknowledge having made monsters that it’s sometimes better to ignore them. For the next four weeks, we won’t.
 The NZTU mocked the imposition of manawhenua provisions in the Auckland Plan as a 'Taniwha Tax', if their fear of an @Peace track wasn't already a tell that they take everything under the sun aggressively literally.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.