Lessons for Crazy Colin from David Lange

David Cohen writes at the NBR about some lessons for Colin Craig:

A jury has found that the onetime Conservative Party leader Colin Craig defamed Taxpayers Union founder Jordan Williams. The country has found out a lot more about Mr Craig?s style of office management and questionable poetic skills. So what was in the widely covered case for the media to discover?

Mr Craig?s whopping loss ? the jury ordered that he pay a plump $1.27m in total ? has been described as a classic defeat for the onetime political aspirant who has spent a significant amount of time in recent years launching his own defamation actions against some critics.

Indeed Mr Craig first came to many people?s attention in 2013 when he threatened a satirical news website with legal action after claiming it published a story designed, as a lawyer?s letter put it, ?to make him look ridiculous.?

On the face of it that action only seemed to underscore the proposition being argued against, as well as suggesting Mr Craig had no idea about the purpose of satire.

A year later, of course, he was at it again with another defamation suit, this time against the Green Party?s Russel Norman for having effectively accused the Conservative Party leader of being a conservative in his views on homosexuals and women ? at which point the expensive arguments seemed to be getting inexplicably ridiculous.

In life as in law, though, arguments are sometimes not about what they?re about.

The list of people Colin Craig has threatened or actually issued proceedings against is very long.


Mr Craig?s unreciprocated emotional relationship with Rachel MacGregor was hardly in that league. But it did belong to a rather more surprisingly common tradition involving press secretaries and their bosses.

It happens. Hired media guns aren?t stenographers, after all, but clairvoyants charged with beautifully getting into the heads of their masters (or mistresses ? the frisson goes both way between the sexes) and coaxing out their innermost thoughts. Journalists are also by their nature engaging generalists, with all the conversational late-night conviviality that suggests.

Lines get crossed. The players become sensitive. Some may even develop a newfound enthusiasm for letting it be widely known that any indelicate media coverage may carry a hefty price.

Certainly, it?s possible to see Colin Craig?s initial sensitivity on matters that most public figures would dismiss with a wave of the hand as not only being the actions of an inexperienced political operator but by a public figure with a strong reason for keeping reporters at bay.

Liars, cheats, frauds and ratbags, in general, don’t like the truth being told, so resort to legal action in a bid to silence their critics.

There are precedents for this, most famously the volte-face between former prime minister David Lange and the news media.

On the face of it, the turnaround was surprising because for a long time David Lange had loved the media, and for the most part the media repaid his affection in kind.

That all changed in April 1990 when TVNZ?s flagship current affairs show Frontline presented its now-famous report, For The Public Good (fronted by then television reporter Linda Clark, who was most recently seen on television again this past week as the lawyer for Ms MacGregor). It continued for several years afterward with a newly energised Mr Lange becoming a vexatious litigant ? ?throwing writs around like so much confetti,? as one report later had it.

The evident change of heart surprised many observers. It puzzled many news chiefs. But should it have?

Here again one could surmise that at least some of the erstwhile premier?s motivation had to do with the role the media played in revelations about his own extramarital affair with a speechwriter ? and perhaps a desire to shut down any further coverage of the same.

In the event, Mr Lange?s Bunteresque appetite for writs would ultimately lead to greater political free speech in New Zealand and not less as he might have hoped.

As with this month?s case, the outcome wasn?t so much about those who live by the sword also dying by the sword but rather ? to use a possibly unfortunate term in the circumstances ? more a case of ?poetic justice? being served. And yes, Mr Craig did make himself look ridiculous.

It seems set to continue into next year as well. Colin Craig is set in his ways and seems to want to crush all before him…we’ll see.