30 Sep 2016

Defamation claim against Colin Craig upheld

6:02 pm on 30 September 2016

Taxpayers' Union founder Jordan Williams has won his defamation case against former Conservative Party leader Colin Craig.

Jordan Williams (left) and Colin Craig

Taxpayers' Union founder Jordan Williams, left, and former Conservative Party leader Colin Craig Photo: Supplied

A jury in the High Court in Auckland delivered its unanimous verdict this afternoon after close to 10 hours of deliberations.

Mr Williams had accused Mr Craig of defaming him in comments made at a news conference and in a leaflet distributed to 1.6 million households around the country in July last year.

The jury has awarded a total of $1.27 million in damages to Mr Williams.

However, Justice Katz has not yet entered a judgment because Mr Craig's lawyer, Stephen Mills, is seeking leave to set aside the verdict and the amount of damages awarded.

Mr Craig said the decision was not what he expected, but he would not comment further.

"Obviously there's still legal steps in play, so I'll restrict my comment to 'very, very surprised and disappointed'."

Mr Williams said he never wanted to end up in court but was pleased he had won the case

He read a short statement outside the court, thanking those who stood by him.

"These proceedings were never something that I wanted however Mr Craig's false accusations and public threats to sue me could not go answered.

"Of course I am pleased the jury, having heard all of the evidence and not just what the media has reported, have made such a finding."

Much of the evidence during the four-week trial revolved around Mr Craig's relationship with his former press secretary, Rachel MacGregor.

Ms MacGregor resigned suddenly from her job just two days before the 2014 election.

At the time, there were rumours and speculation about the reasons why she quit.

Colin Craig speaks to reporters outside court after the jury delivered its verdict.

Colin Craig speaks to reporters outside court after the jury delivered its verdict. Photo: RNZ / Mohamed Hassan

The jury was told that Ms MacGregor confided in Mr Williams about some aspects of her relationship with Mr Craig. That included claims of sexual harassment and that Mr Craig had written her love notes and poetry, and sent her sex texts.

The jury was told that one of the texts allegedly sent by Mr Craig said something similar to "I slept well because I dreamt I was lying between your naked legs".

In his evidence, Mr Williams said what Ms MacGregor told him made him feel sick to the stomach and he did not think Mr Craig was fit to lead a conservative political movement.

But it was how Mr Williams then used the information given to him by Ms MacGregor in confidence that became central to the defamation case.

The jury was told that Mr Williams told a number of Conservative Party board members about Mr Craig's alleged behaviour. He also gave a copy of one of the poems Mr Craig had written for Ms MacGregor to Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater.

The poem was published the same day Mr Craig stepped down as the leader of the Conservative Party in June 2015.

During his cross-examination, Mr Mills questioned Mr Williams about his motivations for sending the poem to Mr Slater. Mr Williams denied he was trying to undermine Mr Craig and said he was trying to set the record straight for Ms MacGregor's benefit.

But Mr Mills pressed Mr Williams on whether his actions really were in Ms MacGregor's interests, given the media firestorm the publication of the poem caused.

Jordan Williams leaves the High Court in Auckland after the verdict.

Jordan Williams leaves the High Court in Auckland after the verdict. Photo: RNZ / Mohamed Hassan

Ms MacGregor herself was also called to give evidence - the first time she had spoken publicly about her relationship with Mr Craig since her resignation.

In her evidence, she said she had been sexually harassed by Mr Craig over a long period of time and she described his behaviour as "dodgy". She said he often made her feel uncomfortable. She also said it was disgusting when she had to give him back massages and that he smelled bad.

Ms MacGregor denied that any of the texts she sent Mr Craig - some of which were read in court and were signed "love Rach" - were romantic.

When Mr Craig was called to give evidence, he admitted that his conduct with his former press secretary went too far on some occasions.

He said that, as often happened when people worked closely together, he and Ms MacGregor's relationship became close and affectionate.

As a married man, he said their conduct was inappropriate at times. He said he regretted that and had apologised to his wife, Helen, who had forgiven him.

But Mr Craig said he didn't think it was all one-way.

Under cross-examination by Mr Williams' lawyer Peter McKnight, Mr Craig told the court his version of what happened on election night 2011.

"It was one of those moments where we were both tired and we did something really stupid which we were both embarrassed about later," he said.

But he said neither party objected at the time.

Mr Craig explained that it all unfolded as he and Ms MacGregor were both lying down reflecting on the day.

"She did not massage me and my pants were not off," he said. "We started off lying down, chatting."

But Mr Craig denied he had taken Ms MacGregor's top off and said she had taken it off herself.

He also denied that he had tried to put his hands down her pants or dress.

He said they both regretted what had happened.

"Something had happened that shouldn't have happened and we both knew that. It's true she expressed regret about what had happened, as did I."

Mr Mills told the jury in his closing address that Mr Williams' allegations about the nature of Mr Craig's relationship with Ms MacGregor were not correct.

Mr Mills said Mr Williams was wrong about the sending of a sex text and wrong about the election night incident being non-consensual.

Mr Williams wanted Mr Craig removed as the leader of the Conservative Party, and that was why he spread rumours and stories about him, Mr Mills said.

Mr Craig was entitled to respond to the attack, which had shredded his reputation and his political aspirations, he said.

By publishing the leaflet, he was setting the record straight, Mr Mills said.

But Mr McKnight said Mr Williams was not to blame for Mr Craig's resignation.

He said Mr Craig was the author of his own misfortune and it did him little credit to blame Mr Williams for it.

The jury in the trial was tasked with deciding whether Mr Craig's comments were defamatory or not.

If the jury members decided they were, they also had to decide how much in damages to award to Mr Williams.

It was the first civil case to be heard by a jury in Auckland in 14 years.