22 May 2017

Rachel MacGregor has had enough of the media’s bullshit

11:41 am on 22 May 2017

She is neither plaintiff nor defendant in the current Colin Craig trial - so why can’t the media leave his former press secretary alone?


Suing and counter-suing: Colin Craig and Cameron Slater.

Suing and counter-suing: Colin Craig and Cameron Slater. Photo: RNZ

Since it began last week, the Colin Craig trial - in which he and Whale Oil’s Cameron Slater are suing each other over defamatory statements each said the other published about them - has quickly replaced the Eminem v National fiasco as the nation’s favourite silly trial.

It is easy to see how the case has become the focus of such schadenfreude: the men are seen by many as repugnant, the poems are ridiculous and there is entertainment to be had.

Colin Craig admitted looking down press secretary's top’ exclaimed Newshub earlier this month; ‘New love poem by Colin Craig revealed’ touted Stuff last week before transcribing said poem in full; Few of course have loved it more than the New Zealand Herald’s Steve Braunias, whose jaunty headlines (‘The sad, ragged ballad of Colin Craig and Rachel MacGregor’) drop nary a hint that the origins of the case concern allegations of serious and ongoing sexual harassment. For many, the entire affair has been a steady source of amusement.

Rachel MacGregor has not found it so funny.

It’s been three years since she left her job as press secretary to then-Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, alleging that in during her time working for him she had suffered ongoing sexual harassment. Craig denied the allegations.

Slater published documents and articles alleging the claims were correct and the pair have been fighting about it ever since. 

Rachel MacGregor

Rachel MacGregor Photo: Unknown

During those three years, MacGregor’s efforts to put the incident in the past have been repeatedly thwarted, and as Craig’s many litigious issues play out in court and in public she has become a reluctant recurring figure in the media.

The Craig and Slater trial is yet another block in the road.

MacGregor told me that, though she has been subpoenaed as a witness, she has done her best to ignore coverage of the trial. What brought it to her attention, she says was “the Herald's coverage of it, in which they've mainly used satire as a way to report on it”.

Bound by a confidentiality agreement with Craig, MacGregor feels she’s “essentially been gagged”- leaving media outlets free, it seems, to editorialise her role in a case of creative licence not generally associated with the news media.

The Herald’s print version, for instance, seemed to spatially prioritise their Braunias authored satirical pieces, the factual reporting included as an insert, an aside. This she says was misleading: “It actually to a lay eye looked [as though] all of it was a news story.”

Worse still she says, the facts included in this insert were incorrect. Sourced from the New Zealand News Wire service, the piece described a letter, marked private and confidential, as having come from her.

“Of course the letter they were talking about came from Mr Craig and that is a huge error,” she says. “It's not just a misspelled name or a little thing that needed correction.”

She contacted the Herald and asked for correction and apology, in an equally prominent place as the original story. They obliged the former part of the request, but not the latter.

"It was on page seven and it was in the in-brief section down the bottom. Now most corrections are just very tiny, but then most corrections are as I say a misspelled name or something minor as opposed to "ooh we actually got this completely the wrong way around".

The liberties taken with MacGregor’s story, along with these mistakes - whether intentional or not - contribute to an ongoing narrative that seems to be working as hard as it can to erase the fact that at the heart of the matter are very serious allegations of sexual assault. After all, what’s entertaining about that?

Braunias in particular seems to have chosen to run with the narrative of a consensual relationship describing Craig’s “unholy lust” for MacGregor with whom he had been “formerly in a relationship that started with a kiss and never actually went any further”.

Huh? As Cameron Slater said of the relationship in court on Friday (and you know things are bad when you’re quoting Cameron Slater) “there was no evidence at all, and there still is no evidence that it was reciprocated in any way”. Since when were sexual harassment victims fair game for satire?

While MacGregor is unable to comment on her relationship with Craig, the tone of the satire has disturbed her.

"It's absolutely misrepresenting me, and it's making a joke out of an issue that's actually very serious.”

MacGregor says she has spoken to Braunias about the distress his columns have caused her and her family, and that he has said he would make an effort to be more sensitive - somewhat heartening given that last week he dismissed similar concerns on social media with “ZZZZ”.

Perhaps MacGregor’s words to Braunias worked: In Saturday’s column (now helpfully labelled "opinion") he wrote that “the exact nature of [Craig and MacGregor’s] relationship is the central subject of the court case”. Curious given his previous presumptions of “their hapless infatuation”.

Nevertheless, the question remains - why was McGregor being joked about in the first place? After all, she says, she wasn’t even in court the days the columns were written.

“I mean, I'm neither plaintiff nor defendant. I'm a mere witness.”

Speaking to MacGregor, she is composed, thoughtful - and understandably exasperated.

From the outside it seems like a kind of purgatory - both central and peripheral to a highly public, and somehow neverending series of disputes, she has somehow found herself cast as a plot device, her humanity and agency long since forgotten in this war between dreadful men.

“Unfortunately, this story does involve me to quite a large degree,” she tells me. “Even though the court case itself is not about me, it unfortunately is about me, if that makes sense.”

Though her own case with Craig has been through the Human Rights Tribunal, neither party are permitted to discuss the particulars of the case due to a confidentiality agreement (a clause Craig was found to have breached by speaking about her in media interviews).

MacGregor has kept her end of the deal - something which has left her open to speculation and judgment.

One way or another, women who report their abusers rarely go unpunished. MacGregor’s ordeal is a startling reminder that, when given the chance, the old guard media are ready and willing to partake in that punishment.

It is telling that, in a society now entirely familiar with the concepts of rape culture and victim blaming, we are so keen to sidestep Craig’s alleged actions, while projecting an assumed narrative on such a complex and troubling situation.

One could argue that the target here is Craig’s inherent strangeness - those are some pretty wack poems after all. But by choosing to find him ridiculous we run the risk of normalising what may have been reprehensible actions while also re-victimising MacGregor. Without knowing the full detail of the Human Rights Tribunal case, we just don’t know.

For her part, MacGregor is understanding of the public’s desire to fill in the blanks. After all, she has never been able to tell her side of the story in full. She does, however, ask that the media and the public exercise empathy.

“I guess my message is, please take what you read with a grain of salt and try to understand the context in which it's been written,” she says.

“Until you have the facts, just withhold judgment and try to think about this a little bit more deeply than just having a laugh about it.”