Editorial: Hollow threats won't elicit unwarranted apology

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Conservative Party leader Colin Craig.
Conservative Party leader Colin Craig.

By one means or another, Colin Craig has succeeded in keeping his Conservative Party in the public eye over the past few years. Doing so without the advantages of parliamentary representation has required some degree of political nous.

Mr Craig's reward has been the increasing potential for the Conservatives to be a serviceable ally of the National Party after the general election. This week, he has captured attention again by saying he will take a defamation case against Greens co-leader Russel Norman. A favourable interpretation would be that this is yet another publicity ploy. Unfortunately, it smacks far more of a naivety totally at odds with the rough and tumble of politics.

Mr Craig has called on Dr Norman to apologise by tomorrow for saying that he "thinks that a woman's place is in the kitchen and a gay man's place is in the closet". If not, he will seek a declaration under the Defamation Act that the statement was false and offensive. Dr Norman has made it clear that he has no intention of apologising.

There is no reason he should. Political leaders more seasoned than Mr Craig are used to robust criticism, particularly as elections loom. They do not seek refuge in the law because they know they have ready access to the media and can respond to criticism equally fiercely. Indeed, such exchanges can be expected to be part and parcel of any election campaign when polar opposites such as the Greens and the Conservatives clash.

As much was underlined by the Court of Appeal's ruling in the case of Lange v Atkinson that the normal rules of defamation do not apply when a politician is criticised. A different standard of discourse and language is acceptable. A proviso is that defamatory statements about politicians could lose their qualified privilege if those who hold the opinion are "unable or unwilling to disclose any responsible basis for asserting a genuine belief". That is unlikely to trouble Dr Norman.

In part, his defence would focus on what Mr Craig has said previously. The Conservative Party leader could be asked to disclose all his past comments on women and gays, possibly including personal emails. Given the flaky nature of some of Mr Craig's comments on a variety of issues, there is a strong prospect of skeletons in his cupboard. Disclosure of these is the last thing that he needs as he tries to cement a relationship with National. Already, John Key has looked askance at Mr Craig's legal manoeuvring, suggesting it is "a waste of time".

If Mr Craig needs further convincing that he should drop legal proceedings, he need look no further than one of the very few instances in recent times when it was contemplated. This occurred in 2002 after Bill English, then the National leader, impugned Prime Minister Helen Clark's honesty and integrity over the destruction of a painting that she had signed for sale by a charity. She sought to shut down the issue by threatening a resort to the defamation law. Nothing came of it. She realised very quickly that the threat made her appear worried and irritated, rather than righteous, and that defamation proceedings would prompt only a more searching examination of the painting debacle.

The implications for Mr Craig are obvious. This is not a situation where he can extract an apology from a satirist, a blogger or from Seven Sharp, subsequent to a Broadcasting Standards Authority decision.

It is one where Dr Norman would relish the opportunity to press home his view that Mr Craig's attitude towards women and gays is outdated and disrespectful. Unless Mr Craig is, indeed, completely naive, this is surely a threat that will go no further.

- NZ Herald

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