Colin Craig has always had the look of a hermit about him - gaunt, unworldly. You can imagine the former leader of the Conservative Party on some wild shore, deafened by the hiss and crash of the surf, collecting driftwood washed up by a storm. His pants are held up by a length of twine. He is barefoot. He looks out to sea; he has visions, he is in receipt of a message from God. He heads back to his dark and quiet cave. The whites of his eyes shine like torches. He plots his next move.
Cameron Slater is more your creature from the black lagoon. He moves slowly and heavily, and has a sombre presence. As publisher, editor, and antic spirit of his politics blog Whaleoil, he plots the downfall of his enemies. He rings a bell, and his followers emerge from their own shallow puddles of murk. They talk in low whispers. They don't want anyone listening in. They're very concerned that someone might be listening in. The truth is that no one is listening in. It's just a blog.
Wild shores, black lagoons; you could see their wet footprints on the floor of courtroom 14 in the High Court at Auckland these past four weeks, during their long and somewhat deranged defamation case. It attracted some of the strangest people in New Zealand - a conspiracy theorist with a bowtie fetish, a Mormon who threw $650,000 down the gurgler, a weeping lawyer denounced in the witness box as a Judas - but the strangest of all were Craig and Slater. So strange, so extreme, that it was possible sometimes to sit in court and hallucinate they were the same person. They were like a divided self. Certainly they had a common bond, which is to say they shared a deep and mutual loathing for each other.
Craig claimed Slater libelled him on Whaleoil. Slater counter-claimed Craig libelled him in Dirty Politics and Hidden Agendas, a piece of fulminating junk mail delivered to 1,623,402 letterboxes. Their judge-alone trial was set down for three weeks. It dragged on for four, fizzling out on Thursday afternoon. A terrible sadness takes up residence at the end of every trial and there it was again this week, posing the old familiar questions: What was all that about? What was the point of the exercise, what was the moral of the story? Can any sense be made of it? One question at a time, please; the answer to the last query is no. It was just too freaky and miserable and excruciating.
It was also such old news. The problem they had with each other dated back to 2014, at the last election. Craig's Conservative Party lost out on getting into Parliament and one of the factors may have been the abrupt and most newsworthy departure of his press secretary, Rachel MacGregor, 48 hours before election day. She later accused Craig of sexual harassment and took his ass to the Human Rights Commission. It was settled in mediation. There it might have remained, but Slater posted spectacular revelations on his blog which set out to expose Craig as a lunging, panting, poetry-writing sex pest. Craig said: "See you in court!" Slater more or less responded: "Not if I see you first!"
And so to 2017, and an upstairs courtroom. Craig defended himself. He learned on the job; he was amateur, and rambling, and now and then was the cause of much vexatiousness to Justice Toogood, but he kept his cool and was methodical, sometimes effective. Slater was able to sit back in the far corner of the public gallery and chew gum. He was represented by Brian Henry and Charlotte Foster. Both were admitted to the bar in February - Henry in 1975, Foster this year. Henry, in closing, plainly wanted to look his best as he stood before Justice Toogood and sought to serenade him with the power and fluency of his summary; he gave his shoes the brightest polish of the entire trial. They glowed like ebony. But a good shine costeth money. It doth not come cheap. His closing addressed the matter of costs; his client, he said, was seeking $450,000, and then there was his own fees, which were $12,000 for every day of the trial. God almighty!
Well, there's always good money in muck. The central subject of the trial was sex, or the absence of sex and the things which took its place - sexual longing, and sexual harassment. There was a fair bit of talk about politics during the trial but it was really just as background and was little more than an exercise in nostalgia. Craig and Slater were like shadows of their former selves at the trial; 2014, the setting of much of what was said in court, was when both were key players in New Zealand politics, were taken seriously, were in the public eye. Craig has disappeared since he stepped down as leader. Slater, too, seems like a blast from the past. His media profile was immense until the wrecking ball of Nicky Hager's 2014 book Dirty Politics. "2014," they both chanted throughout the trial, wailing like ghosts.
Which left the sex, or the absence thereof. Henry argued that it was entirely fair and accurate of Slater to write that Craig had sexually harassed MacGregor when she worked for him as press secretary. Craig argued it was a total slander. It didn't happen; it couldn't happen; for it was his duty to tell the court that MacGregor found him sexually attractive, that they had an "emotional affair", that she came onto him on a flight to Napier ... They were chaste, but their sexual longing was epic. It was, Craig stressed, a love story.
"It's a figment of his imagination," said Henry. "Weird," said MacGregor, over and over, describing Craig when she appeared in court. She was subpoenaed to give evidence against Craig at the trial. She might be described as a hostile witness, which is to say her contempt for Craig was thick, constant, thorough. "This is a record of hate," as Graham Greene wrote in his 1951 novel The End of the Affair, "far more than of love."
The difference between Greene's fiction and the working life shared by Craig and MacGregor is that there was no end of an affair between them, and no beginning either, because there was, in fact, no affair whatsoever, and at least they could agree on that. Pretty much everything else was disputed. Craig told the court that they had different stories: "One of them must be right. They both can't be true." And so he set about trying to establish a reasonable doubt as to the accuracy of MacGregor's story. The trouble was when he set about trying to establish that during his cross-examination of MacGregor. He didn't have a lawyer acting for him, a buffer; this was Craig, the very person who MacGregor accused of a heinous campaign of sexual harassment, face to face, in person, in the flesh.
Craig remained calm. MacGregor did not. It was fairly horrible to watch and Justice Toogood ordered a day off for MacGregor to recover. That was last Thursday. She returned to finish giving evidence on Friday. And yet there she was again on Monday morning, sitting outside the court, by herself, no sign of a support person unlike the previous week; when court began, her presence was explained when Craig, incredibly, attempted to recall MacGregor to the witness stand. Justice Toogood heard him out, which is to say he heard him out for about, oh, say 90 seconds, before snapping at him that the request was denied. He asked Foster to go outside and tell MacGregor she was excused from any further obligation to the trial. It's within the realms of possibility to imagine this was a very sweet moment.
As a coward, I never made eye contact with MacGregor. She texted me during the trial to express her profound unhappiness with my style of reporting. Fair call. Slater, too, was put out now and then with my reports, and kept in regular touch with emails that were typically subject-lined: "Your column is wrong in many ways." But he was really quite good-humoured about it, and shouted me a cup of tea and an Afghan biscuit one morning at QC's, the High Court café. Perhaps his generosity extended to his lawyers, who after all were forced to make ends meet on a pitiful $12,000 per diem.
The other journalists covering the trial received their own ticking off, from Madeleine Flannagan, the Orewa lawyer who Craig called to give evidence. She told the court an astonishing story. As Henry later said, in his closing address, "In my 42 years in the law, I've never seen anything like it." Flannagan said she had acted for the Craigs when they were wanting to adopt a child. Their application, she said, faced a potential barrier when Slater made it public that he had information MacGregor wasn't the only person to fall foul of Craig, that there were "other victims". What to do? Flannagan came up with a novel idea: she would phone Slater, who happened to be a friend, and ask him what he had on Craig - without revealing that Craig was her client. Slater took her call to mean that her client was, in fact, another "victim". He was very, very eager to want to believe that, she said.
Craig had fought to get Flannagan admitted as a witness. It was a victory he must have savoured. Her evidence was designed to make Slater look bad in court. Well, it was a hell of a way to go about it. As Slater subsequently said to Henry on the witness stand, "I'm lost for words, Mr Henry, at the betrayal of someone who I considered a friend." Judas of Orewa! But what about her tender and exquisite feelings? She wept in court, telling her sorry tale; and she later reprimanded the other journalists for failing to publish her evidence that Craig had authorised her peculiar decision to phone Slater. I felt put out she hadn't called me to complain. I could have done with a laugh.
The long days in courtroom 14, the steady tumble of court documents in the photocopy machine. The steady stream of unusual people taking the oath - Flannagan, and Craig's wife Helen (her response when she found out about Craig's poems and letters to MacGregor: "I was annoyed"), and Laurence Day, a Mormon from Hamilton who donated $650,000 towards the Conservative Party's doomed tilt at the 2014 election. On Wednesday, things started coming out of the woodwork - wetas, driven inside after the court building was waterblasted. They were scarcely less striking than the character who turned up that day wearing a silver bowtie beneath a silver tuft of hair on his chin. Dennis Smith sought permission to cover the trial for his blog. It's called Dennis. It states: "I've been a truthseeker for more than 50 years and have analysed conspiracies for decades. Many of them (but not all) stack up."
I had quick word with him. He said, "I deal in alternative currencies."
I said, "What?"
"Barter," he said. "Things like that."
"Oh yes," I said, and while I was mulling over whether that might be an acceptable method of payment for Henry and Foster, he suddenly divulged, "I was in Samoa, but it all blew up!"
The full story appears to be on his blog, along with his commentary on the trial. They include his low opinion - join the queue, mate - of my trial reports. Smith describes me thus: "A comic." A comic! Well, I have my moments. But satire is rarely a match for real life. The court was played a 2014 TV clip of Craig being grilled by journalists about MacGregor's shock resignation. "Oh, you know," he flannelled, "I've had a number of staff who've had rest days."
When that tape finished, the court was played a Newstalk ZB radio interview made that same day. No pictures, just sound; and the screen filled with a still image of a pug dog licking its chops.
Fun and games, seldom; it was the serious business of the court to hear the recitation of grievances. Craig brought 13 separate causes of action against Slater in his defamation claim. He made what seemed to be a pretty good job in arguing that at least a few of Slater's remarks were a nonsense - the accusation that there were "other victims", and that Craig paid MacGregor a kind of hush payment of $107,500 to settle her sexual harassment complaint. Neither stacked up.
Equally, though, Henry raised strong arguments that Slater's opinions ought to be protected by qualified privilege. The nature of Craig's resignation as Conservative Party leader, for example, was the subject of perfectly legitimate media inquiry, he said; Slater was just one of many media commentators expressing strong opinions about that, so what was the problem? Henry put it even more long-winded than that. Justice Toogood attempted an edit.
"Is it your point, Mr Henry," he interrupted on Wednesday, "really this - once Mr Craig elected to call a press conference, to say, 'I'm standing down', that created legitimate media and public interest, and from there on in, any allegation that Mr Slater, or anyone else for that matter, was acting with an improper motive, can't be sustained?"
"Yes, Your Honour," said Henry, "that is a very apt summary."
Craig, in his closing address, moaned on and on about Slater's high-spirited campaign on Whaleoil to force him out of politics. Justice Toogood leapt in, and said, "Does it matter that Mr Slater has a personal view about that? He wears his heart on his sleeve; it's crazy to expect him to be balanced. He was simply engendering public debate ... What's wrong with that? This is important, Mr Craig. It seems to me to be something you have to confront."
Such exchanges raised vaguely interesting issues about media practice, and press freedoms. But they were minor kinds of skirmishes. The trial kept coming back to its central theme - whether Craig sexually harassed MacGregor, or whether she returned his feelings.
The only two people who know the truth are Craig and MacGregor, and he has his version and she has hers, but very often it really didn't look too good for Craig in court. MacGregor's hatred for him was intense. Her denials of his story were vehement, disgusted, complete.
She was repulsed by his advances, she said. Gossip at the time was otherwise. Press gallery journalist Barry Soper gave evidence, and talked about the widespread rumour that Craig and MacGregor were having an affair.
Craig: "What was your impression?"
Soper: "I didn't form one."
Craig: "Did you form any impression?"
Soper: "I thought the relationship was a very familiar one."
"I did not sexually harass Miss MacGregor," Craig droned, repeatedly, in his closing address on Thursday. He was stating things for the record but sometimes it felt as though he was talking to himself. "Ours was an affectionate, mutually appreciative relationship ... Myself and Miss MacGregor took place in a workplace romance ... At the very least, Miss MacGregor had feelings for me."
He read out her texts and emails that were produced as exhibits. "Hug, hug, hug," he recited. "Smiley face ... Hug, hug."
On the last morning of the trial, before court opened, Craig sat alone in QC's with two pots of tea and worked on his closing address. Slater, his wife, and his father sat at a nearby table with Henry and Foster, laughing and chatting.
The registrar, David Slight, unlocked courtroom 14. Craig took his seat next to his McKenzie friend, Tom Cleary. No doubt some McKenzie friends are more loquacious than others but I never saw Cleary so much as move his lips.
A tall, elderly gentleman appeared in the public gallery. He had long hair which almost looked to be blonde, not white with age. It was Craig's father. He didn't go over and talk to his son.
Craig's wife Helen had said in her statement of evidence in court, "It is, and continues to be, a wonderful marriage." She didn't return to the courtroom after she appeared as a witness.
The final minutes of the trial dragged towards the finish line. "Affectionate," droned Craig. "Close." MacGregor had left the building. It wasn't 2014 anymore, with its high passions; it was a Thursday in the autumn of 2017, with wetas crawling around. No family, no friends other than a mute McKenzie. It was just Craig, seeing it out by himself, seeing it through, raking over the cold, dry ashes of something he thought of as "a workplace romance", mooning over old letters ("Hug, hug, hug ... Smiley face"), alone.