Sir Bob Jones says he never expected his comments around te reo being a dying language to be "provocative".

Jones' defamation proceedings against filmmaker Renae Maihi have begun in the High Court at Wellington today, with the trial set to take two weeks.

Jones is suing Maihi after she delivered a petition to Parliament demanding Jones lose his knighthood for the controversial comments, made in Jones' column in the National Business Review in 2018.

The petition had more than 88,000 signatures this morning, with more coming in.

Advertisement

READ MORE: Film-maker's legal 'funds running low' ahead of defamation trial with Sir Bob Jones over 'hate speech'
Sir Bob Jones files defamation proceedings against filmmaker accusing him of 'hate speech'
Film-maker's defence in 'hate speech' case calls on historical Sir Bob Jones remarks
Sir Bob Jones' NBR column on Maori pulled 'due to inappropriate content'

Jones wrote in the column that there were no full-blooded Māori left, and if it were not for British immigration, Māori would not be alive today.

He suggested Māori should bring Pākehā breakfast in bed, weed their gardens and wash and polish their cars out of gratitude for existing.

Sir Robert Jones is suing filmmaker Renae Maihi. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Sir Robert Jones is suing filmmaker Renae Maihi. Photo / Mark Mitchell

In court today, Jones' lawyer Fletcher Pilditch said Jones was a "prolific author" who had been writing for more than 50 years, often with a "humorous" tone.

His Māori gratitude comments came under a column headline that said "media gaffes part 2 and flights of fancy", which Pilditch said was a "clear indicator" of the humour Jones was employing in his "tongue in cheek" writing.

He also pointed to the subheading in the column, "time for a troll" as another indicator of this.

After the petition went public, commenters online labelled Jones as a "turd", "scum", "Hitler clone" and "white supremacist", Pilditch said.

"Some even took the opportunity to describe him as a paedophile.

Advertisement

"Those comments and the responses to the petition went on for many months."

Giving evidence today, Jones said he was "astonished" to find out about Maihi's complaint following the publication of his column.

He said she claimed in interviews she couldn't sleep at night after reading it, and that Jones was advocating for servitude. He said the claims were "preposterous and infantile".

The only reason the story was picked up by media was because journalists were scrambling for "trivial" stories in the "silly season" when news was quiet, he said.

"I do not hate Māori or any other race . . . Expressing a view on race or the problems affecting Māori does not make me a racist."

Jones said he had "numerous Māori friends" and children from four different "racial sources".

Advertisement

He said he contributed time and money to charities benefiting mainly Māori, gave assistance to iwi leaders wanting help with settlements, and prompted a book to be written about Māori heroes.

His article was "a harmless joke" and it was "obvious to those of the meanest intelligence not to be taken seriously".

"I find it difficult that anyone with any intelligence could possibly take objection with what I wrote."

He said his other section of the column, on making te reo compulsory in schools, was not intended to be provocative.

He spent the afternoon defending many of his other writings and positions on Māori and racism.

"It's a very modern phenomenon, this business of racism."

Advertisement

He would be happy to debate the Treaty of Waitangi with "any intelligent Māori", he said.

Maihi's lawyer, Davey Salmon, said Jones was "quick to decide who's intelligent and who's not".

"You've measured it without even meeting Ms Maihi," Salmon said.

Jones' lawyer said the petition implied he was a racist and an author of hate speech, and that those implications were false and defamatory.

Maihi's petition read in-part: "In signing this petition we urge you, our Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, to take his knighthood away from him. It is in your power. Set a precedent for the country and a message that this will not be tolerated and hate speech of this type is not welcome here."

In court, her lawyer Davey Salmon said Maihi's position was that she was referring to the writing and racist and hate speech, not Jones personally.

Advertisement

In her statement of defence, she said the content of Jones' column was racist because it was "disparaging, prejudicial and/or discriminatory towards Māori".

She is relying on a defence of honest opinion, truth and absolute privilege.

She earlier reaffirmed her belief that Jones' remarks constituted "hate speech".

"Over the course of many years, [Jones] has publicly expressed views that are racist, disparaging, prejudicial and/or discriminatory towards Māori and other racial or ethnic groups," her statement of defence reads.

Jones, whose knighthood is for services to the business community, has said his column was satirical.

The Human Rights Commission released a statement after NBR removed the column from its website and said: "Sir Bob Jones and those outlets who choose to publish this kind of rhetoric need to be prepared for the public backlash and condemnation they provoke and deserve."

Advertisement

A Press Council - now Media Council - complaint by Mel Whaanga, who said Jones' column was "racist", was dismissed but the opinion piece was considered to be "malicious and infantile" by most of the members.

After suing Maihi, Jones also threatened legal action and demanded an apology and retraction after a University of Waikato professor called him "racist" on social media in June 2018.