27 Feb 2018

Defamation trial against Shadbolt underway

8:26 pm on 27 February 2018

A defamation trial against Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt has been told he used newspaper columns to smear a political opponent.

Tim Shadbolt in his office

Tim Shadbolt. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

Invercargill councillor Karen Arnold is suing Mr Shadbolt and Fairfax New Zealand, now known as Stuff, in the first defamation jury trial in Southland for 99 years.

Ms Arnold began giving evidence this afternoon in the High Court in Invercargill at the start of the two-week trial.

She alleges the mayor defamed her four times in his fortnightly column in the Southland Times in 2014 and 2015, two of which were republished on Fairfax's website Stuff.

Karen Arnold

Karen Arnold Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

Ms Arnold's lawyer, Peter McKnight, told the jury Mr Shadbolt's comments were very damaging.

"We only have but one reputation. Once it is lost it is extremely difficult to regain.

"The mayor, with the assistance of the Southland Times, has allowed the reputation of Karen Arnold to be attacked in various ways," he said.

Fairfax was reckless in the way it published the columns, he said.

The case has been building for almost three years, but reached court after failing to be settled.

Things had got nasty during debates at the council between October 2014 and April 2015 about its holding company Holdco borrowing an extra $130 million but then declining to invest in a kākāpō centre.

Councillors were critical of each other, a lot of which was aired in the pages of the newspaper.

Ms Arnold lawyer Peter McKnight.

Ms Arnold's lawyer, Peter McKnight. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

Mr McKnight said Mr Shadbolt then used his columns over the six months to slur Ms Arnold.

He said the central thrust of her complaint was the implication that she was unprofessional and the leaker of confidential documents.

Ms Arnold herself then took the stand for much of the afternoon.

She went through her personal history, especially her roles as a Southland Times reporter covering the council, a Department of Conservation kākāpō ranger and then city councillor.

Some councillors resented her joining the council and questioned her integrity, she said.

And she didn't pull any punches in her description of the mayor and the newspaper.

"It's undeniable that these articles published by the Southland Times over many years show that Mr Shadbolt was known to be jealous, vindictive, petty and a fibber."

"In its own words, the Southland Times referred to his growing memory lapses, imperfect memory of events and flawed memories."

"Which is why its treatment of me since October 2014 is as disgusting, as it is darn well personal," she said.

Neither Mr Shadbolt nor Fairfax have yet put their defence, though it has been signalled that they will say that the meanings Ms Arnold took from the columns were not what he intended.

And that in any case, what Mr Shadbolt wrote was his honest opinion.

The jury will have to decide if Mr Shadbolt crossed the line, and if so, what it should cost him.

The trial is expected to run for at least two weeks.