Sir Bob Jones' 'Māori gratitude day' column clearly 'tongue in cheek' - lawyer

5:59 pm on 10 February 2020

The first day of the defamation trial taken by millionaire Sir Robert Jones kicked off in the High Court at Wellington today to a packed public gallery.

Sir Bob Jones outside the High Court at Wellington on Monday 10 February on the first day of a defamation case.

Sir Bob Jones outside the High Court at Wellington on the first day of a defamation case. Photo: RNZ / Charlotte Cook

It relates to a petition by film maker Renae Maihi, who called for Sir Robert's knighthood to be revoked after he said that Waitangi Day should be replaced with Māori Gratitude day in an NBR column in 2018.

The column said Māori should bring Pākehā breakfast in bed, and weed their gardens out of gratitude for existing - which Sir Robert Jones' defence claims was satire.

In his opening remarks, Sir Robert's lawyer Fletcher Pilditch said his client has been a prolific author, who has been published in almost every paper in New Zealand.

"Typically the plaintiff's writing is humorous, often they've been designed to provoke comment, or encourage readers to take themselves less seriously.

"The plaintiff subscribes to the belief that laughter is the best medicine, and to never take life too seriously."

He said the column was clearly of a "tongue and cheek" nature as it was included under the subheading, "Time for a Troll'.

Pilditch said the petition made serious and offensive allegations, and spurred a hate-campaign against his client, which resulted in him being he called a "white supremacist", "turd" and "scum" by online commentators.

Renae Maihi  (right) outside the High Court at Wellington on Monday 10 February at the start of a defamation case taken by Sir Bob Jones.

Renae Maihi outside the High Court today. Photo: RNZ / Charlotte Cook

The definition of racism and hate speech was raised by Justice Thomas.

Pilditch said hate-speech laws were not intended to protect people from offence, but he expected the defence team may have different views on how hate speech and racism is defined.

The first of the witnesses for the plaintiff was Sir Robert Jones himself, who talked about having "numerous Māori friends".

Sir Robert said he has also supported numerous charities which have helped Māori, including setting up a women's refuge in Blenheim in the 80s and sitting on the national council for Women's Refuge for 12 years.

He said he gave Renae Maihi multiple chances to stop repeating her defamatory remarks before taking legal action.

"Despite my life-long involvement with writing, I have enormous difficulty expressing the sheer degree of anger I feel about Maihi's unforgivable and disgraceful, personal attention-seeking efforts at my expense."

Maihi's petition currently has more than 88,000 signatures.

Her lawyer, Davey Salmon, has been cross-examining Sir Robert on the over 50 columns he has previously written.

Maihi's defence is that of honest opinion, truth and absolute privilege.

The trial is set down for two weeks.