7 Apr 2017

Little 'had a social duty to respond', defamation jury told

8:10 am on 7 April 2017

The Opposition leader's treatment of tourism operators, Earl and Lani Hagaman, was "unfair, cruel and cynical", a jury has been told.

Andrew Little leaving court

Andrew Little (right) leaving court. Photo: RNZ / Michael Cropp

However, Andrew Little's lawyer said his client was acting in good faith when he published a statement linking a contract awarded to a tourism company with a large donation its owners made to the National Party, a jury has heard.

The owners of the Scenic Hotel Group, Earl and Lani Hagaman, are suing Andrew Little for defamation in the High Court in Wellington.

The lawyers for both sides presented their closing arguments yesterday.

Mr Little's lawyer, John Tizard, said his client was acting in his role as Leader of the Opposition in raising questions about the Niue resort deal.

"He had a social or moral duty as Leader of the Opposition to respond to questions raised by members of the public who had a corresponding interest in knowing his response.

"Members of the public could be anyone but in this case it is the enquiry from the media who are the conduit to the public, the means by which he conveys his message to the public."

However the Hagamans' lawyer, Richard Fowler QC, questioned that, saying Mr Little heard about the deal in the morning and rushed out his statement within 24 hours.

"They say by virtue of being Leader of the Opposition he is being questioned by the public so he has protection, [but] wouldn't you think he'd need to exercise that carefully and he'd need to check things out before he took it any further?"

Mr Tizard said Andrew Little was not making accusations against the Hagamans, in the media interviews complained about he was simply raising his suspicions about the deal.

Mr Tizard read a transcript of one of the interviews to the jury.

"I just think there's too much going on here. It looks too cosy. It doesn't look right to me and we should find out and the Auditor-General should be the one to find out."

However Richard Fowler said Andrew Little had added in words that were not in the original story about the deal and he demonstrated that with quotes from statements Mr Little made in the media.

"'Stinks to high heaven', 'dodgy deals with sky city' and reference to the Saudi sheep deal."

John Tizard suggested that after reading Mr Little's statement the jury might find he was targeting the government, not the Hagamans.

"The theme is not what one of the National Party's donors might have done to influence the government... rather it's what the government might have done for one of its donors."

Mr Tizard said jurors should consider what impact an award of damages against Andrew Little might have on him.

He said if the jury decides to award damages to the Hagamans they must remember it is virtually Andrew Little's money they are giving away.

But Richard Fowler said Mr Little's actions meant Earl Hagaman's charity and the good things he had done could be drowned out online by references to corruption that were completely untrue.

Justice Clark will sum up to the jury this morning.