- Date published:
7:36 pm, February 12th, 2018 - 119 comments
Categories: articles, feminism, journalism, Media, racism - Tags: bob jones, defamation, frivolous lawsuits, knighthood, Services In Racism
Some of you who have been watching the news lately may have noticed a petition by film-maker Renae Maihi, requesting that the Prime Minister revoke the Knighthood of one Mr. Bob Jones1, purveyor of racist trolling extraordinaire, and experiencer of multiple opinion column withdrawal, including honours in the category of sexism, and beneficiary bashing. I won’t deny that he is one of many deserving cases for confiscating titles awarded for no good reason, however that’s not even where the interesting part of this sordid tale starts.
For those unfamiliar with the History of Bob, this is a man with a history of litigiousness, having brought previous defamation cases before, to the tune of $800,000 in damages. This is a man who Cameron Slater called offensive for comments in the NZ Herald2. Here is the amended version of the article in question, which is still not great, implying as it does that we should let people starve to solve the problem of “welfare dependency,” but at least has no reference to incitement to suicide which was apparently the reason for its revision, although the piece’s title is still revealing in that regard if you ask me. This is also a man who has previously “jokingly” advocated police violence, which was well-covered at the time by QoT. (and society being what it is, we are still dealing with Bob four years and change later)
I think we can all agree that Bob doesn’t understand the nature of humour very well if any of that is his idea of a joke, and simply doesn’t seem to understand that punching down isn’t funny, it’s just abusing your power, whereas self-mockery or punching up is indeed quite humorous.
Naturally, this guy is threatening to sue over the petition, quibbling with the definition of “hate speech,” when such debates are best resolved as, well, public debates, not sad old men dragging people into court for no good reason. Bob presumably still has some sort of platform left judging by the fact that he keeps popping up like a whack-a-mole, rather than suing people, surely his response should be to clarify why his comments are not hateful, if there is in fact any reasonable defense available to him?
Even relatively conservative media outlets like One News are noting that the outrage is real, with the petition climbing up there into the stratosphere of 50,000 signatures, just like the one for them to dump Hosking from their election coverage. It is very rare for online petitions in New Zealand to exceed 10,000 signatures.
There were also other allegations surfacing on social media about his litigiousness:
This fucking asshole once announced he was suing me – over allegation I had plagiarised my film BLACK SHEEP on his book, er, OGG. It may be a lark to him, but it's terrifying being in the crosshairs. https://t.co/6HQtw4tVOT
— Jonathan King (@MrJonathanKing) February 11, 2018
While researching him, I found a final incident reported where nearby passengers literally applauded after staff were forced to kick him off a flight because he kicked up a fuss over nothing. Judge that how you will.
Now that we’ve established exactly who we’re talking about, I have a case to make. Let’s fix our defamation laws so that the Bob Joneses of the world can’t sue at the drop of a hat. It is wrong that, if Mr. Jones chooses to bring his suit, the only defense available to Ms. Maihi will be to prove, as if she’s guilty until determined innocent, (it isn’t quite that bad, but it’s close) that her comments are factually correct to the satisfaction of the court, and that Bob Jones did in fact engage in hate speech. (which at least colloquially, is a pretty reasonable case, however it will depend on how the court would define the term- if we’re talking about the academic version, ie. speech that incites violence due to hatred, that particular article may be pushing it, although taken in context of the entire canon of Mr. Jones’ work, it would seem reasonable to assume that he continues to hate certain people when he has had no compunction implying threats against them before, and thus read his articles in that context)
It is also wrong that the chilling effect of these sorts of cases stands in the way of movements like the #MeToo campaign spreading in New Zealand, because people need to worry about being sued if they name an abuser with the wealth to bring a court case. We should not have to worry about lawsuits about defamation when a person cannot prove they are innocent of a crime- that is the consistent standard we have for compensation for the state, and it should be the standard for defamation about previous court cases, or matters that never went before the court in the first place for whatever reason, if there is to be any degree of consistency under the law.
To clarify, it’s not wrong that we have defamation laws- they are useful for preventing slander and the misapplication of rumour, and malicious reporting. What is wrong is that they’re being used for disputes like this and require minimal evidence from the person filing the complaint, and the chilling effect they could have on political debate and bringing attention to miscarriages of justice. For your average person, even attending court proceedings for stating their political opinion is the height of bullying, a fact Mr. Jones seems to not understand. We should consider, for instance, the example of the United States’ defamation laws: they have defenses of fair comment and criticism, (which would see this and many prominent New Zealand cases thrown out of court before even starting) and they require the prosecution to establish malice on behalf of the defendant- (again, that would dismiss this case) that they either knowing published false information, or published false information with “reckless disregard” for the truth.
These would all be useful concepts to consider importing into New Zealand law, deriving as they do from a strong tradition of freedom of speech. It would also be useful for the law to note that powerful people, such as Jones, while they have more opportunity for reputational damage, also have more opportunity to have their side of a debate heard in the public sphere, and therefore the bar should in fact be higher for the wealthy and privileged to sue those who cannot be described as either of those things for defamation or libel, because their access to alternatives to the courts are greater. We should probably be aiming for some sort of happy medium between our laws and the US status quo, where most such cases are dismissed before making it to the court. In our current system, we have high-profile defamation cases popping up in the news pretty much every year. We should also consider if someone repeating an incorrect claim from a credible source should really be held responsible for it, rather than the original person who published that incorrect claim- if for instance, Bob Jones decided that there was an inaccuracy in one of the news pieces I have linked about him, under our law as-is, I am risking being his next target, because rather than being obliged to sue one of the news organizations I linked for being the original publisher, he can instead sue any person he likes who repeats an inaccuracy, even if they have taken reasonable measures like I have to ensure they are only talking about substantiated information3, because it’s apparently everyone’s duty to ensure the complete accuracy of everything they tell to their associates, even though such a standard is a practical impossibility for people who aren’t doing it professionally- even the professionals make mistakes and publish retractions.
Changing the law might make it harder for wealthy people to shut down rumour, but the job of shutting down rumour and purveying fact isn’t generally for the courts, except in the most serious of cases, it’s for the press, who are supposed to be the arbiters of fact in the public opinion the same way courts are the arbiters of fact under the law. Just because the press haven’t been struggling with their job lately and are enjoying instead attacking every politician or other public figure they can get their hands on through rumour and insinuation doesn’t mean that we should leave the option to bully people into silence open to the wealthy, rather we should hold the press to a higher standard (although preferably not through the courts) instead.
This is arguably a very good case for a Member’s Bill, especially as the ballot now seems to be being used by the entire house rather than just the Greens, (which is a bit of a pity, as they got a lot of excellent things done by Member’s Bill back in the day, and even had arguably more than their share be drawn under the last Government) if not necessarily productively by everyone, although I would be pleasantly surprised to see a National Party member take this issue up4.
1 As with John Key, I’m not calling this guy “Sir” in anything but a fit of irony, or perhaps to make a case for the backronym “Services In Racism.” If you’d like to tweet along with me on this topic, I’m using the hashtag #Knightsuit. Apologies for the pun. There’s also a valid point that such people having titles is a good reason to be suspicious of them, but as a small-r republican, I leave that determination to people who support their continued existence, because I oppose them on principle anyway.
2 I’m not linking to that site, but you should be able to google it if you’re curious exactly what Slater says. I considered not including it in this piece at all, until I found substantiation that the article had been edited. I think however we can all agree that if Slater says someone on the right-wing is offensive, that can basically be taken as a professional opinion.
3 I sincerely hope you all appreciate my willingness to risk prosecution to make a point about how screwed up our defamation law is.
4 There are also other issues that are ripe for reform, too, that could potentially be addressed by Member’s Bill. People on Twitter were also discussing today making it illegal for Corrections officers or Police to engage in sexual acts with people in their custody, for instance, as it is currently simply grounds to be fired rather than a criminal offense. If anyone is familiar with how laws are written, I/S from No Right Turn has a long-running project to put up template bills for adoption if you feel like doing some productive work, although this does require you opening yourself up to doing a bad job of drafting law.
Addition: Stuart Munro in comment 22.214.171.124 kindly points out that there are United Kingdom precedents for the revocation of Bob’s honour.