Controversial and well-known blogger Cameron Slater has lent his support to the New Zealand First Foundation accused fighting to keep their identity secret.
Slater’s support came during a courtroom battle today about whether both defendants’ interim name suppression would continue in the case over allegations of improper political donations.
While the first defendant has actively fought for continued name suppression, the second only maintains suppression because of the connection to their co-accused.
Judge Deidre Orchard heard the first accused’s lawyer allege a “lack of proper investigation” and “weak charge” by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).
The government agency laid obtaining by deception charges in September after an investigation into the NZ First Foundation, which was sparked by journalists last year.
The SFO investigation, the first accused’s lawyer claimed, has been highly politicised by the news media and described it as a “political smear attack” against NZ First leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters.
The “media, social media, bloggers and trolls” were also blamed for misreporting and distorting the case, while the damage from publication of the duo’s identities “will be huge”.
“The concept of innocent until proven guilty does not apply to the modern media or social media,” the defendant’s lawyer argued in the North Shore District Court.
An affidavit by well-known and controversial blogger Cameron Slater was also used in support of suppression being maintained through to a trial.
Slater, who was sitting in the back of the courtroom for today’s hearing, took aim at mainstream news media, journalists and social media.
He said the likes of Facebook and Twitter used algorithms designed to generate user engagement, with each click monetised by selling advertising space.
The former Whale Oil blogger also said social media companies were guilty of chasing and generating clicks by creating “hate” and targets for so called “social media journalists”.
The NZ First Foundation case and Peters, the court heard, could be such a lightning rod for social media trolls.
The case of a young man who assaulted two people at a drunken Labour Party youth summer camp was also raised as evidence of internet vigilantism against a defendant.
In September, the Court of Appeal granted the young man permanent name suppression in what may be a precedent setting decision about the social media “mob”, “cancel culture” and internet vigilantism.
While mainstream media should be considered responsible due to professional constraints and oversight by the courts, the Court of Appeal said, commentary about a case or defendant on social media was a different matter.
“There can be no reasonable expectation that such reportage will be fair or accurate,” the Court of Appeal said of social media users.
“And there is no realistic way of controlling its content or its spread, particularly in a high profile and politically controversial case.”
SFO prosecutor John Dixon QC opposed suppression continuing and said the agency alleges the first defendant “engaged in fraud and engaged in deception”.
“The Crown does say that donors were deceived, the party secretary was deceived, and the electoral commission was deceived,” he said.
Dixon said any trial for the accused was likely to be 12 months away and by then any claimed “media storm” from their identities being published would die down.
The news media’s lawyer Robert Stewart pressed upon Judge Orchard that the starting point in New Zealand’s courts was for open justice and reporting of proceedings.
“It is only if the interests of [the defendant] clearly outweigh the public interest in open justice that your honour may exercise your discretion in his favour,” he said.
“Your honour has got to look at whether publication will cause extreme hardship.”
Stewart said the bid for continued suppression and the evidence relied upon simply didn’t meet the high threshold for secrecy.
The leading media and defamation barrister said it was the NZ First Party which had politicised the case after unsuccessfully seeking to suppress the mere fact charges had been laid until a Government had been formed following the 2020 election.
Stewart criticised Slater’s affidavit and said it was “an agenda presented to the court dressed up as expert opinion”.
Her asked Judge Orchard not to give Slater’s views any weight when making her decision.
Stewart also said the term “media” was being bandied about but that the accredited news organisations he represented were not the same as bloggers and internet trolls.
Judge Orchard, who was presented with several bundles of evidence and accompanying documents, reserved her decision.
Allegations of a 'trick or stratagem' and Peters' 'exonerated' claim
They two accused have denied the allegations and have pleaded not guilty while electing trial by jury.
Both are on bail and are due to appear in court again in January,
Neither is a minister, sitting MP, was a candidate in the 2020 or a member of their staff, or a current member of the New Zealand First political party.
Charging documents allege the pair deposited $746,881 between September 30, 2015 and February 14 this year with “intent to deceive the donors of the monies, the party secretary of the New Zealand First Party and/or the Electoral Commission”.
“The defendants adopted a fraudulent device, trick or stratagem, whereby party donations for the party were paid into the bank accounts of [suppressed] and the New Zealand First Foundation and not notified to the party secretary, or declared by the party secretary to the Electoral Commission,” the court papers read.
“Those undeclared funds thereby became available to [suppressed]/New Zealand First Foundation to use as the defendants saw fit, and were used to pay expenses of the party and to develop a fundraising database for the benefit of the party and [suppressed].”
Charges were laid by the SFO against the two accused on September 23, but since then a series of hastily arranged court hearings and interim suppression orders have prevented their identity being publicly known.
The hearings, which were not listed on public court proceeding notices and held in the absence of journalists, included the failed attempt by NZ First to stop the charges becoming public.
Before last month’s general election, a consortium of media companies, including the Herald’s publisher NZME, argued the duo should be named before voters entered the ballot box.
However, after unsuccessful bids in the District and High Courts, the Court of Appeal also declined to hear another appeal from the media.
“Fiat justitia ruat caelum. Justice must take its normal course, even in abnormal times,” Court of Appeal president Justice Stephen Kos said, invoking the Latin legal phrase which translated reads: “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”
Peters has distanced himself from the foundation – reported to have bankrolled the political party – and has denied any wrongdoing after it first came under scrutiny last November.
After the charges became public, Peters claimed at a press conference that he and the party were “exonerated”.
He was also highly critical of the SFO and its decision to lay charges so close to the election, threatening legal action against the prosecution office.
After dozens of media reports last year, largely led by an RNZ and Stuff investigation, the Electoral Commission announced in February it believed the foundation had received donations it should have been treated as party donations.
It referred the matter to police, which was then passed on to the SFO After dozens of media reports last year, largely led by a Stuff and RNZ investigation, the Electoral Commission announced in February it believed the New Zealand First Foundation had received donations that should have been treated as party donations.
It referred the matter to police, which was then passed on to the SFO to investigate.
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