NZ First Foundation defendant seeks protection against 'trial by media'

The case was heard at the North Shore District Court on Thursday morning.
The case was heard at the North Shore District Court on Thursday morning. Photo credit: Newshub

By Anneke Smith for RNZ

One of the defendants in the New Zealand First Foundation court case has argued they will face 'trial by media' if named.

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has charged two people with obtaining by deception after its investigation into the Foundation and its handling of donations.

They are accused of using a "fraudulent device, trick or stratagem" to secure more than $700,000 between 2015 and 2020, which was then used to pay expenses for the New Zealand First party.

Neither person can be identified, despite four public court hearings on the suppressions, but the SFO confirmed ahead of the election this year they were not ministers, sitting MPs, candidates, staffers or current members of New Zealand First.

Substantive arguments on an application for continued name suppression were heard by Judge Deidre Orchard in the North Shore District Court on Thursday morning.

A lawyer representing one of the defendants began their case by canvassing the charge details for up to 20 minutes before telling the court he considered the Serious Fraud Office had "a very weak case".

He criticised the veracity of the SFO's investigation and accused it of "actively politicising" the case by releasing a statement to media confirming the outcome of its investigation would be announced ahead of the general election.

The lawyer said media coverage of the case to date had been irresponsible and his client did not trust mainstream media would do anything but denigrate their name and reputation.

"They will simply try [my client] in the media and convict [them]," the lawyer said.

The court heard one of the defendants had obtained an affidavit by attack blogger Cameron Slater that explained how social media algorithms and click revenue worked.

"This is about the ability for the media and social media to use the hate methodology set out by Mr Slater to attack Winston Peters and thereby [my client]."

Slater was in court for the hearing.

The lawyer also cited a recent Court of Appeal decision which acknowledged courts were yet to fully grapple with the collision of suppression laws and those who flouted them on social media platforms.

However, when pressed by Judge Orchard the lawyer said they could not concede suppression orders were ineffective against bloggers and trolls.

Serious Fraud Office lawyer John Dixon QC opposed the application for continued name suppression and submitted the defendants had not set out a case that met the threshold test of extreme hardship.

Media lawyer Robert Stewart agreed with this submission and told the court the starting point for any name suppression matter was always open justice.

Stewart told the court it had been the New Zealand First party who politicised the case after it tried to gag the SFO from announcing it had filed charges ahead of the general election.

He also said allegations that media coverage of the case to date amounted to a political attack were not correct and Slater's affidavit contained no more than his own opinion and assertions.

The accredited media entities he represented were subject to standards of fairness, accuracy and balance developed and enforced by regulatory bodies, Stewart said.

Judge Orchard reserved her decision.

RNZ, Stuff, NZME, TVNZ and Mediaworks challenged a suppression order protecting the pair's identities in the lead-up to the general election, arguing the public had a right to know who they were before the polls closed.

The media entities argued against this suppression order in both the District and High Court, before abandoning the fight after the Court of Appeal indicated it would not hear the case.

The defendants will appear for a case-review hearing in the North Shore District Court on 26 January 2021.