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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 15. 1972

The Libel Law According to Wheeler

page 4

The Libel Law According to Wheeler

Criminal libel is defined in the Crimes Act, Section 211 in that gobbledegook prose of the lawyer as "matter published without lawful justification or excuse, either designed to insult any person or likely to injure his reputation by exposing him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule or likely to injure him in his profession, office business trade or occupation, whether such matter is expressed by words, written or printed, or legibly marked on any substance, or by any object signifying such matter otherwise than by words, and whether expressed directly or by insinuation or irony." Anyone proved guilty of committing a criminal libel with "malicious intent" may be sent to jail for up to two years. As the law stands it has probably changed little from the time several centuries ago when it was first introduced as a political measure to curb the tongues of wayward publishers, editors journalists and others of their ilk whose criticism of the established order was a little too barbed and pungent for the fashionable hypocrisy of the day. Naturally it's a useful law to have in the bag. The ordinary civil libel laws are just part of the consumer society game. Libel litigation is never concerned with "honour" and "good repute" any more than it is with notions of "Truth". People decide to sue for libel because they want money. The law of civil libel works like a form of state lottery wherin the plaintiff gambles the legal costs against the possibility of winning a nest egg for his financial future.

The law of criminal libel is a much different quantity. The fact that there is no monetary penalty of any size beyond legal costs indicates this. Criminal libel is particularly useful threat to hold over critical outsiders whose sniping at the established order has become more than just a minor irritant. The threat helps to keep potentially noisy and embarrassing critics quiet in circumstances where the ordinary law of civil libel and its merely monetary penalty cannot operate. Fear of imprisonment can act as a powerful deterrent in a society which has been conditioned with the aid of a deliberately punitive prison system to think of jail as the ultimate social stigma. The stigma has been mitigated of late, however, as more members of the protest movement have made the ritual j journey to jail and back and have discovered its potential in widening the base of attack against the status quo. That the law of libel owes its existence solely to political considerations can be seen from the way it has operated (or rather, not operated) in New Zealand over the past twenty years. Opinions seem to vary on the number of cases of criminal libel that have been taken through the courts this century but one lawyer I spoke to mentioned "about six". To find the most recent case one has to go back to 1964 and a case brought by the local Hydatids Board against the editor of the Akaroa Mail.

It appears to have been a case of a pile- driver being used to crack a nut and the Board of course lost - the case was too petty to be handled under the extreme measures of criminal libel.

The only other case dates back nearly twenty years to the mid Fifties when Stan Gooseman objected to being labelled a murderer by "Big Jim" Roberts, President of the F.O.L. This was very much a case of the law of criminal libel being too meagre a stick to beat one of Big Jim's stature in the Labour movement and all Big Jim was required to do in the end was to print an apology in the Standard.

One might indeed say that the law is such a political one that it has not been seen as politic to use it till now.