Let’s ask those bloody reporters who pays when they get into trouble with the libel laws

Alf has a simple question for the political hacks now engaged in a feeding frenzy over MPs’ legal bills.

If they write something defamatory and are sued, who picks up the tab for the legal bills and damages?

If they reply that they personally won’t pay – their company will carry those costs – then they will have gone a long way to explaining why MPs don’t meet the costs of their own transgressions when they say something as MPs that incurs a defamation suit.

Alf makes this point as the Herald bangs on today about these costs.

The taxpayer has so far unwittingly chipped in at least $320,000 for MPs embroiled in lawsuits – including $150,000 for two MPs to defend themselves in legal spats with another MP, NZ First leader Winston Peters.

Alf notes the hack’s use of the word “unwittingly”.

Taxpayers pay for lots of things “unwittingly” every day. Alf could draw up a huge list of things that were paid for yesterday from the public purse.

It’s fair to say taxpayers were “unwitting” parties to each transaction.

The Herald goes on:

Both National MP David Carter and former Act MP Ken Shirley yesterday confirmed they had received public money for legal costs after they were sued for defamation by Winston Peters relating to an inquiry into alleged corruption over scampi fisheries in 2004.

Parliamentary Services paid $114,000 of Mr Carter’s legal bills and up to $40,000 for Mr Shirley’s.

Mr Carter later reimbursed $5000 after receiving $19,000 in costs from Mr Peters. Mr Peters’ costs in the cases would not qualify for taxpayer funding because it cannot be used to initiate lawsuits against others.

The rule’s application to Peters in this case seems reasonable. If a newspaper hack decided to sue someone for defamation, it is a moot point whether the employer would do the paying.

Mr Shirley said he had also received a further amount of up to $50,000 for a 2002 defamation action against him by a helicopter pilot and West Coast police over allegations about deer poachers.

His total bills in that case were about $150,000.

Neither had revealed public funds were used at the time of the cases.

But did the hacks ever ask them where the money had come from before now?

National MP Nick Smith seems to have provided further details about funding for the defamation case against him. Parliamentary Services had so far contributed $122,000 toward his costs of $274,00, the Herald says.

The amounts were provided after the Herald revealed that the taxpayer had been footing some MPs’ legal costs since a little known change to the rules in 2001 allowed public funds to be used to defend them.

The revelations have led to calls for greater transparency when such funding is approved.

There is no requirement to divulge it because Parliamentary Services is not covered by the Official Information Act.

The contributions come out of funds allocated to each party’s leader’s office and must be approved by the party leader and the Speaker.

The Boss sensibly says this is a legitimate use of taxpayers’ money within the limits set down by the Speaker.

Just as sensibly, he said he would not object to opening the books further.

“There’s nothing to hide here. If someone is going to use taxpayers’ resources to defend a legal case then I think taxpayers are entitled to know what that is.”

Alf agrees.

And taxpayers would have known about these payments long ago, obviously, if the bloody media hacks hadn ‘t sat back in their offices waiting for a media statement on the matter. All they had to do was ask the right questions of the right people.

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