Site's popularity soars after stoush

CAROLINE KING AND SOPHIE SPEER
Last updated 11:30 24/04/2013
Colin Craig
HETEROSEXUAL: Colin Craig does not support same-sex marriage.
Ben Uffindell
DON SCOTT/Fairfax NZ
GREW LEGS: Ben Uffindell, the creator of satirical website The Civilian, sits on the steps of Canterbury University's central library.

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The popularity of a satirical website has soared after a legal fight over a farcical story on the legalisation of gay marriage.

On Monday, Christchurch-based satirical website The Civilian published a story about the weekend's floods in Nelson, Waikato and Bay of Plenty being caused by the passing of the Marriage Amendment Bill.

The story made reference to Pakuranga National MP Maurice Williamson and his now famous speech in Parliament in which he described seeing a ''big gay rainbow'' and took it as a sign in favour of the new legislation.

The Civilian story also quoted Conservative Party leader Colin Craig.

"Williamson likes to talk about big gay rainbows, but it would help if he understood what the rainbow actually means," the site quoted Craig as saying.

"After Noah's flood, God painted a giant rainbow across the sky, which was a message that he would never again flood the world, unless we made him very angry. And we have.''

On Tuesday, Craig's lawyer, John McKay, of Chapman Tripp, sent The Civilian editor Ben Uffindell a letter saying the remarks were defamatory and inaccurate.

As a result, The Civilian published a note above the story that read ''We accept, upon further review, that Mr Craig never made the statement attributed to him. We retract the statement and apologise to Mr Craig for any harm we have caused to his impeccable reputation.''

Uffindell said yesterday that his page had about 5500 likes. 

Following attention after the legal action, more than 6700 people have liked the page. The website started last month, founded by Uffindell. 

"It's been shooting up since yesterday afternoon," he said.

The story has had 1200 likes on Facebook. 

The Civilian's Facebook page says it "aims to present news in a way that no-one can understand" and sarcastically states it has "a proven commitment to accuracy".

Uffindell told The Press he was shocked and amused at the same time to receive the email from Craig's lawyer.

"I thought it was a joke at first. The legal statement read like a parody, something I'd write."

He said it was the first time The Civilian had received a threat of legal action for defamation and he hoped it would be the last.

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He did not see how the article could reflect badly on Craig's political career as it was clearly satirical.

The story appeared alongside another far-fetched piece on "Bob Parker contemplating return to space", he said.

He did not think Craig would pursue the matter.

He also took the "additional measure" of bolding the statement "so that everybody knows which thing it was that Mr Craig did not say".

In his response to Uffindell's lawyer, he said: "The Civilian was horrified to learn that it had misquoted Mr Craig in the article in question, and if you visit our website, you will see that we have taken urgent action to rectify our terrible mistake.

"We would never dream of making Mr. Craig look ridiculous. Indeed, we're quite content to leave that up to him."

Alongside his signature on the retraction statement, he put a smiley face with a top hat.

Craig told The Press he would not be pursuing legal action.

"They provided a retraction at the end of the day. It's now very clear. They've done that in a humorous, tongue and check fashion, but that's keeping with the website."

Craig said he even "smiled" at the smiley face next to the signature on the retraction. 

He said now there could be no confusion that the comments were not made by him.

Craig earlier said he had a ''very well-developed sense of humour'', but he was concerned other media outlets would believe he had made those comments and they would be used out of context.

''At the end of the day, it's obvious it's a satirical site [but they] put the things in quotation marks as if I had said them,'' he said.

''I've had experiences with other media picking up these [sorts of] comments and thinking I genuinely said them. It's pretty important if you're going to use quotations, get it right.''

Craig said the party had a list of media outlets that they deemed had misquoted or misrepresented it and it was deciding what type of action to take.

''It's not the first action we have taken and it probably won't be the last,'' he said.

Craig said he believed political satire had a role to play in the media but when quotations were used people would believe he had made the comments.

Uffindell said stories published on The Civilian were never intended to be mean-spirited, and he did not want people to get the impression Craig had made the comments.

Most other politicians and celebrities who had been written about on the site, which has been operating since March, had ''taken it on the chin'', he said.

''What he's complaining about is part and parcel about what we do. Some people - it's unsurprising which people - some people [can't take it on the chin].''

Uffindell said the website's servers had been struggling to keep up with the massive spike of traffic caused by publicity of the incident.

 

Media lawyer Steven Price said that while causing someone to be ridiculed could be used in a defamation case, he did not think Craig had a strong case.

''Courts are going to say, 'Nobody is going to take it seriously'. It's obviously exaggerated, it's obviously made up.''

Craig could have easily scored an own goal by raising awareness of The Civilian piece and website.

It should be noted Chapman Tripp was probably acting on Craig's instructions when sending the letter, Price said.

''We shouldn't assume Chapman Tripp are telling him he has a good case.''

Uffindel, 21, finished his degree in political science at the University of Canterbury last year and now works fulltime on The Civilian website.

- The Press

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