Bullies behind the screen, Jane Westaway

Whale Oil
Margie Thomson
Potton and Burton, $40.00,
ISBN 9780947503819

The authors of certain books published in this country deserve medals. Not literary prizes, although they might merit these, too. But I mean authors who devote themselves to uncovering connections and truths that would otherwise remain hidden, because those implicated have the power to hide their tracks and intimidate.

Nicky Hager’s clutch of fearless publications is the obvious case in point. And Rebecca Macfie’s quietly determined account of the willed blindness and oversight that led to 29 men dying in the Pike River Mine. Now we can add Margie Thomson to their company. Her latest book – Whale Oil – deserves a public service award. And it should be required reading for anyone – politician or otherwise – who uses the internet. 

Thomson quotes Jonathan Swift: “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after.” Hard to put it better a few hundred years later. These days, the mob no longer bays for blood in the market square. It crouches before monitors, posting hatred and lies into dark corners, where it can fester then burst out into the real world like a boil. The mosque murders are the painfully obvious New Zealand example. Regulation of this wild frontier lags so far behind, it would be laughable, were it not so frighteningly unjust.

The title of Thomson’s book will leave no one guessing its subject. The last – unattributed – post to Cameron Slater’s infamous blog declares that he began it “in 2005 as a personal project to help combat depression”. Slater’s self-help seems to have proceeded on the basis that, if you pull others down, you automatically build yourself up.   

In 2014, Slater was named Canon Media Awards Blogger of the Year. He crowed at the award ceremony, and has crowed ever since, over being “an award-winning journalist”. A profession, he always claimed, that protected him from legal pressure to reveal his sources.

Matt Blomfield was a Slater victim. He was a go-getting Auckland businessman. No angel, by his own admission. But totally undeserving of the suffering inflicted on him, his wife and two young daughters, over the course of Slater’s seven-year vendetta. Slater published accusations of everything from fraud and theft to drug dealing, pornography and paedophilia. The onslaught almost wrecked Blomfield’s life. Literally. It led to what was apparently a contracted armed attack by a masked man at the family home. Blomfield’s life was spared only by a malfunctioning weapon, while his wife and kids hid, petrified, under a bed. The attack forced the family out of their home, and to home-school the children. Incomprehensibly, Slater even tried friending Blomfield’s 10-year-old on Snapchat.

But Blomfield, unlike others whom Whale Oil hounded, fought back. And, finally, early this year, he was awarded damages (albeit money he never expects to see) for slander against the now bankrupt and dying Slater. How each man got to this point is the gripping – and admirably detailed – substance of Thomson’s book.

It sprang from a suggestion by Hager arising from his own Dirty Politics. This revealed the secretive and unscrupulous mutual back-scratching between Slater and certain political “informants”. It resulted in pieces written by Slater as if they were his own objective journalism. Researching it, Hager met Blomfield, trusted his account, and recommended the story to Thomson.

The Blomfield family’s years of hell were seemingly sparked by a falling-out between Blomfield and an ex-business partner in Hell’s Pizza. This is the backroom coward who supplied Slater with Blomfield’s hard drives and files – after reporting to the police their “theft” from a shared office. The material included family photographs and private, as well as business, documents. These Slater mined as some kind of inspiration for his fictional claims. This man, Slater and others held regular meetings in pursuit of what they dubbed “Operation Bumslide”, like other aspects of the story, so juvenile as to be laughable, were it not for the pain and damage wrought on their victims. 

Soon after the attacks began – when it became clear to Blomfield that Slater had somehow got his hands on a vast cache of persona material – he went to the police, expecting them to investigate what looked like (the real?) theft. They made a few desultory inquiries and decided it wasn’t theft because the files in question were copies, not the files themselves. This decision police later “reviewed”. When Blomfield was shot in the front garden of his home, the police response was dismayingly slow and inadequate. He knocked on the door of the Independent Police Conduct Authority, and was informed it could find no basis for his complaint, which was later reopened.

And, yet, throughout his “blogging” career, Slater has persisted in seeing himself as a victim. Right from the first round of attacks, when Blomfield contacted him and asked him to cease slandering him. Slater’s response was gobsmacking: “‘At least you don’t get named in parliament,’ … as if they were brothers in victimhood. ‘I get named in parliament.’

Even now, in the last post on Slater’s site in August this year, there’s bleating reference to “shadowy forces [that] conspired to take it down” and “numerous legal cases … [that] took their toll”. Bullies seem not to appreciate that the risk of living by the bludgeon is dying by it.   

Finally, Blomfield was cleared of any wrongdoing, and Slater lost a defamation case that, as a result of his delaying tactics, took years to reach the High Court. The Human Rights Tribunal described one of his articles about Blomfield as nothing less than “character assassination”. In August this year, Matt and Rebecca Blomfield bought the Whale Oil site. They wanted to remove all its content, thus protecting other victims, and – a nice touch, this – to create an online presence for Thomson’s book.

But how mud sticks. In August, The Spinoff published a piece describing the similarities between the closed-down Whale Oil site and the start-up of the new Whale Oil Beef. So far, so good. But it also carelessly referred to Blomfield’s “long feud with Slater”.

Blomfield’s attempts to stop Slater’s relentless bullying and his pursuit of justice through the legal channels available to him did not amount to a feud. This was a war between ruthless conspirators with almost all the power, and one man and his young family.

And this is why Thomson et al deserve medals. They turn their backs on the opportunity costs of their devotion, and for years slog to bring such stories to light. It shouldn’t be left to them to do so, but as our broadcast, print and digital media chase after the most recent ambulance and rarely allow journos to investigate more deeply, we can only thank god that they do. 

Jane Westaway is a Wellington writer and reviewer.

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Posted in Media, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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