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Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

MediaAugust 10, 2019

Farewell to Whaleoil, hate machine of the blogosphere

Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

Cameron Slater’s mendacious, bullshit-ridden site has finally been shut down – and yet, somehow, the grift goes on, writes reformed blogger Danyl Mclauchlan

I once had a blog on the internet. This was during the golden age of blogging, the late 2000s and early 2010s; a window when blogs were new and interesting and – very briefly – influential; when political blogs were separate from and morally superior to the evil mainstream media, a golden age before political journalists turned into bloggers and rendered the medium irrelevant.

The most famous blog in New Zealand was Whaleoil. But it was never clear to me how many people actually read it. Part of the culture of blogging was that you linked to other blogs, usually to disagree with something someone else wrote. There was a hierarchy in New Zealand blogging: the better your traffic stats the more influential you were, and whenever one of the top tier bloggers – David Farrar at Kiwiblog, Deborah Russell and Julie Fairey at the Hand Mirror, Russell Brown at Public Address – linked to my blog, my statistics soared as their audience of thousands clicked through and briefly joined my dozens of loyal readers.

That never happened on the rare occasions when Whaleoil linked to me. I mean, a couple of people clicked through, but the publicly available stats for Whaleoil Beef Hooked – try saying it fast in an Irish accent – showed it to be the largest, most popular blog in the country by a vast margin. Millions of visits a month. Larger than most mainstream media outlets. That’s what gave the Whale his awesome power, what made him one of the most influential voices in the country.

Yet few people clicked through from this most popular of sites. Almost as if the statistics were, you know, questionable. And when you looked at the comment threads – most blogs had a robust and generally friendly community of commenters, the larger the blog the larger the community. Whaleoil was limited to a very small cast of regulars whose contributions included fantasising about raping woman journalists and politicians they didn’t like, or mass murdering muslims or “the maoris”. The same tiny handful, all day, day after day, month after month.

The Whale was Cameron Slater, son of former National Party president John Slater; National party insider, confidant to John Key, friend to senior National MP Judith Collins. Slater was a key figure in the Key government’s “two tier” media strategy, in which the prime minister presented himself as a lovable goofy dad who was relaxed about everything, while his office fed an endless stream of smears, lies and personal attacks into the media via the Whale.

Slater broke some big stories. He revealed that Auckland Mayor Len Brown had an affair; he helped the SIS and the Prime Minister’s Office under John Key smear Labour leader Phil Goff. There were repeated attacks on unions, naturally; ministers in Key’s government anonymously fed smear stories against the public servants who worked for them, as you do if your government has no agenda and no purpose to exist other than to be in power. The Whale made hundreds, probably thousands of additional allegations that were never substantiated, or turned out to be utterly false, but there were never any apologies, any retractions. Instead there was always “more to come”: the tipline always ran red-hot.

But most of the content on Whaleoil wasn’t political. The majority of the posts seemed to be there for the purposes of search engine optimisation: viral videos, cat pictures, maps, pictures of porn stars and guns, and porn stars holding guns. There was a Bible proverb of the day, every day because Slater was a deeply committed Christian, somehow. There was a face of the day, usually a woman Slater despised; there were countless “open threads”, countless cut and pasted excerpts from mainstream news stories, sometimes with commentary on those stories.

Slater seemed to find it hilarious when small children died, especially if they were non-white children. He celebrated their murders or fatal accidents with posts called “Silly First Name Syndrome”: the big joke was that if a toddler was attacked by a pit-bull it was actually because of her non-Anglo name. There were numerous media stunts. In 2007 a Pasifika woman with heart and lung disease died when her power company shut off electricity to her home, shutting down her oxygen machine; Slater challenged her children to fight him. In 2009 and 2010 he decided to challenge the laws around name suppression for sexual assault. Sometimes judges granted sex offenders name suppression because their crimes were against members of their family, and identification of the offender would also identify the victim. Slater gleefully breached the orders.

But a lot of the content was just, well, weird. I mean, all of it was weird in a horrible way, but a lot of it was weird in a weird way. There were long, detailed attacks on an obscure Auckland socialite, and a campaign against Matthew Bloomfield, a person of no obvious political relevance, who owned a Hell’s Pizza franchise. There were attacks against members of the National Party: minor party-holders who were contesting a seat somewhere. There were prolonged campaigns against researchers at various universities, especially Otago health researchers publishing academic papers about junk food or cigarette smoking. It was hard to imagine Slater knew that Otago had a university, or that the field of public health even existed as an academic discipline and yet here he was, publishing long rebuttals in which he alleged various PhD projects and longitudinal studies were fraudulent. What was that about?

Some of these questions were answered in 2014, when Nicky Hager published Dirty Politics. Someone hacked Slater’s email (we never found out who: it’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of New Zealand politics) and turned the data over to Hager. He revealed that much of the content on Whaleoil wasn’t being written by Slater, but by a shadowy cast of lobbyists, political staffers and malevolent third parties. Slater pretended to be the author, because a great deal of this content was defamatory, and he published it because they paid him: his business model was to publicly smear people for money. And all of this ended exactly the way you’d expect: with Slater being sued for defamation and bankrupted, which prompted the closure of Whaleoil last week.

Matt Bloomfield this week purchased the Whaleoil site from the liquidator, and redirected the URL to his own site, where he is promoting the book about his long conflict with Slater

It all worked for a while though. Several incumbent National MPs paid Slater to smear their opponents when they contested an electorate seat, which explained the bizarre blue-on-blue attacks Slater conducted against his fellow Nats. After Dirty Politics was published, I spoke with some of the scientists and reporters Slater attacked. No one they knew would ever read Whaleoil (possibly because hardly anyone actually read Whaleoil) but his posts still had a chilling effect. The site’s elaborate search optimisation meant that anything he published about you became one of the top search results for your name. Everyone googling you came across Whaleoil content alleging you were a liar and a fraud, and you were under investigation and about to go to prison (much of the content written about health scientists seemed to have been written by lobbyist Carrick Graham, son of former National Minister Sir Doug Graham).

If you were a woman these allegations were generally accompanied by lurid speculations about your private life; annotated by the inevitable rape and death threats in the comment section. Some of New Zealand’s prominent advocates of free speech – who insist that the speech rights of neonazis need to be preserved, and regard Golriz Ghahraman as a civilisational threat – were enthusiastic amplifiers of Slater when he attacked the free speech of academics and journalists by smearing and defaming them whenever they said anything he or his clients didn’t like.

Slater has come to symbolise the era of New Zealand political blogging, which is a shame because he wasn’t very representative of it. The blogs were primarily a bunch of nerds critiquing the media and arguing with each other about politics. It was sometimes immature and nasty, but disputes were generally settled by both parties running to the Stats NZ website and building a graph with which to destroy their foes.

Slater didn’t seem to care about statistics, or ideology, or policy or theory, or anything other than making money by smearing people and trying to ruin their lives. He was essentially a grifter. He often affected to be critical of the media, but his style was deeply informed by what was happening in the mainstream media during the period of his ascendancy. The most powerful print journalists back then were the gossip columnists Rachael Glucina and Bridget Saunders; the most prominent broadcaster was Paul Henry. Jonathan Marshall and Stephen Cook were investigative reporters. Paul Holmes, Sean Plunket and Bob Jones were top tier columnists. There was an obsession with race and gender-baiting, gossip, smear stories and scandals. Some of these people are still around, but the corrupt, sleazy, smear obsessed style of media that Slater influenced, and was influenced by, has largely been swept away.

Blogs are still around as a form, but they’re now only one digital channel among many, and not a very influential one. Some bloggers moved into the mainstream media and are doing good work, but most moved to Twitter, where the algorithm incentivises everyone to be more Cameron-Slater-like and less like a real human. But I like to think that many of the good things happening in our media today are part of the true legacy of political blogging. There’s more advocacy journalism, more analysis, more honest opinion and less of the value-free “voters will think” and “some might say” view-from-nowhere takes, more data visualisation; more substance, more policy. It’s nerdier and more diverse. I’m not here to pretend that it’s perfect, but the media in this country used to be dominated by people who idolised Slater and wanted to be like him, and that is no longer true.

Slater was a spent force after Dirty Politics. He reportedly suffered a stroke in 2018, which partially disabled him, and now his site is gone: seized by the bankruptcy liquidators, and sold on to an enemy. But he’s still a vague shadow on the periphery of things. His wife and followers have set up a new site called TheBFD, where you can purchase a platinum membership for only $1997 a year. Slater is said to be incapacitated, and yet that fee buys you “two exclusive events per annum with Cam and his guest speaker”. Like everything involving Slater, the truth is obscured behind a dense mist of bullshit. The grift never seems to end.

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