The Whaleoil blog is in court on Monday to determine if it is a news media under the Evidence Act. There is a full day session in the High Court in Auckland looking at the appeal by Cameron Slater against Judge Blackie’s decision in the District Court that the Whaleoil blog is not a news medium.
At issue is a question of Cameron Slater being able to protect the source that gave him stolen material to copy. This material appears to have been provided solely to allow Cameron Slater write a long series of posts around 2012 at Whaleoil about the owner of that material, Matthew Blomfield.
Those posts were in my opinion clearly defamatory about the individual Matthew Blomfield. Indeed even some of court documents from Cameron’s lawyers appear to in at least part acknowledge that. Matthew Blomfield rightly sued for defamation.
In his discovery motion to support his case, he wanted to know the source that provided his documents and hard disk to the blogsite and Cameron Slater. I suspect that he saw the defamation emanating not only from Cameron Slater’s keyboard, but also from the malevolence of the source of the material that Cameron Slater was using to concoct his personal attacks.
Cameron Slater denied to reveal his source and was subsequently subject to a judgement in the District Court that he had to supply the source because the Whaleoil blog was not a news medium. Cameron applied for and was given leave to appeal that decision in the high court.
Now I am of the view that it is usually dubious to treat blog sites including our own as news mediums and therefore worthy of the protection of journalistic sources provided under the Evidence Act. The reason is simple.
Blog sites, especially in New Zealand, don’t have the time or resources to check sources of information, provide some balance about news, have legal advice, or the editorial controls that prevent the attacks on people that having a widely read pulpit of a blog site. We seldom have the time or the money to do it. Moreover most blog sites also provide widely accessible comment sections that publish comments by individuals providing feedback that are loosely moderated at best.
I’m always acutely aware of these limitations when administering our blog site. I have to be. There is no way that I want to wind up in court as Cameron has done through something being published on our site.
But the law is pretty clear that irresponsibly defaming any person or any entity in our current law by claiming that a opinion, deeply held or not, is fact is not part of what makes up a civil society. As a personal matter, I really don’t want to do that at a personal level because to make that widespread and protected by law would be horrendous for our society.
However this restraint isn’t that constraining. The Lange vs Atkinson decision back in the 1990s showed the balance point between debates that are in the public interest and those that are not. Having opinions on and speculating about politicians and other people in the public sphere It means that myself and the tens of thousands of others who write on this site can express their opinions about politics,
Sure it is quite feasible to run what is effectively a news medium in a blog style format. The online sections of most acknowledged news mediums here do. However they are characterised by the same levels of control that their broadcast and print relatives do as well. Articles and posts are checked by editorial staff. Dubious sourcing is run by lawyers for risk assessment. In news articles and even opinion pieces, attempts are made to provide fairness and balance. In the event of legal action these are all put in front of the court to show that they were done.
To me, this responsible approach to disseminating the stories and opinions of the day is what characterised a news medium.
Back in 2012, the Whaleoil blog appears have done none of these things. Instead of being responsible about what he was writing, Cameron Slater in his freedom from those journalistic restraints and responsibilities. He stated his opinions as facts and seldom moderated the comments that did the same.
You can understand why. At the time he was under-employed and living off an assortment of insurance payments, sickness benefits, and the odd jobs. Moreover he was, as he has acknowledged, also “demanding” payment from companies and individuals when he wrote posts that were unfavourable to their opponents and favourable to them. In short he was selling his services as an public relations attack blogger. His comments on his blog and other online media like twitter and facebook were that he wasn’t a journalist, he was a “partisan blogger”.
I believe him. His claims to being a journalist only came after he was sued for defamation and asked to disclose his source for the material that made up the core of the defamation. They look more like an attempt to keep his funders identity private before they got joined into the suit than any kind of journalist protecting their sources in the public interest.
It will be interesting to see arguments that Blomfield and Slater present to the court tomorrow.
Here are a few backgrounders. They have links to many other posts.