Where only trolls and the spiritually misshapen go

Whale Oil by Margie Thomson

Potton & Burton 

Reviewed by Finlay Macdonald

Reading Margie Thomson’s deft account of one man’s seven-year defamation battle with blogger Cameron Slater, I kept returning to an old adage about choosing your battles carefully. It has various formulations, but my all-time favourite came from an American businessman describing his experiences dealing with now-dead Australian tycoon Alan Bond: “Doing business with Bond is like wrestling a pig in shit,” he said. “You both get covered in shit, but the pig loves it.”

Substitute the odd word and name, and you have an excellent working definition of what it was like for Matt Blomfield as he attempted to wrestle his reputation back from Slater and a handful of unlovely acolytes – other than that the analogy is deeply unfair to pigs.

Many readers will feel like a shower after a session with this book, and Thomson is to be applauded for her willingness to go where only trolls and the spiritually misshapen could feel at home. As she explains early on, her book was born from a footnote to Nicky Hager’s 2014 bestseller Dirty Politics, arguably the book that marked the beginning of the end for Slater by laying bare his methods and the scabrous demi-monde he inhabited.

Blomfield was a relatively successful young entrepreneur – by his own admission no angel – who over-reached and lost, and clearly made some enemies in the process. The dissection of his business affairs is probably the least interesting part of the book, but it does at least support the contention that Blomfield was hardly the sort of big fish to warrant the attention Slater normally reserved for political targets. Whether he was paid to run the campaign or not, Slater was clearly channeling the antipathy of others.

Calling their vendetta “Operation Bumslide” (a lexicon of vulgar and puerile Slaterisms would make a short book in its own right), these detractors harnessed the then-popular Whale Oil machine to depict Blomfield as a fraudster, a thief, a liar, a pornographer and a lunatic. Strange and sinister things happened along the way, including a violent home invasion and assault, which was at the very least worthy of far greater scrutiny in the context of Blomfield’s other travails than the police gave it.

Being from the same publisher and with an admiring foreword by Hager, you could be forgiven for thinking Whale Oil might represent one dip too many into the same dank well of character assassination, paid hit jobs and vicious mockery of undeserving victims. It’s not. Rather, Thomson has constructed an elegant psychological study of both main protagonists, equally obsessional in their own ways, locked in a kind of death-embrace from which only one can emerge the winner, but which will leave neither unscathed.

The term Kafkaesque is over-used and mis-used, but Blomfield’s predicament surely meets the criteria. Defamed, denigrated and physically attacked, he was nevertheless incapable of defending himself through any normal channel. The police, the courts, the media, the bureaucracy all live down to Kafka’s vision of a system designed to serve only itself and its own absurd purpose. The more Blomfield struggles to extricate himself from this web of perfidy and stupidity, the more he appears fixated and vexatious to indifferent observers. The more he professes his sanity, the more insane he appears.

It really is a wonder that Blomfield didn’t go completely raving mad – or just give up, as so many of Slater’s targets did. Thomson makes much of his being the grandson of legendary New Zealand wrestler Lofty Blomfield to explain his tenacity and willingness to engage. Fair enough, no author could resist such ready made symbolism, and this also fits her thesis that Slater and his ilk are nothing more than bullies who need to be stood up to. But it’s just as likely that Blomfield is missing an off-switch too. Either way, as Slater would eventually learn, he was the wrong guy to pick on.

Blomfield would certainly have had grounds for losing all faith in human nature. The version of himself painted by Slater in countless blog posts amounted to little more than a comic book villain. To believe in such a crude caricature, and that such a person had not in real life already been dragged before a judge for their deplorable acts, would require a suspension of disbelief only the pathologically credulous can muster.

Alas, those are precisely the kind of intellectual invertebrates that inhabit the sweaty crevices of the Internet colonised by Whale Oil and far worse. And this is where Thomson’s story rises above the mere re-telling of an unfortunate period in one hapless soul’s life, and becomes a nuanced examination of the conditions required for Slater’s malignant brand to thrive.

At the obvious level, as lawyer Steven Price summarises in his pithy appendix to the book, “defamation law is broken”, and none of the official institutions to which we look for protection and redress have adapted usefully to the digital age. More than that, though, the anger, cruel banter, worthless hot-takes, knee-jerk sanctimony and indignant raving that fuel social media and online forums also form the manure that nourishes an uncivil society.

Thomson rightly places awful events such the murder of British MP Jo Cox and the Christchurch massacre on the same continuum of debased thought. “When we encounter, on Twitter or Facebook, on a blog or just gossiping over a coffee, a story that demonises someone, it satisfies our most primitive instincts for story,” she writes. “We get excited, and we want that person to be as bad as they can be: not only a failed businessman but a pornographer and paedophile. Anything less is disappointing because it denies us the momentary ‘high’, that unity of shared outrage.”

In short, we like to think the worst of others. And while we might also like to think our own instincts are nobler, the algorithm doesn’t lie. As a banker tells Blomfield when he applies for a loan, “you don’t google well”. The net effect of our voyeuristic impulses and the viral immediacy of digital media is, for the Matt Blomfields of this world, catastrophic. As Thomson writes, borrowing from Jonathan Swift, “Falsehood flies, and Truth comes limping after.” It was ever thus, but nowadays falsehood flies at the speed of light down fibre-optic cable.

When truth finally does arrive, albeit on crutches and with a bandaged head, it’s almost an anticlimax. Having gamed the courts for years, delaying and prevaricating (for much of the time continuing to gleefully defame and otherwise harass Blomfield), Slater has nothing to offer; no proof whatsoever that anything he posted was true, fair or reasonable. So he loses. But the outcome is less than our aforementioned primitive instincts for story might demand. Slater is a bankrupted wretch, those who conspired with him are untouched by the verdict, Blomfield has devoted the prime of his life to combatting something our justice system should abjure, but which defamation law encourages: the presumption of guilt until innocence is proven.

What animates the likes of Slater and the haters he attracts remains a mystery, other than that they lack normal empathy and a sense of decency. That they are enabled by the failings in our systems and our souls is more the point, and this necessary but unpleasant book should be required reading for anyone interested in reforming the media-legal nexus for the realities of the attention economy. That will be too late for Matt Blomfield, but at least he’s finally out of the shit, while those he wrestled are still in it – just maybe not loving it quite as much.

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