The return of Dirty Politics
Cameron Slater, aka Whaleoil, the attack blogger who has been out of the public eye since having a stroke in 2018, fronts up in court to defend his blog posts against three public health academics. Tim Murphy reports
In the week Judith Collins rose to the top of the National Party, the book that scarred her earlier career, Dirty Politics by Nicky Hager, has been thrust back into focus in a longstanding High Court defamation case involving former Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater.
Collins' chapter in the book is left untouched in this case but evidence by Slater and his co-defendant, PR man Carrick Graham, to the Chisholm inquiry, which examined her role in revelations about the head of the Serious Fraud Office, was aired at Friday’s hearing.
Another high-profile name did emerge at the hearing: Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Slater claimed to have a source inside a team that the current Director-General then ran at the Ministry of Health, and that source had provided him with information on audits into a grant to one of the academics he had blogged about.
Slater and Graham had to appear in the witness box at the High Court at Auckland to provide answers to questions from the lawyers for three health academics, Boyd Swinburn, Douglas Sellman and Shane Bradbrook, who are suing the pair for defamation.
They had been attacked on the Whaleoil blog for their research and calls for public health and policy action on alcohol, tobacco and sugar.
Justice Matthew Palmer ordered Slater and Graham in late 2018 to appear to give evidence in person, but Slater had had a stroke and was incapacitated, and then in rehab, through most of last year. He was adjudged bankrupt, with his Whaleoil blog site put into liquidation, early in 2019. He and others from the old site now have work appearing on another site.
The three academics claim Graham wrote, and Slater published, attacks on them on the Whaleoil site as far back as 2009, and that the Food and Grocery Council and its chief executive Katherine Rich engaged Graham's company to place blog posts against the public health work being done on, for example, sugar, by the academics. The background to these Whaleoil blog posts was revealed in Dirty Politics, which was based on emails and other communications obtained by Hager, and published ahead of the 2014 general election. This case was then launched.
Slater and Graham were required at court after Justice Palmer ruled they had not sufficiently answered written questions from the academics' lawyers as part of their claim for defamation, and had inadequately 'discovered' or turned over documents relating to their activities against the trio.
Slater did not have a lawyer representing him but his former advocate Brian Henry was in the back of the courtroom, declining the possibility raised by Justice Palmer of assisting the court and Slater. Henry said he was suffering from shingles and "no longer appearing before this court", adding he was there because it "was too good a show to miss".
Henry said in his experience, Slater would be able to concentrate for up to an hour on the stand before the judge might notice "he starts to no longer be with this court".
Bearded and in a bush-coloured Swandri-style top, Slater swore on the Bible before facing questions from Davey Salmon, lawyer for Swinburn, Sellman and Bradbrook.
Salmon repeatedly asked if Graham had been paying Slater to publish blog posts against his clients. "No. He was not. You seem to think if that's what you ask me again and again it will change my answer. I've sworn an affidavit. It's my opinions. No one can buy those opinions."
Asked about payments detailed in documents Graham and Slater had turned over, totalling $93,840 "from Mr Graham and his company to you and your company", Slater said they would have been for media services, public relations advice and social media expertise, not posts themselves.
He agreed Graham was the PR man providing such media services, but added: "He needs advice on that."
Later he said: "No one pays me for blog posts, contrary to the fantasies of Mr Hager. That's never happened."
On blog posts that might have been drafted by Graham, Slater said: "They are articles that I have written about and published under my name, so therefore I take ownership of those articles but I receive briefings, as anyone in media does, about intricacies in various cases."
Asked again if Graham had "procured you to publish" those posts, he said: "No."
Was he paid by Graham? "I was paid for advice."
"That's between me and my client."
Slater said he had been most effective talking to his network of people in media and elsewhere about issues. "It does not mean what I write in blog posts, which are mine, is picked up. But my discussions can be."
He and Graham had engaged over the work of the three academics because they were "broadly in alignment over our own political beliefs that people in receipt of public monies - in the vernacular, we call them 'troughers' - should be accountable for the status of the money. Professor Swinburn has in the past 10 years received in excess of $10m of public money and is constantly in the media framing the political debate."
Referring to advocacy for a sugar tax, Slater said: "My position is - if someone is going to advance a particular type of argument which might be of a type of taxation, then I'm entitled to take a position that opposes that type of taxation.
"We are engaged in a political debate here. Let's make no mistake about it. These defamation proceedings are because Carrick and I challenged the views of your clients.
"In the case of Bradbrook, I had a source inside the Ministry of Health leaking to me directly from the team that was conducting audits into his work, and the double-dipping that was going on that was then subject to an inquiry then headed up by Ashley Bloomfield.
"I was providing a legitimate news service in providing leaking information about one of the most prolific troughers at that time."
Slater claimed he had provided in the the discovery process everything that he had, but told Salmon he had been hacked and a huge amount of damage had occurred to his IT systems. "I do not know what I do not know. If documents are not there I don't know why they're not there. Did they go missing? Did I delete them ? No idea. I don't have them. They are not under my control."
Carrick Graham also denied he paid for blog posts against the three academics.
Salmon pointed to one invoice Graham had issued which mentioned blog posts at $300 each.
Graham: "The client realised Mr Slater would not do it for free and showed no interest in doing it for free but at the same time he heard what went on and what happened and would do a post."
To another document Graham had provided, listing his work in 'drafting online posts x 3", Salmon asked if that corresponded to a line on an invoice for $900. "Possibly," Graham answered.
Salmon wanted to know, if Graham had not paid for blogposts, whether anyone else of Graham's clients had paid Slater direct to publish views against the academics.
"I know where you are going with this," Graham replied. "You are desperately trying to find some conspiracy that some big industry is out to undermine public health and its messages."
Salmon: "Is it not possible any payment was made to Mr Slater?"
"To the best of my knowledge, no payment has been made.... I can answer what I paid but I cannot answer who has paid Mr Slater."
Asked which clients he had been working for alongside Slater in connection to food and sugar issues, Graham said: "I was working for myself because I have a personal issue when the plantiffs are out there trying to exclude individuals being involved in political processes. I thought that was wrong. I drafted posts. I sent materials to Mr Slater. No one was paying me for it because I had a personal interest in ensuring there was balance."
Salmon used a different total to Graham than he had earlier put to Slater, for payments between his business and Slater. "Payments between your entities and Mr Slater's entities I calculate at $124,434 - payments you have said you have made to Mr Slater. Correct?
Salmon: "Are you able to agree that there is a surprising number of invoices paid there that are divisible by $300?"
Graham: "If you say so. Could be divided by all sorts of numbers."
He said work he did for various clients to do with alcohol, tobacco and the sugar and food industries was "about intelligence... what's going on. Not the blog posts in question."
Salmon: "In your own time?"
Graham: "I'm personally interested in these issues."
Salmon told Justice Palmer that when the case goes to trial, the plaintiffs would argue the claim that payments were not for blog posts "is a fiction".
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