Gavin Ellis on Whale Oil book: “a harrowing slaga” but enduring long form journalism

RNZ media commentator Gavin Ellis applauded what Margie Thomson’s book Whale Oil

Margie Thomson’s investigation into the Whale Oil blog suggests that books may be the most enduring type of long-form journalism.

Transcript (from 6:22)

Great cover on that book, it’s not a whale so much as a sort of a monster of the deep coming up from the bottom of the book.

I think it was Margie who said that a whale was inappropriate, too nice to depict Slater and the dirt he is infamous for.

I think the monster comes from Matt Blomfield’s famous wrestler grandfather Lofty, who created an octopus hold.

Whale Oil by Margie Thomson really is a harrowing tale about a man, a businessman called Matt Blomfield and his decade long fight to clear his name after it was besmirched in a pretty serial fashion by Cameron Slater on the Whale Oil blog.

The book itself, I thought Finlay Macdonald summed it up perfectly, let me just read you one sentence of what he said. he said:

“Many readers will need a shower after a session with this book, and and Margie Thomson is to be applauded for her willingness to go where only trolls and the spiritually misshapen could feel at home.”

And that’s really, this is a, when I say it’s an awful book, it’s a very very good book. What it said is really quite awful about the ability of social media to basically destroy the reputation of an innocent person, and she sets about disproving virtually everything that appeared on the Whale Oil blog.

Of course Matt Blomfield has won defamation cases against Cameron Slater over it, but it’s a harrowing slaga, saga, but the thing that impressed me most I think is that it shows, with books like this it shows that this sort of excellent very long form journalism, you know the book chronicles a saga over ten years.

It may be that the most enduring form of journalism that we have.

The work that we do as daily journalists is ephemeral, you know it’s here one day and gone the next. I used to hate people saying that today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish wrapper, but there’s an element of truth in that.

This sort of deep investigation, and of course she’s not alone, we have a number of other journalists who’ve written books about different subjects, Rebecca McPhee, absolutely, and I think that they do us a real service by having an enduring form of journalism.

Now of course books are not regarded as a news activity, which is a problem under the Privacy Act, which makes them vulnerable, more vulnerable than a daily journalist would be.

Whale Oil was carefully vetted by lawyer Stephen Price to avoid possible legal actions.

Even with proposed changes to the Privacy Act I don’t think that this form of journalism enjoys the same protection as news activities do.

However books have an advantage of time to check out their accuracy and reduce risks.

But nonetheless I really commend not only this book but the whole process of committing to books.

This sort of long form investigative journalism, it really is great reading but also the lessons in them remain for the future, and that’s something in daily journalism we’re in danger of losing, particularly with the avalanche of material that we have bombarding us every day that is so ephemeral and this sort of anchors it with a degree of permanence. let’s hope so anyway.

It’s true that newspapers are published and sold one day, and disappear off the newsagents’ shelves by the end of the day. Books remain for sale on bookshelves for weeks.

But publishing news online means that it does endure far more than it used to. It can be just a Google search away. Enduring news – and blog posts – provide a lot of readily available research material for books like Whale Oil.

The difference with well researched and written books like Whale Oil though is that they collate and filter and edit a vast amount of material – and there is a vast amount of material in the Matt Blomfield story.

One of the successes of Whale Oil is that Margie took a huge amount of information and made it interesting and readable, while putting on record an awful campaign of attack that took place over many years.

It was, as Ellis says, a harrowing Slater saga, or saga.

More on Peters versus journalists

More comment on attempts by Winston Peters to obtain the communications of journalists through legal proceedings.

RNZ:  Peters’ attempts to obtain journalists’ phone records over leak ‘wrong’

The deputy Prime Minister’s attempt to obtain the emails and phone records of two journalists is outrageous and could have a chilling effect on democracy, media freedom advocates say.

Winston Peters is seeking the journalists’ communications in a bid to find out who leaked details of his pension overpayments.

The former chair of the Commonwealth Press Union and former editor of the New Zealand Herald, Gavin Ellis, said Mr Peters’ actions were outrageous and it could have a chilling effect on democracy.

“When a politician starts placing his hands on what should be confidential phone records, confidential notes and recordings and so on, our ability to hold power to account – and that’s a fundamental role of the journalist in a democracy – is compromised.

“There’s no doubt about that.”

The International Federation of Journalists’ New Zealand representative Brent Edwards said what Mr Peters is doing is disturbing.

“He ought not to be going after journalists. It’s fine for him to chase those political figures he believes might have been involved, or thinks they might have been involved, but absolutely wrong to chase the phone records journalists.

“Particularly in an absolute fishing expedition and that, where he seems to expect he’ll get all of their material, well you know that would really have a chilling effect.”

It could have a chilling effect if it deters journalists from investigation anything involving the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, or of reporting on or commenting on any coverage that may be critical of Peters.

The Listener: We deserve better than Winston Peters’ legal stunt

Winston Peters was all furious denials when a journalist alleged during the election campaign that he might use his likely kingmaker power to further a quest for utu. His opening salvo towards formal legal action this week points to just such a quest, and one that bodes ill for the effectiveness and reputation of this country’s first minority coalition Government.

The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is likely to have concerns about what this might do for the reputation of her government.

It’s bad enough that the Deputy Prime Minister has filed legal disclosure claims against four senior MPs in the National Party, with which he negotiated, supposedly in good faith, to form a Government just last month.

It’s also appalling that he has included a senior public servant and two former political staffers in his discovery claims, knowing, as he must, how hard it is for such employees to defend themselves in a politically charged situation.

And it’s an ogreish and futile act for any politician, as Peters as done, to demand that journalists disclose sources.

But the fact that he reportedly filed the paperwork for the claim the day before the election reeks of bad faith. It’s now hard for him to defend his assertion that he went into coalition negotiations with National with genuine intent.

Ardern has said it’s a personal issue for Peters, but it can’t easily be separated from how her government was formed – and how it may have been used to extract a higher price from Labour in negotiations. Deceiving your coalition partner is not a good way to start a governing relationship.

It may not have deceived Ardern and Labour, Peters may have fully informed them, but that still means the public was deceived into thinking a genuine two way negotiation was taking place. Peters was still claiming he was unsure whether to go with Labour or National just prior to making his announcement.

…he was grievously wronged by the disclosure that his superannuation had been mistakenly overpaid. Given the leak’s timing, it appears to have been malicious rather than inadvertent. It may well have damaged New Zealand First’s vote, and the leakers deserve to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

When told of it, Peters swiftly returned the overpayment, and Work and Income is adamant he was blameless. The affair reminds us how fine the balance can be between the public’s right to know a public figure’s relevant personal information and the catastrophic damage that can occur if the information is wrong or conveyed out of context. Peters’ reputation was damaged, and the subsequent contexting of the initial leak can never fully compensate him.

However, for him to proceed with this action now does far more to lower his reputation than the pension controversy – a quickly extinguished brushfire – ever could have done. It will fuel the worst fears of voters already uneasy about his role in the formulation of the Government. Peters is seen by many as having thrown his weight around to an extent unjustifiable by his party’s modest 7.2% vote share. This legal action confirms he harboured a material distrust of National.

How can we not believe he simply used those talks for bargaining leverage, with no intention of doing a deal with National?

That’s an obvious possibility, and Peters won’t comment to clarify while the proceedings are sub judice, leaving things open to ongoing speculation.

Given this election disclosed a sizeable mood for a change of Government, Peters began this term with every chance of earning the public’s respect – or at least the benefit of the doubt. That he has yet again been unable to show restraint or decorum, and is futilely pursuing a personal grudge, is extremely disappointing. His co-parties in Government, and the country, deserve better.

It gives the impression that Winston First takes precedent over the Government or the country.

And this is likely to drag on. Mai Chen: No quick resolution in Winston Peters superannuation leak case

Lawyers for Winston Peters have served an application seeking the discovery of documents on the former prime minister, the former deputy prime minister, two former ministers and other advisers, officials and journalists.

In each case, the application seeks to discover the same basic information: the identity of the person or persons responsible for disclosing during the election campaign details of Peters’ national superannuation overpayment.

At common law, breaching privacy can result in an award of damages if the court agrees that disclosure of private facts is highly offensive to a hypothetical objective reasonable person.

However, before he can issue his proceeding for damages, Peters has to address a problem. He does not know who to sue because the identity of the person or persons responsible for the leak is currently unknown.

The action Peters has taken must mean he doesn’t know the identity of the person or persons responsible, although when the story was being reported he made claims he knew who had done it. That may have just been bluster, something peters isn’t a stranger to.

He can say with reasonable certainty who had access to the information and who first reported it in the media, but not who actually disclosed it.

The High Court Rules provide a mechanism expressly designed to deal with Peters’ problem: the right to apply for pre-commencement discovery.  Under Rule 8.20, any person intending to issue proceedings in the High Court can apply for pre-commencement discovery if it is impossible or impracticable to formulate the claim without access to documents (which must be specified in the application), and there are grounds to believe that the person served with the application has the documents in his or her possession.

That suggests he can’t just ask generally for communications.

The Rule strikes a balance between the right of intending plaintiffs to have access to justice through the courts to enforce their legal rights, and the right of others to maintain possession, control and confidentiality of their documents.

The court will need to decide whether the orders sought are wider than necessary to allow Peters to formulate his claim, and whether there are in fact sufficient grounds to suspect that each of the respondents served with the application actually has possession of the documents in question.

The journalists are also likely to claim privilege under section 68 of the Evidence Act 2006, which allows them to withhold information that might disclose the identity of an informant.

That privilege is limited and can be overruled by the court if it considers it would be in the public interest to do so, and the court has exercised that power in the past to require journalists to disclose the identity of informants who had committed serious criminal offences.

However, the court may be less inclined to do so in a private damages claim, particularly as it raises questions about freedom of expression under section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

Further, the respondents may try to argue that there should be no discovery because Peters’ substantive claim will fail, either because disclosing the information about his superannuation was not highly offensive to start with, or because the disclosure was in the public interest having regard to Peters’ position as leader of the NZ First Party.

The likelihood is that it will take several months for the court to determine the matter – longer if there are appeals.

So this may hang over the credibility of the Government for some time.

A note to a Standard blogger

Lprent has posted at length in indignation at what Gavin Ellis said on RadionNZ about The Standard, defending his blog and the integrity of his bloggers – A note to a media commentator.

Fair enough, he has a right to free speech on hisn own blog. A couple of  points.

One bit did make me laugh. The likelihood of our authors being ‘manipulated’ has about the same lifetime of plausibility as a snowballs chance in hell. These aren’t junior reporters. With most of them, I’d rate any manipulators chances of getting away with a straight spine after the attempt to be quite low. They make their own decisions on a personal basis about what they will write about.

I don’t think there was a great manipulation conspiracy. A post or two started the ball rolling and the theme was picked up on – or disagreed with – by other authors.

But I don’t think that’s the key point. It’s not hard to ponder whether the catalyst post by Eddie had some connection to someone in Labour with an interest in trying to precipitate a leadership coup.

Anyhone who has a knowledge of how the  Eddie pseudonym has been used at The Standard is aware it has strong Labour Party connections.

I don’t think ‘Eddie’ has been manipulated. But there’s a strong possibility that the Eddie pseudonym has been used to try and manipulate Labour Party leadership, on behalf of David Cunliffe.

And if, as is possible, David Cunliffe wasn’t involved in a deliberate attempt to take over the leadership, I can imagine he would have been very embarrassed by what happened, as it was obvious the calls for leadership change were supporting him.

But Cunliffe didn’t look embarrassed this week, he looked to be taking advantage of the publicity.

Authors on our site are not ‘anonymous’. They write under their pseudonym. Nor is any commentator on our site if I choose to find out who they are.

So if lprent can discover their identity they’re not anonymous? But the world isn’t only as seen by lprent. People not familiar with a blog will see many authors and commenters as anonymous – their identities and their political connections are unknown to nearly everyone.

In a recent exchange here lprent said…

We really don’t care that much about what the politicians or the media or fence straddlers or even the general public think. We didn’t set up for them.


The authors often care a great detail about what “politicians and the media think”. And we are quite happy to hold a satirical and critical mirror to the pretentious buffoonish actions.

But we just don’t care about what they think about us


Where is the focus on the opinions of politicians and media in there? There isn’t.

This causes a different site dynamic. We aren’t looking for the support and approval of others.

Has lprent has suddenly become a more caring sort of chap? He seems to care now about how his blog is seen from the outside.

It’s a bit ironic that all this, started a week ago by Eddie, is has resulted in an aggrieved lprent. The Eddie pseudonym is well known for over the top, inaccurate and dishonestly misleading posts. The Eddie pseudonym once banned me for calling the Eddie of the day on an attack post using blatant bullshit.

Lynn, you support bullshit and lies in your blog. Perhaps you protest a bit much about your perception of inaccuracies from others.