Blogging, money and blurred lines

BESIDE THE SEASIDE: Cameron Slater in Tel Aviv. The Israeli government helped pay for his visit.
BESIDE THE SEASIDE: Cameron Slater in Tel Aviv. The Israeli government helped pay for his visit.

The man at the centre of the Dirty Politics firestorm sits on a leafy street in Tel Aviv, Israel, just a block from the shores of the Mediterranean, sipping a blended mint lemonade.

Cameron "Whale Oil" Slater is bleary-eyed, having spent 24 hours on a plane, and now finds himself in a war zone during a ceasefire. It's Friday in Israel; Saturday back home.

He's one of a group of international journalists invited to visit by the Israeli government, which has been earning bruising international condemnation over the civilian death toll in the Gaza conflict.

Slater, however, sees the bright side.

"What I am witnessing in Tel Aviv is a vibrant, free and open democracy of tolerance," he says.

"From the hotel I am staying at 100 metres across the road there's a gay beach and the gay beach is 200 metres from the Orthodox Jewish beach - I bet you there's not a gay beach in Gaza."

He plans to visit the Iron Dome missile defence system and interview New Zealanders serving in the Israel defence force, and fit in some sightseeing at the Dead Sea, Masada and Jerusalem's Old City.

The Israeli embassy approached him about the trip, he says, and covered some costs, but he is paying for a significant portion of his travels. He has posted anti-Hamas and pro-Israel stories on his blog in the past.

The arrangement may sound vaguely familiar to anyone who has read certain chapters of Nicky Hager's controversial new book Dirty Politics, which is based on thousands of emails stolen from Slater's computer.

Besides his central claims that National used Slater's Whale Oil blog as an conduit for "dirty" attacks on its political enemies, Hager also says Slater took cash in exchange for running stories for a range of commercial clients.

He writes that certain articles posted under Slater's name were word-for-word reprints of material supplied by PR man Carrick Graham, whose clients include tobacco and alcohol companies. Hager writes that Slater was paid around $6500 a month by Graham, for work he estimates would have taken perhaps an hour.

When asked if he received any payment from Graham, his company or associates, and whether there was any understanding that he would run copy for that payment, Slater gives an emphatic "No". He stands by his byline.

"Any copy I am using, I've had direct input into - I may have helped write it, I've certainly edited it.

"There are large corporates that I work with. They have particular issues and as a result of that those issues are then turned into an interesting story. I take stories, create stories, work on stories, provide commentary on a number of different things and whatever takes my fancy at the time."

Earlier this year Slater attacked Independent Liquor on his blog over its ready-to-drink (RTD) premixed spirits. Hager writes that there are emails linking a corporate manager at DB Breweries - a major rival of Independent Liquor - to what Slater and Graham called the "RTD Project".

Whale Oil frequently attacks Professor Doug Sellman, a leading authority on addiction and an outspoken critic of the alcohol industry.

Asked if he worked with Dominion Breweries, Slater said: "I don't discuss my clients. DB is not one of my clients".

Last night, Graham said he would give no comment on any questions concerning Hager's book. Calls by the Star-Times to Dominion Breweries were not returned.

Hager also writes that Slater has been fed articles, via Graham, from former National MP and head of the Food and Grocery Council, Katherine Rich - including a defence of Fonterra after a food-recall scare, and support for soft-drink companies in the face of concerns about their health effects.

Slater said: "I've been paid twice by Katherine Rich - for speaking at the Food and Grocery Council annual general meeting and their half-yearly meeting. I'm not being paid to write blog posts about people."

Last night Rich said Slater had been paid to speak about social media at an annual meeting, "and he was paid for his appearance". However, "we have not paid for anything to go on any blogs".

Yesterday, the political fallout from Hager's book continued.

A snap poll by Colmar Brunton for TV One said just 28 per cent of respondents believed Hager's claims, though 9 per cent said coverage of the book had left them feeling less positive about National. Strikingly, 12 per cent said the furore had made them more likely to vote.

Slater said he was not on National's payroll.

"I absolutely deny I am paid by National. Those bastards should have me on a retainer for the amount of work I do that benefits them, but they don't."

He said "every journalist in the press gallery" had taken stories from National's adviser, Jason Ede, who is accused by Hager of feeding "dirty" stories to Whale Oil.

While Slater was having his photo taken for this article, a text arrived - from Justice Minister Judith Collins. He wouldn't reveal its content, but exclaimed that it was 4am in New Zealand and wondered out loud what she was doing up.

Sunday Star Times