He is heavy and he ain't our brother.
In journalistic terms, Cameron Slater is more like one of those relatives that you don't get to choose. A distant one, we'd like to think.
The Whale Oil blogger forces us to reconsider the boundaries of what constitutes a journalist. It pains us to acknowledge kinship of any sort. But we do.
Right now he's embroiled in a defamation hearing, during which a High Court judge has ruled he's not a real journo, so cannot rely on the special - though still sorely limited - protections journalists have to keep their sources secret.
And that's a ruling that cannot stand.
Whether Cameron Slater is a good journalist is a different argument from whether he is one at all.
Judge Charles Blackie, in his rejection of this status, cited extracts from a Law Commission report that were certainly critical of blogging practice.
But this was merely an issues paper and, extraordinarily, the judge was seemingly blind to the final report which did portray a landscape in which bloggers are entitled to media status.
It isn't hard to see why. More than a few bloggers are intelligent commentators and in some cases news breakers. And consider the overlaps.
Many mainstream journalists are simultaneously blogging like good'uns. The more heavyweight bloggers are themselves featuring, time and again, in the press and on TV and radio.
Slater's badly behaved. He's partisan as hell, manipulative, and operates at a self-indulgently far-righteous pitch that has seen him capable of unrestrained malice.
The fact remains that he breaks stories. Big stories. Legitimate stories. When he has a sufficiently strong one, as in the Len Brown adultery scandal, his site is now capable of pulling in 1 million hits a month.
So some of his better work bears a striking resemblance to journalism.
Unhappily, more than a few of his worst excesses do too.
It would be a hard task to portray Slater's more scurrilous behaviour as somehow as disqualifying him from a category that nevertheless has found a place for the News of the World , and continues to do so for Fox News.
Journalism is as admirable, or as squalid, an undertaking as the participants make it. And in our diverse society, people's views of what constitutes good, robust, journalism can vary a lot.
Standards of accountability - and protection - must be applied evenly to its best and worst exponents.
Problem: As things stand, bloggers do not have an independent complaints regime akin to the Press Council or Broadcasting Standards Authority. That is a failing, albeit surely a fixable one.
In any case, bloggers are not operating beyond the realms of all accountability. As Slater can attest, they can be sued for defamation and hauled up for contempt of court.
Even those source-protection rights under the Evidence Act that Slater is at present being denied are able to be trumped, should a judge content himself that the public interest is better served by ordering him to disclose a source, under pain of imprisonment.
We wish Cameron Slater well in his appeal on this matter.
Otherwise, not so much.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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