Internet warrior

BY TIM HUME
Last updated 05:00 12/07/2009
whale
Photo: Lawrence Smith
Talk to the orca: Cameron Slater has been compared to an 'angry 15-year-old'. He doesn't care.

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Cameron Slater has turned his insider's view on politics into the country's most notorious and controversial blog. We look at the extent of Whale Oil's influence.

Friday before  last, in a quiet moment between dropping the kids at school and hitting the gym, New Zealand's most notorious blogger hopped online to unmask the woman he alleged was behind the Richard Worth police complaint.

A couple of hours later, Cameron Slater returned to his Manukau office to watch the reaction to his scoop unfold. The 40-year-old's distinctive, dark locks described, in an annotated photograph anonymously faxed to him last month, as a "permed afro", but probably closer to the wet look of a Jheri curl were still damp from the workout. (The fax, with its scribbled critiques of Slater's appearance during a Close Up interview, appeared to have originated from outside his fanbase, noting as it did his "shifty, untrusting eyes", "puckered little liar's mouth" and "fat bastard chin". "Water off a duck's back," says Slater, who claims a professional immunity to the sting of personal denigration.) He wore the same raglan T-shirt he'd worn during that television appearance, in which he had spoken as a National insider on the Worth affair. The shirt, which can be purchased through his website for $28.90, bears his blog's cartoon logo: a snarling orca, flexing bulging fishy biceps.

"I'm one of the few bloggers that's branded," Slater explained to the Sunday Star-Times. "I'm in the process of trademarking it; it's tattooed on my fricking shoulder. I've gone from being Cameron Slater to being Whale Oil. Walking around parliament the other day, no one was calling me Cameron. It was Whale, Whale Oil, the Whale."

His latest splash, the Whale noted coolly, was "all over Twitter".

"Now that I've outed her, she'll probably be named on TV tonight," he predicted. "That's what happened last time." When he'd named Neelam Choudary, the other Worth complainant, reporters were calling within minutes.

Slater's profane, occasionally rabid, vociferously right-wing blog Whale Oil Beef Hooked (to be read with an Irish inflection) gets 5000-6000 page views a day, including many readers in the media and political establishment. In the past year, it has broken a number of stories that have been followed, often unattributed, by news outlets, notably Winston Peters' lingering post-election grip on his ministerial vehicle.

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Heading home from a weekly yum char lunch with a close group of fellow right-leaning, Seventh Day Adventist-affiliated mates, Slater takes a call about a proposed visit to Fiji, as a supportive guest of the regime, to interview Frank Bainimarama. The Commodore has not been granting interviews with the New Zealand press, but one of his deputies is a Whale Oil reader.

Since its inception in 2005, the blog has grown in influence as a forum for National news and debate; Slater claims recent posts he wrote were talking points at Lockwood Smith's wedding.

Similarly, the site has grown into an instrument of attack on the party's opponents. Pooling resources with friend and fellow insider David Farrar, who conducts National's polling and runs the much larger Kiwiblog, Slater has identified the "cocktail party spy", Kees Keizer, and dug up research papers intended to embarrass Labour's new Mt Albert MP.

The local blogosphere is loud and volatile, the new frontline of political debate. But even in this fierce arena, Slater is infamous for dragging the discourse to new lows, with vicious, juvenile, sometimes misogynistic attacks.

Like American gossip juggernaut Perez Hilton, Slater routinely uses Photoshop to vilify his targets: grafting Helen Clark's head onto the body of a crotchless starlet, or riddling her with digital bulletholes. On seeing an article titled "The World's Ugliest Dogs", Slater "couldn't resist" reposting the story, appended with pictures of female Labour MPs. He has published bizarre sexual allegations against a female Labour official and challenged strangers to fights, including the sons of Folole Muliaga.

"I got sick of the way the media created a frenzy around a fat woman who was sent home by the hospital to die," he says. "F--- them."

Says left-leaning journalist and blogger Russell Brown: "He strikes me as an arrested adolescent. I think he's got a real problem with women. Given the apparent degree of his role within the National Party, I wonder if at some point they should be called on that. I don't respect him at all, frankly."

A National Party  blueblood, Slater was born into a family with an "impeccable centre-right political background," according to Auckland mayor John Banks, who has known the blogger all his life. Slater's father, John, is a former National president, current president of Auckland's Citizens and Ratepayers council bloc, and one of the mayor's oldest friends and political supporters.

A genteel and morally conservative Christian, Slater senior feels his son "sometimes goes too far", but sees it is clearly paying off for him. "For a long time he was seen as `son of John', now I'm becoming `father of Cameron'."

Slater junior recalls that politicians were always dropping by his childhood home Muldoon, Aussie Malcolm and he soon developed "an ability to voice my opinion in front of them. They've all got to sit down to shit."

He grew into a teenaged political street brawler, heckling Labour conferences and, he claims, taking beatings from the "union thugs". His style of political engagement as a Young Nat was muscular and without nuance.

He sees his blog as a continuation of his old-school, placard-defacing politics of abuse and ridicule, albeit in a digital format. It's a way to participate, to peddle some influence in the political process, without sitting through meetings or kowtowing to anyone. "Basically, I'm just having fun."

While Slater's National credentials are clear, the extent of his influence within the party is disputed. A recent Metro article on the Mt Albert by-election claimed Slater and Farrar were "involved in all National's internal debates".

"[Slater] has that access, but also that need, that real desire to be on the inside," writer Simon Wilson told the Sunday Star-Times. "He works hard to be there... He's part of the mix."

Kevin Taylor, John Key's press secretary, says Slater has nothing to do with party strategy or the PM's office. Taylor has only spoken to him once, to argue over Slater baiting protesters at a conference.

Slater denies being part of any internal debates, but claims an "informal" influence to which Wilson is referring through the blog's growing profile, and his longstanding relationships within the party. Meanwhile, Farrar's polling work meant he was in daily contact with Key and Bill English on the electoral trail. Says Slater: "We've got inside knowledge, but we're certainly not on the communication list." When it came to pursuing political targets, the party apparatus would not officially feed him tips, or otherwise instruct him to do its bidding. "But somebody might ring me up [of their own volition] and say `check this out'."

Slater attributes his rising profile to a simple formula.

"It's not what you write, or how you write; it's not even the content," he says. "It's about getting attention."

To that end, he has worked aggressively to expand his patch beyond politics, wading into any spat he can find. National people have asked him to stop, told him he is unhelpful. But ultimately it is not about the party. "I do this for me."

Throughout the day, while Slater speaks to right-wing contacts like lobbyist Matthew Hooton and city councillor Aaron Bhatnagar, he is also in contact with former Star-Times gossip columnist Bridget Saunders and celebrity stripper (and newly-minted Fairfax blogger) Lisa Lewis.

The "scalps", or targets who end up, in Slater's terminology, "harpooned", are just as diverse. They include media figures, wannabe socialites, a low-budget airline.

Jetstar is one of Slater's targets du jour. He claims responsibility for instigating their current media nightmare, when one of his contacts called him while being turned away from check-in. Slater had it blogged within 15 minutes.

"That has been completely run by the blogs, and followed up by the mainstream media. Jetstar are not protecting their reputation using social media, and I'm destroying their reputation through social media," he says.

It's the lip-smacking relish in these boasts that betrays his blog as falling short of the agile, entrepreneurial citizen journalism that someone with his work ethic, contacts and technological ability could conceivably deliver.

In person, it's easy to get a sense for the internet warrior online persona that Russell Brown likens to an "angry 15-year-old".

Asked if he ever experiences offline blowback from his blogging activities, Slater glances admiringly at his torso, then smirks. "I do boxing training, I talk about it on my blog. I weigh 100kg, but I'm not super-fat. A lot of it's muscle. My shoulders are wide. Buck, my personal trainer, is a monster."

He continues: "I am literally not afraid of anyone. You'd have to put a gun in my face, and then it would also have to be a real one for me to start worrying, and even then I'd be working out angles so they wouldn't do it."

Soon, Whale Oil will relaunch as part of Gotcha, an online magazine Slater is developing with a couple of fellow bloggers.

The riddle taxing all media enterprises, old and new, is how anyone can make a dollar from writing and reporting. Slater has not solved it. Each month, the blog to which he devotes his full-time energies earns $147.68 in advertising revenue, and costs $220 in server expenses. He and his wife have two pre-teen children to feed, and mortgage payments to meet. His wife's job is selling things on TradeMe.

"You've got to have independent means," he confirms. Slater found his after the collapse of the security systems company, of which he owned 49%, in 2004 amid rancour with his business partner. The failure ruined Slater financially he had to sell his second home to pay the IRD socially, and eventually, psychologically. The depression he had battled for years became disabling.

As a result, he is unable to work. Because he had income protection insurance, he now receives 75% of his former salary.

"The first year was dark, very dark," recalls Slater. "I'd stay inside all day, the curtains pulled, unable to make decisions. You open the freezer and try to decide what you're going to cook for dinner, you can't even do that, so you go back to bed."

To get him out of the house, one of his mates insisted he come and work in his office, free of charge. As "an outlet, a place to let off steam", he says blogging has helped him, as do his daily workouts.

But he still battles despair, takes medication, sees a psychologist each month. Undoubtedly, the desperation of his circumstances has shaped his blogging persona.

"I've got no money. I've got nothing. What's anybody going to do, sue me? Fill your boots! You'll waste 100 grand," he says.

"When you've got nothing to lose, you're dangerous."

Back at the office, a Christchurch reader alerts him to a radio appearance by Lianne Dalziel, in which she addresses rumours, started on Slater's blog, that she was mulling a tilt at the city's mayoralty. She had taken exception to The Press printing her denials, which she considered to be circulating a baseless rumour from a source with no credibility.

"I think it's really important that we realise these people are not subject to the same standards as our mainstream media," she says.

Slater is angry. In no time, he has published a recording of the interview.

"We most demonstrably are media," he says. "It just happens to be new media. And it's immediate: she said that this morning and this afternoon she's going to cop a flogging. That's how immediate this is! Not only that, if she does decide to stand for the mayoralty, I'm going to run a Whale Oil campaign against her. All because she pissed me off. She doesn't get it, so she's going to learn."

It recalled a scene earlier in the day when Slater, sat at his computer, briefly flicked over to one of his few online diversions during his gruelling daily cycle of blog reading, dirt digging and writing: an online role-playing game called Evony.

Slater, a member of Teutonic Alliance, proceeded to joylessly lay waste to some unfortunate knight or archer. "I'm going to punish him," he said. The victim had been rude to him in one of the game's chatrooms.

Contrary to his prediction, television news channels that night do not run the name of he woman he claims was Worth's accuser, nor do other media outlets in the week that follows. Slater is a little surprised, but not bothered. Close Up runs a story on Jetstar.

- Sunday Star Times

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