David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Ex-pizza boss Matt Blomfield: Whaleoil and me

Matt Blomfield outside court in February when he sued Cameron Slater for defamation. Photo / Doug Sherring
Matt Blomfield outside court in February when he sued Cameron Slater for defamation. Photo / Doug Sherring

Matt Blomfield was beaten bloody. A shotgun blast ringing in his ears. Blows from the stock of the weapon splitting skin to send blood running down his face.

It was a horrifying attack at home. His children were watching. One stood at the window as her father grappled with the intruder. The other sought shelter in the house, seeking safety from the armed man who brought violence to their home.

Blomfield had fought off the attacker, fiercely enough that police later found blood from which they took DNA. A 37-year-old man was arrested in July and is before the courts.

He struggled to think who might want him hurt, or worse. In the end, he came up with a suspect list of 285,000 people - the monthly readership of the Whaleoil blog, who he believed had been given every reason to think he was one of the worst people in New Zealand.

MORE: Police review complaint against Whaleoil blogger

Blomfield had been living in relative obscurity just a few years earlier. As marketing manager for Hell Pizza, he spent his days coming up with clever campaigns to generate media coverage and drive customers to the restaurant.

It was an ordinary job for an ordinary man working for a reasonably ordinary company. Blomfield had ordinary dreams which he drove with an ordinary over-extension of investment that left him bankrupt.

But you don't have to be famous to become a target of Cameron Slater's Whaleoil blog. Slater, who has previously called himself a "bully" in an interview with the Herald, lives by the motto "Never F*** With A Blogger".

Anyone is considered fair game.

Blomfield's departure from Hell Pizza wasn't pleasant. There were accusations, ill-feeling and an eventual falling out with those who had been friends - former Hell Pizza director Warren Powell, his PA Amanda Easterbrook and Powell's friend Marc Spring.

The depth of feeling is captured in emails held on a file in the Manukau District Court, where Blomfield is suing Slater for defamation. Filed in support of Blomfield's claims, the emails show Easterbook arranging a meeting between herself, Slater, Spring and a liquidator in April 2012 for what was called "Operation Bumslide".

In a chain of emails between them, there was a joke about Blomfield being raped and one in which Spring made disparaging sexual remarks about Blomfield's wife Rebecca. Spring did not return calls.


Cameron Slater leaves Auckland High Court in February after appearing in a defamation case brought by Matt Blomfield. Photo / Doug Sherring

Easterbrook did not want to comment beyond saying: "Just because you're copied in on something doesn't mean you agree with it."

About that time, Facebook messages apparently hacked from Slater's computer and supplied to the Herald, show him forecasting a "big story". He told one confidante it "involves Hell pizza, a g[u]y called Matt Blomfield" and a lawyer. "I've got him on money laundering, cheque fraud," wrote Slater.

Blomfield alleges Operation Bumslide began to play out in early May 2012 when he became the focus of more than 100 articles posted to the Whaleoil site in a two-month period. Slater declared the beginning of an investigation based on the contents of a hard drive he had obtained on which were 10 years of Blomfield's communications and personal records. There was no explanation about where it came from, but court documents would later allege Blomfield's former business associates had given it to Slater.

In the weeks that followed, those court documents allege, Blomfield was described as being involved in "drugs, fraud, bullying, corruption, collusion, compromises, perjury, deception" along with being a "psychopath" and a "pathological liar" who loved "notoriety and extortion".

Blomfield, who sued on the basis the claims were untrue, says he was puzzled over Slater's interest: "I'd never heard of Whaleoil." He says he wasn't contacted before any post ran on the site but watched, initially incredulous then frustrated and finally strained, as the blog painted a picture of someone he says has no resemblance to himself.

"There were stories of me committing every crime you can imagine. I felt like the only thing Cameron Slater hadn't accused me of is killing someone. The time and energy it takes from someone is very hard to deal with.

"There were only so many people I could sit down with and walk them through the story and say what had actually happened. You're never going to match the reach of Cameron Slater."

The apparently hacked Facebook messages show the blogger appealed to media interest in his Blomfield posts. In May, after the campaign began, one Facebook correspondent asked Slater: "Any journos taken you up on your offer?"

"Not yet," the blogger replied. Journalists were "lazy", he said.

Regular readers were puzzled by the campaign. A month after it began , a regular Facebook chat companion asked Slater: "Why are you going after blomfield"?

Slater: "Have you not been reading those posts?"

Correspondent: "Yeah maybe I need to go back a bit. But I have skimmed over them a little as it seems Bloomfield is a **** but there are plenty of them in business."

Slater: "Yep but I can stop this one."

Correspondent: "And not every c*** gets this attention from you. Has he (e)ver done anything to you or a good mate?"

Blomfield says he felt his life had been unbundled for the world to pick over. Lawyers counselled him against defamation action because of the cost and time involved so he decided to file the papers himself.

"Eventually somebody has got to stand up to the bully. I was the perfect candidate to have a go at him. I've got nothing to lose, I've got plenty of time, I can write and I have access to the internet. And if I didn't, it appeared no one else was going to."

The next 18 months involved a painful drudge through the court system for Blomfield and Slater. (Read the court documents embedded below; mobile readers click here). The former found himself under investigation by a number of authorities following the blog posts, including the Serious Fraud Office, police, Companies Office, Official Assignee and Inland Revenue.

He alleged, in documents filed in court, that the complaints came from Slater or others named in Operation Bumslide - he has documents from each agency showing he was either cleared or no action was taken.

Meanwhile, Slater was bumptious about his prospects in the case, according to the hacked correspondence. He told a lawyer friend defamation actions were controlled by the defendant. He said "blomfield is just starting to realise this... and when I hold 34000 emails he is realising how much hurt he is in... I have them all from 2000 to 2010".

By October last year he was less bullish. Slater had lost a key hearing in which he claimed a journalist's source protection. District Court Judge Charles Blackie ruled the blogger was not media and would have to give up his sources (read the court documents embedded below; mobile readers click here).

In hacked Facebook messages, he is said to have told former prostitute Rachel Francis: "Matt is terrorising me with this case." Slater, who has spoken publicly about his mental health issues, purportedly asked her to think of a lawyer who might assist: "I can't deal with it on my own... making me mental again."

The conversation suggests Slater believes Ms Francis has contacts in the prison system. He asked her to "keep her ear to the ground" about Blomfield's brother Dan, who had just been arrested for breach of a protection order.

He told her: "I'll let you know where he stops soon... make sure he gets a message."

Two days later, Slater is said to have told Francis: "That piece of shit ... was remanded in custody...he is in Mt Eden...I heard the stairs are very slippery in there...Dan Blomfield."

And then, in early November, he said: "Dan Blomfield appeared in court again today... remanded until Jan 20... still sitting in Mt Eden until then."

Two weeks later, Slater appeared to be passing on information saying he believed Blomfield had failed to pay protection money for his brother. "They are now looking for him... I know where he is and where he works if they want to find him... name is Matthew Blomfield".

Slater's hacked messages are filled with boasts, including claims he himself has called embellishments. There is no evidence his conversations with Ms Francis progressed beyond social media chat to actions in the real world.

Slater appealed against Judge Blackie's decision, seeking a declaration he was a journalist and could keep his sources on the Blomfield posts secret.

In March, asking for permission to appeal, he told the court: "The items published were of public interest relating to the failed business dealing and activities of a former bankrupt and director."

He said his sources needed protection from "intimidation" because Blomfield threatened "media exposure, violence, financial harm or the use of legal proceedings to cost his opponents large sums of money".

He also revealed new pressures, with the judgment recording Slater saying "he could no longer afford to pay legal costs". (Read the court documents embedded below; mobile readers click here.)

The right to appeal was granted. Ahead of the April hearing, Slater's newly appointed website administrator Pete Belt summarised the Whaleoil side of the case. Supporters rallied to Slater's cause in the comments section of the blog, raising questions about Blomfield's source of income and praising Slater. Belt contributed, saying: "I wouldn't want to be Mr Blomfield for the next 10 years. The other side of Karma is coming."

In another post that day, Belt pointed to new figures showing Whaleoil maintained its lead as New Zealand's most popular blog, with 1.4 million visits a month.

Ten days later, a man with a gun walked up Blomfield's front lawn.

Blomfield says he believes the attack is somehow connected to the Whaleoil posts, although is definite in saying police collected no evidence linking the blogger to it. Slater too denies any role. After questions were raised on other blogs, he rejected any involvement in a post on Whaleoil. He did not return requests for comment on this article.

"The Whaleoil fight is my one and only fight," Blomfield said. If you asked me to write a list of people I don't get on with Slater would be near or at the top of the list.

"The extension of that is Slater has a quarter of a million people who worship his blog site and would crawl over broken glass for him. You can't exclude anyone."

He has received strange and threatening emails and text messages since he filed the defamation case in 2012. Maybe someone took it further, he says. "Who knows?"

By the time the injuries had healed, Justice Raynor Asher came back with a verdict on the appeal (read the court documents embedded below; mobile readers click here).

It was a Pyrrhic victory for Slater. Yes, said Justice Asher, bloggers can be journalists - but the journalistic protection Slater sought also came with responsibilities.

The blogger had to show there was a "public interest" in keeping his sources secret and in the Blomfield case, there was none.

Instead, he found the opposite - the sources had to be revealed to serve the public interest. He said the "extreme and vitriolic statements" made publicly about Blomfield had to be studied. If Slater was to rely on the defence his blog posts were honest opinion, then the motivations of his sources were likely to be relevant, he said.

"Some of the exchanges between the alleged informants and Mr Slater show a gleeful attitude towards his shaming Mr Blomfield," said Justice Asher. There was also no interest in "protecting informants intent on pursuing personal vendettas or when conducting personal or commercial attacks". It was a case where "there is a public interest in a full airing of all matters relating to this claim".

Justice Asher said there had been and was no public interest in Blomfield. "This is not a whistleblower case. There are no political issues, or matters of public importance at stake. Mr Blomfield is not a public figure. There is no evidence that his company, now in liquidation, is the subject of ongoing public interest."

Justice Asher also dismissed Slater's argument his sources needed anonymity as protection from Blomfield. There was no evidence to support the claim: "I do not accept Mr Slater's suggestion that [Blomfield] is a person to be feared."

Slater claimed the finding as a victory. Blomfield went back to the district court to get what he always wanted - the identities of the sources Slater once said he would risk contempt of court to protect. He has yet to get the information Slater was bound by judicial order to leave in a sealed envelope at the Manukau District Court.

Blomfield says he believes his case against Slater has changed the Whaleoil blog. This year it has banned death threats, such as those made against a public servant singled out on Whaleoil with help from Slater's close friend, National MP Judith Collins.

Ms Collins championed the Harmful Digital Communications Bill which is intended to stop online abuse. The legislation is still working its way through Parliament.

The blog has also dropped a regular feature in which the deaths of children with unusual first names were mocked, with the suggestion the names were linked to poverty and uncaring parents.

There are also fewer attacks on Joe Average, says Blomfield. New people around Slater, like Belt, appear to have found a way to "assist him to focus on matters that a more of public interest", he says.

"I don't think he's quite there yet," says Blomfield. "There's a place for people like Cameron Slater in the world. There has to be someone who is that antagonist in the media. (Justice) Asher was right - bloggers can be journalists.

"But there need to be some sort of controls."

Blomfield has sunk 3000 hours of his life into the defamation case, which still has a long way to go. It is far harder, more complex and draining than he ever expected and he'd been warned it was going to be bad.

"Maybe the justice system is the control. I believe there needs to be some sort of body for dealing with bloggers which cross the line."

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 08 Dec 2016 10:39:37 Processing Time: 284ms