Jonathan Milne

Jonathan Milne is deputy editor of the Herald on Sunday.

In bed with the bloggers

Politicians' private lives are fair game this election year as bloggers set the tone for debate. But is there a softer side to these abrasive, divisive voices? Nah, naff off.

Cameron Slater knows the pain personal disclosures can cause. His marriage was put under great strain by a judge's comment in a court case. Photo / Doug Sherring
Cameron Slater knows the pain personal disclosures can cause. His marriage was put under great strain by a judge's comment in a court case. Photo / Doug Sherring

Courtroom 13, in the ivy-clad High Court at Auckland. 9am. Cameron Slater, in a concession to judicial expectations, has swapped his usual black-and-white Whale Oil T-shirt for an open-necked shirt and collar. Former Hell Pizza contractor Matt Blomfield, suing Slater for defamation, is in a grey suit, blue shirt and a beard so bushy it almost obscures his tie knot.

Both men are representing themselves. It's a short hearing - it's really just about scheduling a full hearing date. But both men are trying to turn it into a trial. Justice Rebecca Ellis quickly loses patience. "Please stop talking over each other," she tells them, exasperated.

And there you have it in one. The blogosphere, some would say, is a multitude of voices trying to drown each other out. It's about shouty personalities and extreme opinions.

That may be so, yet it works. Just as Americans rely increasingly on partisan broadcasters like Jon Stewart and Rush Limbaugh for their political news, here in New Zealand more people are relying on bloggers.

OpenParachute, which counts the numbers of visitors to nearly 300 New Zealand blogs each month, shows more and more readers for political blogs like Slater's Whale Oil, Martyn Bradbury's Daily Blog and David Farrar's Kiwiblog.

Their success is often built on personality-led postings, news breaks and screaming tabloid headlines such as "Len Brown's lewd text messages", "Dad's not Lovin' It, Stephanie Key poses nude", and "Roast Buster Rape Culture".

Bloggers believe they are on a roll, after exposing the lecherous Mayor of Auckland and getting host John Tamihere sacked from RadioLive for his rape comments. They believe this is their year: Election Year 2014, the Year of the Blogger.

The leading bloggers trade on one core asset: the power of personality. They are loud, they are brash and they are, ahem, manufactured. The top ones admit creating personas that are more in-your-face than the real person.

Old-school leftie "Bomber'' Bradbury sees bourgeois conspiracies behind every boardroom door. Photo / Doug Sherring
Old-school leftie "Bomber'' Bradbury sees bourgeois conspiracies behind every boardroom door. Photo / Doug Sherring

The bloke who turns up to an inner-city cafe in the trademark cheesecutter cap and a proletarian beard is "Bomber" Bradbury, an old-school leftie broadcaster and blogger who sees bourgeois conspiracies behind every boardroom door.

But once we get past that rhetoric and he orders his soy flat white, we meet "Martyn" Bradbury, more softly spoken and reasoned, the 40-year-old son of a moustachioed traffic cop from blue-ribbon Dairy Flat. "My friends and my family and my whanau see a very different Martyn Bradbury, who is far more fun-loving, far more warm and emotional and close with them than I am online," he admits. "I think 'Bomber' is very bombastic, very loud, very abrasive - at times hilarious, good-looking, very modest."

Similarly, the Whale Oil you meet online is often quite unpleasant. At his worst, and in the depths of pharmaceutically enhanced depression, Slater has been guilty of the most inhumane attacks. After King's College 16-year-old James Webster drank himself to death outside a party, Slater called him "a toffee-nosed school boy, a dead thief and a liar who couldn't handle his piss". Just for good measure, he added: "I always said King's boys were poofs."

At the same time, he ran up nine convictions for breaching the name suppression of accused and convicted criminals and, in one case, the victim of a sex attack.

Whale Oil can spew bile from "The Lair", a home office in the expanding East Auckland suburb of Flat Bush. Then he walks through to the messy kitchen and living area and becomes 45-year-old family man Cameron Slater, the father of two teens.

And he now knows the impact of personal disclosures - because they have been turned back on him. In a civil case to which Slater was not even a party, Auckland District Court judge David Harvey found cause to mention one of the parties had an affair with Slater, a married man.

"I don't want to talk about it," Slater says. "It was a painful part of life. I don't want to pick scabs that don't need to be picked ... You guys ran the story and it caused unending grief for a long time."

He and wife Juana are back together and rebuilding their marriage. There is a print on the kitchen wall: "In this house, we do real, we do mistakes, we do I'm sorry ... We do family, we do love."

Bloggers don't just say things, they do things. That is, perhaps, a key characteristic that distinguishes their work from most journalists'. They are activists.

Slater didn't just break a story about Len Brown cheating on his wife, he has worked to get Brown booted out of office for it. Slater didn't just campaign for reform to name suppression laws, he went out and deliberately flouted those laws.

"If people want to hold me to a set of standards then allow me to join the organisations that set those standards. Then I can be held accountable," Slater says. "But if you're going to say, 'No you're an outlaw', well, I'll be an outlaw."

Bradbury helped get 3000 people along to a meeting in the Auckland Town Hall opposing the expansion of GCSB spying powers. He designed a strategy for Kim Dotcom's Internet Party, intended to push John Key out of Government.

Public Address blogger Graeme Edgeler filed a submission with Parliament's regulatory review committee demanding a change to draconian Teachers Council suppression rules.

And Giovanni Tiso ... well, this little-known Marxist blogger from Wellington encouraged corporates into pulling tens of thousands of dollars from RadioLive in protest at comments about rape on John Tamihere and Willie Jackson's talkback show. It eventually cost Tamihere his job.

Tiso, 43, is an Italian writer who was in Milan, studying to avoid military service, when he met his New Zealand partner Justine. They moved here in 1997, and Tiso was dismayed by much of what he found. "It was an uncaring society," he says. So Tiso has set about combating "heartless" opinions with which he disagrees. He got Tamihere taken off air. He has been demanding the Herald sack Sir Bob Jones because of a column he wrote headlined "Rape a risk for those who don't act sensibly".

And just last weekend, he blocked the libertarian Herald on Sunday columnist Damien Grant on Twitter after a disagreement.

Bloggers say they provide a more diverse range of political opinions than is available through the newspapers and TV - but in Tiso's case, he seems bent on shutting down those voices with which he disagrees.

"We suffer generally ... from a very superficial public life and conversation. We're marching into this election year talking about the most ridiculous, meaningless things."

The bloggers have the potent personalities - now they just need to turn it into cash. Some are setting up an advertising bureau that will pimp their sites to companies with new chocolate bars or weight-loss products to sell. OMG, run by Auckland media agent David Wyatt, will launch next month with the Daily Blog its first client.

"The reader numbers have climbed enormously over the past three years," says 32-year-old Wyatt. "What makes this an attractive proposition to advertisers is they can target the right people in an environment they're loyal to. I wouldn't call the blogs a happy place, but they are places that fit with readers' values."

The big fish in the very small pond of blog commerce is Regan Cunliffe, from the Throng television blog. He also brokers ad sales for Geekzone, Kiwiblog and Whale Oil. Most successfully, he ran one for a commercial cleaning company: "Whale Oil dishes the dirt, we clean it up."

But let us be clear: for all their posturing, the bloggers have only a fraction of the readership of the "old media" they so disdain, and that is reflected in their revenue. Of an estimated $2.2 billion spent on advertising in New Zealand last year, Cunliffe says barely $500,000 would have been spent on blogs - about 0.02 per cent of the total.

It is also because advertisers don't want their brand tainted by obnoxious negativity. After reading on Whale Oil last month that a West Coast car crash victim was "feral" and "deserved to die", would consumers feel in the sort of warm, upbeat mood that sends them down to the nearest mall to do some shopping for barbecues and summer frocks? They'd be more likely to go shopping for a gun.

"The big agencies don't book blogs," says Cunliffe. "They're terrified of having their brand associated with content that is often derogatory of politicians and people."

The blogs' time will come, he says, and advertisers will recognise they provide access to a small but important readership. "The type of people who are reading these blogs are incredibly influential, and have deep pockets. I mean, the Prime Minister has come out this month and said, 'I read Whale Oil.' These blogs are functioning on the smell of an oily rag. Can you imagine how devastating Cameron Slater would be with a bit of money in his pocket?"

This is the week that TVNZ unit boss Shane Taurima was forced to quit because he was campaigning for Labour in the workplace. The jobs of three other staff are on the line, and the state-owned broadcaster's CEO has commissioned an independent inquiry.

How is it, then, that bloggers can be so outspokenly partisan, can get into bed with the politicians and still call themselves journalists?

The answer is simple: transparency. Nobody will die wondering which box the bloggers at Kiwiblog or The Standard will tick on their ballot papers come election day.

The bloggers' politics are fully disclosed. Bradbury has described Justice Minister Judith Collins as having "the bedside manner of a brain-hungry zombie on meth" and Key as a "cult of no personality". As for Slater's attacks on Labour and Green MPs - they just don't bear repeating in a family-friendly paper.

They are rewarded for their loyalty with access at the highest level. The Prime Minister acknowledges phoning Slater regularly ("I speak to lots of blogsters," he said last week, somewhat defensively) and Collins calls him a friend.

On the other side, Bradbury says he regularly talks to Labour leader David Cunliffe, and his goal this year is to see Cunliffe elected Prime Minister.

Bradbury leans forward on his elbows at the cafe table: "The old rules are gone," he grins. "This election is going to be incredibly vicious."

The country's best-read blogs are all political, they're all partisan, and they make no apology for it. Indeed, journalists in the mainstream media might learn a thing or two from that: television viewers and newspaper readers would prefer that journalists be transparently partisan than pretend to some high-and-mighty objectivity that nobody can ever really achieve. Everyone has a world view, and it affects how they interpret and report the events around them. That's called being human.

The reality, says Labour's campaign spokesman Grant Robertson, is bloggers have shifted from being "partisan parrots to breaking partisan stories". Only the most politically passionate activists will be motivated to run blogs, 24/7, for few readers and even less revenue.

Politicians can "manage the message" by talking through politically affiliated bloggers, says Robertson - whether that be Key talking to Slater, or Cunliffe talking to Bradbury.

"Bradbury is not someone I know that well, but I don't have a high level of discomfort about him," Robertson says.

David Farrar, left, John Key and Cameron Slater. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
David Farrar, left, John Key and Cameron Slater. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

"I do think Cameron Slater is the extreme variant of the blog in New Zealand. Some of the things he writes are truly, truly offensive. I have to say, I was surprised that the Prime Minister, who's a very busy person, has enough time to speak to Cameron Slater at least once a week."

Kim Dotcom accuses the Prime Minister of using Slater to run a smear campaign against him, as he sets up his Internet Party to exact revenge for the dawn raids on his mansion.

National Party campaign chairman Steven Joyce says only that all politicians "talk to their own support base" to motivate them and get them helping out - but even Joyce, the Prime Minister's right-hand man, rejects much of what is published on Whale Oil.

For instance, Slater is accused of backing Judith Collins over Joyce in a battle to succeed Key as leader. Joyce says there is no battle: "There's an example of where he's wrong. That's a figment of Cameron's fertile imagination."

(Slater says he agrees: There is no battle. If there was one, he laughs, he'd be knee deep in it.)

Joyce argues that just as the partisan bloggers laid down a challenge to the old model of news, they are now both being challenged by social media.

"The shorter methods of communication like Twitter have definitely got their place and are developing quickly," he says.

"My personal view is that a bigger influence this year will be the expansion of politicians talking directly to the people through the likes of Twitter and Instagram. That will be the story of 2014."

Late this week, up in the Aquamarine Rooms in the big white Hilton Hotel overlooking Auckland's Viaduct, the geeks and nerds congregate for the annual ESET NetGuide Web Awards. They wear T-shirts and polo shirts and sponsors' logos, apart from the unfortunate young web boss from the Inland Revenue Department who goes up to collect his award in a suit and white shirt, to boos and hisses and crass jibes about hand-jobs from the MC, Urzila Carlson.

Cameron Slater is up against David Farrar and three Fairfax lifestyle blogs for the title of Best Blog.

Slater wins.

He accepts the yellow trophy, and asks: "Is Russell Brown here? Any of you leftie suckholes who think I'm irrelevant? F*** off."

And he raises the yellow plastic cube above his head for the camera.

The geeks laugh, and those with any remaining dregs of bubbly raise their glasses to him.

- Herald on Sunday

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