Cameron Slater and his Whale Oil Beef Hooked website have some passionate advocates. But Slater presents some risks as part of a public relations strategy.
For instance, DB Breweries was this week trying to distance itself from Slater, after revelations in the Nicky Hager book Dirty Politics, while the chief executive of the Food and Grocery Council, Katherine Rich, was also keeping her head down.
Both are alleged to have used Whale Oil to criticise opponents, though both have denied asking their PR representative to have items placed on the site.
But the Israeli Embassy in Wellington is relaxed about picking Slater - a climate change denier - to cover the World Science Conference in Israel. Despite the bad publicity, it believes Slater is "fair-minded" and "spiritual".
The embassy picked Slater to be part of a media delegation to the conference a long time ago. He had a reputation for controversy even before the release of Dirty Politics, a book based on his leaked emails and revealing deep cynicism and some nasty communications between Slater and some people in politics and PR.
The embassy's cultural and public affairs director, Patricia Deen, stands by its choice, and said Slater's fairness showed in his coverage from Israel so far. Israel has been part-funding Slater and other writers to the conference, which was scheduled to run from August 17 to 21. While it never went ahead because of the war on Gaza, Slater has stayed on to write about Israel.
The Israeli Government paid part of his costs, and he paid extra to extend his visit to cultural places, said Deen. "Cameron is a very spiritual person," she said.
Like other countries, Israel pays for journalists to visit so they can get media to see their side of the story. NZ does much the same thing in helping journalists visit our "100 per cent pure" nation. In Israel's case, though, such delegations are often designed to counter what it believes is an anti-Israel bias on the part of international media.
But support for Israel's position on the Whale Oil blog might hurt as much as it helps.
It's interesting Israel invited Slater - a global warming sceptic - to an international science conference. Peter Griffin is manager of the Science Media Centre, operated by the Royal Society of New Zealand. He said Slater had made several attacks against scientists and promoted global warming sceptics. Griffin said this week that Dirty Politics had provided a window into the tactics of right-wing bloggers, lobbyists and political strategists intent on discrediting scientists who present evidence that conflicts with their political and commercial interests.
The Hager book alleges ties between Slater and the public relations consultant Carrick Graham and his clients, which include DB and the Food and Grocery Council. It also alleges a relationship with the tobacco industry, claiming that it paid Slater a $6500 monthly retainer.
Hager alleges that Graham pays Slater to run blog posts criticising people who favour efforts to tighten up alcohol and tobacco regulation.
Contacted in Israel yesterday, Slater said "I have never received money for coverage". And, he said, "I am not paid a retainer by anyone." Such a claim was "highly defamatory", he said.
Slater has rejected suggestions he runs PR content untouched, saying he always does something with the copy. But given the lack of transparency around his blog, it has been increasingly difficult to clarify whether comment is advertising or editorial, and whether criticism of others is genuine opinion or paid comment, potentially from a commercial competitor. This column has in the past raised the lack of scrutiny and transparency about paid content in blogs.
This week, another right-wing blogger, David Farrar - also criticised in the Hager book - said he had thought about giving away the Kiwiblog website because he was so unhappy about his own emails being hacked.
He said he would immediately register the website with the Online Media Standards Association (OMSA), set up by broadcasters for media organisations not covered by the Press Council or under the Broadcasting Act.
The Press Council has also been working with bloggers - including Slater - for blogs to be covered under its standards. Interestingly, Press Council standards are much more specific than the OMSA's, in defining issues that have featured in some of the hacked emails Hager published.
According to Press Council Principle 10: Conflicts of Interest, "To fulfil their proper watchdog role, publications must be independent and free of obligations to their news sources. They should avoid any situations that might compromise such independence. Where a story is enabled by sponsorship, gift or financial inducement, that sponsorship, gift or financial inducement should be declared. Where an author's link to a subject is deemed to be justified, the relationship of author to subject should be declared."
The Public Relations Institute of NZ (Prinz) said this week that after Dirty Politics, it would be looking at PR industry ethics to see if they "stack up", and admitted it had not done enough work in dealing with the issues raised by new media.
Prinz president Bruce Fraser said there were other issues to deal with in mainstream media, and the growth of "native advertising", where advertisers and media worked together.
National Party MP and Minister of Justice, Judith Collins. Photo / Michael Craig
Radio New Zealand public relations man John Barr said there were a few brickbats, but overwhelmingly bouquets for Guyon Espiner's interview with John Key this week. The Prime Minister obfuscated in response to questions about government links with Whale Oil.
Espiner demanded the Prime Minister answer questions about Justice Minister Judith Collins, and told him he was not going to get away with avoiding the question.
Partway through Wednesday there had been 18,000 downloads of the Morning Report interview, making it the most downloaded item ever on the RNZ website.
Meanwhile, Radio NZ has announced the appointment of Glen Scanlon to the recently created position of head of digital media.
Scanlon is the editor of stuff.co.nz and his previous roles include a stint as a chief reporter and assistant editor of the Waikato Times, and as a duty editor at CNN. He has worked in the past with RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson, who is a former editor-in-chief of Fairfax NZ.
A decision is expected in the next two weeks on who will take over as head of the Maori unit at Television New Zealand, replacing Paora Maxwell, who departed in early 2013. Maxwell has since moved on to the job of chief executive of Maori Television.
Elsewhere, the troubled TVNZ department was in the headlines after revelations that Maxwell's replacement, Shane Taurima, had used TVNZ resources for Labour Party business.
In the Maori unit, former Seven Sharp executive producer Raewyn Rasch has been filling in for several months.
It is not clear if she has applied for the job of running the unit, but it is understood that two other high profile players have put their names forward.
One is Arana Taumata, who is regarded as good television talent. Another candidate is believed to be Te Anga Nathan, a former head of news and current affairs at Maori Television under its previous chief executive, Jim Mather.
Nathan recently returned from a role running an indigenous broadcasters' body in Sydney to be head of communications at Te Wananga o Aotearoa, where Mather is now chief executive.