Blomfield v Slater : the judgment

So Cameron Slater is now officially a journalist, for the purposes of the Evidence Act 2006. Here’s a copy of the High Court’s judgment, thanks to Peter Aranyi at The Paepae (whose post ‘High Court serves a mixed bag for PR attack blogger Cameron Slater‘ is worth reading).

With the unfolding of the Dirty Politics saga after the High Court appeal hearing had occurred, commentators had wondered whether the Judge would reopen the hearing. Mr Blomfield attempted to produce additional evidence that had flowed from the Dirty Politics book, but was quickly rebuffed. In the judgment, Asher J merely notes that leave was declined to introduce further evidence “on the basis that it is hearsay or privileged”.

This gives rise to elements of (possibly) unintentional humour, such as where the Judge states at para 66, “While he [Slater] will often refer to other materials, there was no evidence presented to suggest that he was only regurgitating the writings of others”. Given the evidence presented in Dirty Politics, that Slater was regularly receiving posts written by Carrick Graham and others, and posting them word for word under his own byline, one wonders whether Asher J winced as he wrote that.

Nonetheless, the Court confirms that Slater is a journalist and that the Whaleoil blog is a news medium, as defined in s 68(5) of the Evidence Act. Essentially, Whaleoil was considered big enough, and Slater considered a regular enough breaker of stories and provider of news content, to meet the requisite definitions.

There are some interesting observations in the judgment about whether bloggers could generally be considered to be journalists, and blogs generally considered to be news mediums. For example:

[54] I have no doubt that many bloggers are not journalists because they are not obtaining and disseminating news to the public or a section of the public on a regular basis. Some may not deal with news in the sense of providing new or recent information, and some may not deal sufficiently with the public or a section of the public. Nevertheless, I conclude that a blogger who regularly disseminates news to a significant body of the public can be a journalist. Given that the medium must be “for the dissemination to the public of news …” a blog that publishes a single news item would not qualify. The blog must have a purpose of disseminating news. Some regular commitment to the publishing of news must exist before a blog is a news medium.

and:

[61] I accept that a news medium that was shown to be using news as a basis for comment only might not be a news medium. I also accept that a news medium that published articles of such a low standard that they could not objectively be regarded as “news” might not qualify. Although the definitions in s 68(1) do not include a quality requirement, quality would be relevant to the extent that a writer who was shown consistently to invent stories or be inaccurate on a regular basis might not qualify. An article that is false is not news. I deal with what is a “journalist’s work” in the next section.

That means that very few blogs might actually be considered to be news mediums, and that very few bloggers might be considered to be journalists, but I’ll examine that issue in a separate post.

Suffice it to say that Cameron Slater achieved a victory in part one of the judgment – as a journalist, he (quoting from para 92) “is in general entitled not to disclose the identity or identities of his informant(s)”.

But that of course was merely the beginning. Justice Asher then had to address the issue of whether, pursuant to s 68(2) of the Evidence Act, the public interest in the disclosure of the source’s identity outweighed firstly, any likely adverse effect of the disclosure on the source or any other person, and secondly, “the public interest in the communication of facts and opinion to the public by the news media and, accordingly also, in the ability of the news media to access sources of facts”.

Section 68(2) poses a tough threshold. The ability to maintain confidentiality of sources can be fundamentally important to the ability of journalists to do their job effectively. Without the ability to promise to a source that their identity will not be revealed, journalists would effectively be neutered in their ability to hold the powerful to account.

Justice Asher adopted the five step process originally set out in Police v Campbell [2010] 1 NZLR 483 by Randerson J:

(a)  The issues to be determined in the proceeding;

(b)  The public interest in the disclosure of the identity of the source in the light of the issues to be determined, if any;

(c)  The likely adverse effects of disclosure on the informant or any other person, if any;

(d)  The public interest in the protection of communication of facts and opinion to the public by the news media and the ability of the news media to assess sources of facts, if any; and

(e)  Whether factor (b), if it exists, outweighs factors (c) and (d).

In the course of working through the five step process, Asher J is often scathing of Slater (as scathing as a Judge can be when they’re only ruling on an interlocutory application, with the substantive application still to be heard). Justice Asher notes at para 114:

As a general proposition, when a journalist such as Mr Slater has presented to the public extreme and vitriolic statements about a person such as Mr Blomfield alleging, as he has, serious crimes by him, there is a public interest in the fair airing of those statements and the circumstances of their making when the issues are traversed in defamation proceedings. The vitriolic remarks indicate that Mr Blomfield is a danger to society. The remarks being deliberately put in the public domain by Mr Slater show there is a public interest in all the circumstances relevant to Mr Blomfield’s challenge.

Likewise, at para 118, Asher J states:

The pleaded expressions of opinion of Mr Slater are extreme. He accuses Mr Blomfield amongst other things of the exploitation of trust involving children, and of being involved in wrongly changing the amounts shown as donations. It is said that he ripped off a charity, that he is a psychopath and that he loves extortion, that he is a pathological liar, that he launders money, and that he is part of a network of crooks. Some of the exchanges between the alleged informants and Mr Slater show a gleeful attitude towards his shaming Mr Blomfield. In one blog post Mr Slater referred to the portable hard-drive as “just over 1 Tb of juicy dirt”. In the context of such extremely perjorative assertions, whether the pleaded honest opinion was genuine is likely to be very much an issue.

Essentially, the Court found that Slater’s Whaleoil campaign against Blomfield was in the nature of a personal vendetta and/or a personal or commercial attack. Or at least, that it’s likely enough that it was, that Blomfield needs disclosure of the source to be able to properly prosecute his case. With the only adverse effects of disclosure to the source being the possible joinder as a party to defamation proceedings, the Court deemed that there was no public interest in Slater’s protection of the source.

In the end, it’s rather a Pyrrhic victory for Slater. Despite being found to have been a journalist, he still has to disclose his source, and the Court’s unflattering description of his and his source’s prima facie motives would suggest that a rather large rabbit will need to pulled from a hat for Slater to avoid a significant loss in the substantive defamation proceedings. Certainly, the revelations (or, for some, confirmations) in Dirty Politics that Slater performs corporate and personal character assassinations for money will hardly have helped his case.

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2 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Talking Auckland and commented:
    So Slater is deemed a journalist and Whale Oil a news medium. The established Main Stream Media can have fun with that one.
    For the rest though Slater is up the creek with the Judge passing down in his judgement that Slater must reveal sources as well as being liable for costs (so hollow victory).
    In the meantime and especially in relation to this: http://www.nbr.co.nz/article/one-blogger-ruining-it-rest-cg-p-162253 one wonders at the depth of the bloggersphere in New Zealand for which I would be a part of via Talking Auckland.
    Does Slater cast us all with the infantile immaturity has been said by the Law Commission, Law Society, and the Courts? Or are there a few of us out there above the sty when casting both news and commentary. We shall see post election.

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