This is not an article on the morality of Auckland Mayor Len Brown, his mistress Bevan Chuang, or blogger Cameron Slater. The public deserved to know about Len Brown’s affair insofar as it affected his professional life and whether he resigns depends on public opinion. This is about the blog and future of scandal.
Even before watching Firstline yesterday, I thought Cameron Slater was a garbage person; the interview simply confirmed it. I consider his Whale Oil Beef Hooked blog as a political and moral cesspool. But the interview also confirmed my opinion of Slater as cunning, shrewd, calculating, and excellent at his job. He came across self-assured and communicated his case well – whether or not he’s being straight.
Whale Oil is the most read blog in New Zealand because Slater has the smarts, the connections, and understands politics, the media and the power of the blog. His father John Slater was former President of the National Party under Jenny Shipley, grew up in a household regularly visited by MPs and cabinet ministers, and is connected to well known former National Party advisors and right wing pundits Matthew Hooton and David Farrar and certainly connected to other journalists. He’s attained pundit status as a regular commentator on TV3’s Saturday morning current affairs show The Nation and the morning show Firstline. He has an excellent understanding of politics and become synonymous with distributing leaks such as leaking the names of convicted celebrities with name suppression and breaching the golden media rule – albeit selectively – of addressing allegations of adultery against MPs.
Traditionally, NZ media doesn’t break stories on politicians personal lives unless it’s illegal allegations like Darren Hughes in 2011, but will always report if becomes public news. In 2006, Don Brash’s affair with Diane Forman was broken by Trevor Mallard using parliamentary privilege. In 1977, Rob Muldoon used the same method to bring down Labour MP Colin Moyle over his police arrest for allegedly cruising the Wellington Public Library bathrooms. Having lived in Wellington for two years, I heard every rumour and allegation of adultery and sexual peccadillos of Labour and National MPs from parliamentary staffers, academics, and friends of friends, yet none were reported on. I’d think that parliamentary press gallery and journalistic silence about politicians’ personal lives is not about morality per se but professionalism. Going public on legal personal activities might wreck that journalist’s access with political parties and politicians they see on a daily basis. Slater is more removed from those rules insofar as that he is a blogger as a new creator and fiercely political. As a connected man rooting for his tribe, Slater’s unlikely to hold National MPs to the same standard, though might consequently find himself losing political, pundit and journalistic connections.
Slater’s breach of the media code on private lives works insofar as media will report his news – in this case, the successful outing of Len Brown’s and Bevan Chuang’s affair. She probably chose Whale Oil as the blog to have the greatest impact. With mainstream media out of the question, she certainly wasn’t going to release it on a lesser known blog like Dad4Justice. Though media will not generally take a blatant moral stand on personal lives, the blogger can. In essence, the media subcontracts morality by airing the moral judgements and political talking points espoused by political bloggers. The added juicy details caters to the public appetite for scandal, with the added political bonus of sexually humiliating Brown. Public demand gives the media no choice but to report these stories.
Slater is hardly a pioneer though; more an example of the power of the blogger to create news. The most prominent international examples are American: most notably conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, who leaked information about Anthony Weiner’s tweeting scandal; James O’Keefe and his use of selective video footage to bust the community organisation ACORN; Matt Drudge’s Newsmax, which broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal; and Mike Rogers who runs Blogactive, which regularly outs anti-gay congressmen.
This event was more indicative that smart, connected bloggers can work around the media which has no choice to report what is now news. In spite of ideals about the ability of the average citizen to be influential, blogging is likely to be dominated by smart, politically motivated people serving an agenda and/ or slant. Maybe connected left wing bloggers will retaliate with a scandal their own but that would lead to an acceleration where both sides would lose. Maybe a truce will be called for. But Slater will remain influential, especially because he is unrivaled on the left. This isn’t impossible. Rogers has succeeded in his simple approach: out politicians who are being hypocritical about their own personal lives. There’s obviously someone or any number of rivals on the left with similar strengths to create the news, and perhaps this is the future.