The Press editorial:
A recent decision by a District Court judge that the well-known, some would say notorious, Whale Oil blog is not a news medium highlights the difficulty. …
In a paper on new media published last year, the Law Commission observed that bloggers are often highly partisan, can be offensive and abusive and are not accountable to anybody.
The commission later modified that view to note that some of New Zealand’s 200 or more current-affairs bloggers have become a rich alternative source of information and commentary.
The Whale Oil blog run by Cameron Slater certainly fits the commission’s first description. His commentary on a wide array of topics is heavily tendentious and often gratuitously rude.
His campaigns can also be wrong-headed, the most notable being a wildly irresponsible campaign a couple of years ago against name suppression that resulted in his incurring convictions and stiff fines.
But he also attracts more than 1 million visitors a month, more than the next five New Zealand bloggers put together and he has broken stories that have been taken up with gusto by other media.
These facts, Slater argued in the District Court recently, were sufficient to make him a journalist and his blog a news medium as defined in the Evidence Act.
He made the plea in order to be able to claim a protection provided by the act so he would not have to reveal his sources in a defamation action that has been brought against him. The judge rejected the submission.
While Slater’s blog is miles short of what most people would think of as a responsible medium that should be entitled to the protection of the law, the decision is almost certainly wrong.
Very good of The Press to argue that blogs can qualify for media protection. An unthinkable view from them a few years ago.
The Herald editorial agrees:
Blogger Cameron Slater has been told by a Manukau District Court judge his “Whaleoil” website is not a news medium. This will surprise everybody aware of the Len Brown affair. Whaleoil broke that story and was almost alone among news media in covering the seamy details. Muckraking to that degree might not be to everyone’s taste but if anybody wants to rake it or read it, they have a right to do so. The ruling by District Court Judge Charles Blackie will not stop them but it denies Whaleoil a right asserted by all news media to protect their sources from discovery in court.
The case has nothing to do with the Brown affair. Slater is defending an action for defamation on a different subject. The judge’s ruling is important for its general application to news and comment online, and possibly for the future regulation of mainstream media too.
The ruling does have wide ramifications.
The right that Slater seeks is not particularly generous, or final. If a case goes to the High Court, news media may be forced to betray a confidential source to the judge, who will decide whether confidentiality overrides other considerations in the case. Other jurisdictions give media freedom higher protection. A blogger might not have the means to challenge this ruling in a higher court but it should not stand. News comes in many and varied forms and the courts should recognise it when they see it.
Again, very welcome to see the Herald take this view.
Maybe the Newspaper Publishers Association Media Freedom Committee could consider assisting with the appeal?