Whale Oil

Review: Margie Thompson (2019) Whale Oil Nelson: Potton and Burton ($39.99)

The line ‘Whale Oil Beef Hooked’ brought a snigger among sixteen-year-old schoolboys when I was one, and perhaps it still raises a laugh among a certain diminishing demographic where Irish jokes seem clever. Certainly Cameron Slater, whose once highly subscribed right-wing blog is thus named, has been known to deal in racism and would cast himself as a fearless opponent of political correctness. Self-promotion and marketing are part of the product that he purveyed. The rest is lies, quarter-truths, voyeurism, scandal, scuttlebutt, and subcontracted political spin, as this book amply shows, though Slater has few customers for that any more.

Margie Thompson’s book, Whale Oil, a surprisingly riveting read, assiduously researched, is only partly about Slater (those interested in the ‘principles’, ways and means of this character should read Nicky Hager’s (2014) Dirty Politics, also published by Potton and Burton, a work that inspired Thompson in her remarkable endeavour). The cover of Thompson’s book, by Darryl Sean Parsons, has a marvellous caricature, showing not a whale, but another sea creature, a many-tentacled bottom-dweller that squirts ink, an ugly octopus-like monster of uncanny resemblance (‘Here be monsters’ warns Thompson on p.119). Whale Oil, however, is more about the long-term determination and courageous standing up to this bully and his paymasters, at enormous personal cost, of the book’s main protagonist, businessman Matt Blomfield.

Once an investor in, and driving business-plan force behind, the then highly successful Hell Pizza chain, Blomfield fell out with his former business associates when he would no longer do dirty work for them. Someone then set out concertedly to destroy his personal and professional reputation, and ruin his life as well as his business, feeding Whale Oil the hacked and stolen means, and motivation. Slater’s hireling defamation blog lied that Blomfield was a paedophile, pornographer, thief from a charity organisation, fraudster, illegal drug-user and more. That this was lies in its entirety was eventually, insistently and painstakingly, proven in courts by Blomfield, as Thompson’s book sets out in gripping narrative. Yet ink, like mud, sticks. The book is a tale of redemption, but Blomfield’s painful (and expensive!) recuperation of his honour is a work in progress.

So, where is the crime in Whale Oil? Good criminology is as much about victims, social harm and impunity as it is about law-breaking, detection, courts and punishment. Whale Oil is about all of that, but it is also cleverly presented as a detective story. It is about two types of paid assassination, character assassination, and the less metaphorical sort: a loaded shotgun aimed point-blank at the victim by a hired hitman, trigger pulled. Only one of these was, and only partially, successful. Though the gunman perpetrator was eventually, inexplicably tardily and seemingly reluctantly, brought to some sort of justice by police, burning questions over that impunity and reluctance are raised by this book. He was never led to reveal who sent him, though the trail to their doors is arguably laid bare in this book. Likewise, Cameron Slater has never had to divulge who paid and instructed him for his hired defamations, though the smoking gun is in evidence.

Blomfield, a candid and reflexive interviewee, starts out in the book as an unlikely hero: ambitious. acquisitive, flash, smart-arsed and effective in sharp business practices. Yet he is deeply caring and fiercely defensive of his family, and brave and unrelenting when they are so traumatically threatened. His terrified eight-year-old daughter witnessed the home intrusion, vicious beating and attempt on the life of her father. Years later, the younger daughter, now ten, was subjected to a sleazy attempt by Slater to ‘friend’ her on social media. His wife, Rebecca, was humiliated and threatened with photos of her childbirth and other personal family images being uploaded to the internet. I can’t even begin to imagine the trauma of Rebecca and their two girls, which can never be compensated. There are many innocent victims of this bullying who are not the direct objects of the commodified and amoral attacks.

Matt Blomfield is the first to admit that he made mistakes in younger years, and he is determined to overcome their legacy and be a new man, as he puts his life together again. He is clearly succeeding admirably — and Thompson obviously admires him, though not uncritically. Almost as in a good play — and this book would, and may, make a fine movie — Blomfield grows in character and in complexity in our understanding as his painful experiences and hard lessons unfold. He studies the law and represents himself in court when he has to. He is quick-witted and highly intelligent, and has a very strong sense of justice. It was elating and deflating at the same time to read of Matt’s legal victory, and its pyrrhic nature financially (Slater declared himself bankrupt). I am really glad to see that he is studying law — for which he clearly has an aptitude and passion, as well as much originally unsought-after experience. I am humbled by his courage and in awe of his determination. The reader gains the strong impression that he is motivated by justice rather than vengeance: that it is simply not right that Slater gets away with harming people the way he has, and that future victims should be spared that harm.

The book is beautifully crafted: Margie Thompson skillfully tells her powerful and spell-binding story. The pacing and the sequencing of the book’s revelations really drew me in; I put it down only to sleep.

Thompson’s thoughtful observations about the larger significance of Matt Blomfield’s story, and the influence of Slater and his hirers and that whole internet-fuelled phenomenon writ large, strike me as accurate and perceptive. I was at the end of a workshop on corruption when ‘Whale Oil’ was brought firmly to my attention. An attempted murder, never treated as such by the police, and an extraordinarily well-connected (son of a former National Party president, friend of then Police Minister Judith Collins) ‘person of interest’ never investigated: what else but corruption can that be? I hope the book makes people rightly angry about the sheer impunity of the perpetrators, not to mention the cynicism with which they pervert our society and its sharing of knowledge.

Scott Poynting is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology, Australia.

A disclaimer that doesn’t: against the traditions of much mainstream criminology, this review is neither ‘objective’ nor dispassionate. The author is a footnote to the book in two senses: as a cited academic expert (with Mike Donaldson) on ruling-class masculinity and bullying (in Appendix 1 on Understanding Bullying), and in a minor appearance as an interviewee example of the many people viciously defamed, for gain, by Cameron Slater.

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