Words have power. No one knows that better than Matt Blomfield, a former Hell's Pizza executive who found himself the subject of an orchestrated attack by Cameron Slater on the blog Whale Oil in 2012.
Slater's blog described Blomfield as a psychopath involved in "drugs, fraud, corruption and more. The damage wasn't just online, two years after the blog posts, a masked gunman fired a shot at Blomfield at his home, in front of his children.
For nearly 7 years, Blomfield fought to have his name cleared and finally won a defamation case against Slater. Author Margie Thomson tells his story of standing up to cyber bullying and how vulnerable we all are in the face of a digital attack in her new book Whale Oil.
Matt Blomfield joined Jesse Mulligan to talk about his long battle to clear his name.
Jesse Mulligan: Where does the story begin for you?
Matt Blomfield: It begins before the posts with Whale Oil. I came to Auckland from Northland was keen to set the world on fire, set up a whole lot of businesses and failed dismally. So, I've described it as a Boeing crashing into a mountain - but with the best of intents and then had to retreat back to just earning enough to keep the family going.
And I woke up one morning to blog posts from Cameron Slater.
JM: You got an email the previous night?
MB: I got an email the previous night and the email address was youshould email@example.com and it was a link to a teaser for the stories that ran starting the next morning and they just, for I think, probably next three to four months I think it was nine o'clock, there'd be one scheduled to run and then a follow up story in the afternoon.
JM: Had you heard of Whale Oil? Did you know what that was before you got an email from him?
MB: No, I, I vaguely recognised the name Cameron Slater. I think he had been on TV or something, I'd seen him, but I didn't know him. I didn't know what a blog site was I, was pretty green on what it was all about.
JM: So what did the blog posts say about you?
MB: Well, they what they would do is take a sprinkling of truth, and then they would just take that right out to the nth degree.
So, if I was attending a party with friends, it would be he attended this party with friends and there was drugs and hookers and whatever. I mean, it was it was just the most extreme example that you could imagine.
I’ll give an actual example from the book. A digger and truck was stolen by me and through Cameron’s investigative powers he managed to find the digger and truck and return it to the owners. And the digger and truck in question was nothing to do with me and was part of a liquidation of a company I knew nothing about.
It had been picked up two years prior to Cameron saying that he had found the digger and truck that I'd stolen and the sprinkling of truth was I had done some work in the construction industry, and it is feasible that I may have had a digger and truck but that's where it ended. And most of the stories that's, you know, I couldn't see how he got to where he did - and neither could the courts.
JM: And so there was the fact that these stories weren't true but there's also the orchestrated nature, right? This is a real, a very personal and organized attack it even had a name I think Operation Bumslide?
MB: Yeah, they were very creative with their naming, I think there was Operation Bumslide, which was the project name. They had the Onehunga Truth Cartel, which was the name for the group of individuals who plan the attacks. It was quite bizarre would be the only way to describe it.
JM: And the question in everyone's head will be why, it's your sense it was an aggrieved business partner from your past who’s decided to come and get you?
MB: That's my sense and I don't think we risk defaming anyone, because through the courts, through the police investigations in the information that was obtained from the police and the Official Information Act request, it clearly shows that the information used to write the stories came from Warren Powell at Hell's Pizza was given to an associate of Cameron Slater, and then uploaded to a hard drive. The hard drive was uploaded to a Google drive and everyone had access to it. So these are not disputed facts they've been tested before the court.
Most of what we're talking about has been litigated, I mean the book was three years [to write], Margie [Thomson] had 30,000- 40,000 pages of documents to go through to get to a point where she could comfortably write down what happened with the story. And it follows [with] the litigation risk, which everyone's very concerned about just because of the individuals involved, after finishing the book we had this extensive period where we used Stephen Price, who's media lecturer in media law down at Victoria University. And he meticulously went through every line of the book. And anywhere where there was a fact he said, 'I want to see the document that supports the fact', anywhere where there was opinion, he wanted to see the documents supporting the opinion. So I can hand on heart say that I'm absolutely confident that nothing in that book runs the risk of litigation, because it's all true.
JM: Are you pleased with the book?
MB: I don't know yet, and the reason I say that is firstly, it's an incredibly uncomfortable thing to open up your family to scrutiny, open up your own personal feelings. I said at the book launch last night in jest I said, I told Margie my most deepest thoughts and then she put it in a book and now the world’s gonna read it.
Obviously I didn't think that through! So it's nerve wracking to think you're going to put yourself out there.
When I originally spoke to Nicky Hager, who was the catalyst for the book, he was the one who suggested it happened, we talked about what benefits would come from it.
And as a father with young kids, and there's very much a changing world out there, we've got this whole online environment that occupies a large percentage of our life and the laws haven't evolved at the same rate as the internet's evolving.
And I don't know if it will, but I sure hope that something in there is going to help speed up change. I mean a great step forward would be simply being able to walk into a police station and say personal photos of my family have been taken and they’re with someone that shouldn't have them and I want the police to do something and for the police officer to know what to say.
JM: To recognize the sort of theft that is and the damage that can be caused by something like that?
MB: And it's colossal. I mean, I've used the example of if I had the choice between having my house broken into and my car stolen, or what I went through over the last seven years, I would most definitely prefer to have my house broken in to - my castle.
And the effort that's gone into investigating what happened to us, even prior to the incident at my home, was just miniscule. They just weren't interested in it.
I don't think that it's a lack of legislation, I think it's a lack of willingness to embrace the legislation by the police, and I don't want to be too critical of them, but they didn't do anything.
JM: Let's look at what you tried to do once these blog posts started coming and when you became aware that you were under attack. Your instinct was probably one that we would all have, which is to call Slater up and have a chat to him - but it didn't really work?
MB: I've discussed this with Margie in depth, and it's covered in the book. There's a real power imbalance when you're one voice and you're talking to a person that's got three or four hundred thousand listeners and he's controlling the dialogue.
So, he wasn't overly interested in anything I had say. I kind of felt like I was in the principal's office receiving a lashing and nothing I would say would change his thoughts on what he was going to write.
So it was just a pointless exercise to even try and talk him around.
JM: How did your friends and family react? Because I suppose it's human to assume that where there's smoke, there's fire?
MB: Coming to Auckland I was successful in business, and I had a very large circle of friends. And they dealt with my business failures and I would say that group reduced to a point, but not much because people accept that you can try and fail.
But suddenly, when you’re associated with drugs and fraud and extortion and all these other horrible things, a large percentage of the population, and your friends, will just get as far away from you as possible.
And it's understandable from some point, they have families and people they need to look out for, and part of the way the attack on me was derived was it was not just an attack on me, it was always connected to those friends and acquaintances.
So, it was very understandable. I ended up with a very tight circle of friends, but they were all incredible people and they followed me right through the journey. And those friends are the reason we were able to do this because without them I wouldn't have been able to. So I have a very small group of friends now.
JM: We can all probably think of stuff that people might find in our computers or on our emails, or our hard drive that they could then use against us if they wanted to. If someone decides to come and get you they can throw whatever they like, embellish what they find and maybe that's the story of this book, how much more vulnerable we are to incursions of privacy than we think?
MB: I had an interesting discussion with a lecturer from the AUT recently, funnily enough, about some of the emails that came out during the court proceedings. And there was a handful of embarrassing emails that I'd written over the years. And he said, ‘But will people think you're a hothead when they see those emails?’ And I said, look Cameron had 36,000 emails to scroll through and they were keyword searching swear words and other words and finding the worst of my 36,000 emails. And the best they could come up with I think was I told a builder that when I was at school, if he had behaved the way he had, I would have punched him in the nose.
And even saying that now I'm sort of going well, it makes me sound like a bit of a clown. But there's not many people in Auckland that could say if you looked at every email I've written for a 10-year period that they haven't said at least one stupid thing. Well, I said a dozen stupid things and they became the basis of this person who was apparently this horrible criminal that was causing havoc in Auckland.
JM: And even lawyers who love the work tend to advise clients not to take on defamation cases, right?
MB: Smart advice. I mean, I've worked with some of the most brilliant lawyers in the country now. I mean, Felix Geiringer, who ran the case is incredible, he's an absolute savant. And he would say that defamation judicial reviews are the most difficult areas of law. I've done two judicial reviews, and a defamation case, and those were my first cases. So, jump straight into the deep end with the most difficult kind of law you can get.
JM: So why take on the battle?
MB: It goes back to that point about some very close friends and my family and my kids, most of my decisions are based on looking at my 70-year-old self and saying, at 70 how am I going to feel about what I did when I was younger? Will I be able to live with the fact I walked away? Let him off? Didn't stand up for myself? And will my kids be proud of what I did? And I don't believe I would have been able to sit there at 70 and go well this horrible person was able to do this to me and other people and I let it happen and just walked away, which in the book there's a number of examples of other people who did just that, and I don't criticise them but I really would have struggled with that. So it was something I felt I had to do and I and I had amazing support.
JM: When was the physical attack?
MB: The blog posts themselves were only a very small part of what we had to contend with. Following on from the blog posts was people following me in my car, people outside my office taking photos of the signs on my office, people waiting outside courthouses. I mean, I've had some pretty awful looking individuals standing outside the courts.
The intimidation started from the point where I first serve the defamation proceedings on Cameron, it was slightly farcical, the concept of ringing up Cameron and saying 'I'm going to serve these proceedings on you' because he was initially, I think he was avoiding the service. And he said, okay, you can come and meet with me and I met with him at a specified address. And when I pulled up to the address in my car, he was standing there with sort of half a dozen guys all with their arms folded big, you know, tough-looking security staff, waiting for me to hand him and it was just this intimidation in the real world that followed everything I did from that point forward.
And it was it was quite horrifying, it was terrifying. But you know, that's something you just have to contend with. But it's not quite simply ignoring what's on the internet, because it was a lot more than that. It's text messages to your wife. Before the armed attack at the house, we had been notified by text message that someone was going to do something to us in our home. My wife knew it was going to happen before it happened. And we were already ready for it to happen. I mean a guy runs at you with a shotgun and you charge them and take the gun off them, you do that because you're already in fight mode. I was already feeling on edge and I was probably lucky because something terrible could have happened.
The shooting at Blomfield’s home
MB: I was drinking Milo and I followed my dog, which is a little cocker spaniel, down to the corner of the property and there was a man with a Spider Man mask. And I saw him and I ran at him as he lifted the gun up to fire it and I grabbed the barrel and he shot it over my shoulder. I then dragged him and the gun on to my front lawn.
My wife ran out with a bamboo stick and started beating him with a bamboo stick - a tough lady - and then I got up to get the gun and I missed the gun and he picked it up and swung it around and a second shot went under my arm and hit the side of the house next to where my daughter was standing watching.
This is a terrifying experience for a family. And I think this is where … it was a real turning point for me. At that point, he thought I had been shot because I fell to the ground after he fired and I'm lying on the ground and he turned and ran for my house and was smashing the windows reaching in to unlock and chasing my kids and my wife. And it was no longer about me it was about him getting them.
So I got up and managed to get him away from the property. I think I dislodged the chuck of the bolt, I think it was a pump action and I pulled it forward and he turned and he was clicking the gun pointing it at my head it was horrifying.
And then I grabbed him and jumped off the deck and he ran away and fortunately he left blood and that's how they caught him. But I mean, it devastated my wife and my family. It was terrible. It was the most awful thing for kids to see.
JM: What did the police have to say about that?
MB: Initially they were very open with us, one of the police officers said to us that they had through an informant been told that there was a likely hit job going to happen in the area. And that it was very unfortunate that it was us. The armed offenders squad who attended said it was it was amazing that someone actually charged the guy with the gun because he said usually you would run the other way. But they initially looked at it as an organised hit job.
And then just through this sort of weird change they suddenly went it's not, our focus is to get the guy and they took three months to find him they said we would go into a version of protective custody. So we stayed in an apartment in Orewa and we had stay there out of sight while they tried to find him… and home school the kids and I drove into work most days and I had to make sure that I didn't keep a regular routine. And there were things they asked us to do. But it was it was quite disruptive.
JM: How are the kids?
MB: They're the strongest little kids you ever see they're amazing. They are a bit broken and I'm embarrassed for that, because I dragged them along for the ride and they're kids. So they don't have a choice. But in the same sense they're amazingly strong individuals. I'm so proud of them.
JM: Would you do anything differently?
MB: I don't know if I would .... maybe remember to take my hard drive and my filing cabinet when I left my first job, so Cameron could have never done this. But as far as going through the battle and fighting it, I think it was an important thing to do. But I'd like to answer that question later when I see if this actually results in some sort of change or help someone else. And I'm not trying to sound overly philanthropic, but it will be cool if something good comes out of this for someone.
JM: One of the side effects was the impact on your business reputation …. Presumably getting a job is quite hard when people Google you and see all this muck on the internet?
MB: Yeah, getting a job's just an impossibility. So you're not going to work for anyone.
JM: You can’t say here’s the defamation case, it's been shown that none of the stuff was true?
MB: That's only recent. That's only in the last couple of months. So I think it'd probably be easier for me to get a job now. But that doesn't sort out the last seven years.
Banks, finance companies, employees, they use Google as a mechanism for reference checking people. It's just what we do these days. And, you know, it's terrifying.
I could simply walk out of this office right now and write half a dozen stories about you on different websites, making horrible allegations and if you were to follow suit with what happened with me, you've got the next seven years to get those stories pulled down - good luck, you know? It's a horrible prospect.
JM: Are they all erased now?
MB: All of the Slater stories have gone... I've pulled down stuff that was in Iceland, in Australia, I've got judgments in different jurisdictions. I've learned how Google works with blocking content, I've learned how Facebook works, so I've got this great bank of knowledge of understanding how to pull stuff down all over, but it does pop up at times. And I do attempt to pull it back down. And most of its gone now. Yeah.
JM: It sounds expensive.
MB: It's incredibly expensive. I mean it's all the money that I earned, plus some.
JM: You have won the defamation case and a Human Rights Tribunal award but presumably you'll have to make a living somehow?
MB: I don't want to be derogatory towards particular industries, but you end up working in industries where reputations don't matter so much. ... so I make my money now working in the insolvency industry a lot. I do some collection and litigation work.
And a large chunk of my business comes from people who just have outrageous problems that lawyers can't handle and they come to me so I have got, you know, a way of making a living because they're quite difficult problems to solve they pay okay.
JM: Matt Blomfield the fixer?
MB: At times, I try to be.
JM But I think you’re going to get the law degree as well aren’t you?
MB: I’m currently studying law, I was very excited I got a B plus in my last essay, which I was pretty proud of.