8 Mar 2021

An end at last to the dirty politics saga

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 8 March 2021
Cameron Slater outside the Court of Appeal

Cameron Slater outside the Court of Appeal Photo: RNZ / Michael Cropp

Whaleoil … Rawshark … inside information … political skullduggery … court delaying tactics … this saga has seen it all.

The Dirty Politics defamation case ended dramatically last week with an apology no one expected.

The case exposed details about how a lobbyist paid a blogger to post damaging messages attacking public health advocates.

But crucial information about the involvement of the powerful international tobacco lobby was never revealed.

Within hours of the case opening at High Court in Auckland, the PR man and lobbyist Carrick Graham settled with an apology and payment for his part in spreading defamatory statements about three public health experts; Doug Sellman of Alcohol Action; health professor Boyd Swinburn; and former director of the Māori Smokefree Coalition, Shane Bradbrook.

"I don't think I've seen an apology like this," says Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy. "In a court settlement of this nature this was a very detailed, very strong, effusive apology to these men."

The lawsuit was taken by the three academics against Graham (son of former National Minister Sir Doug Graham), the former Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater, and the former National MP Katherine Rich and the Food and Grocery Council which she heads. 

The case stems from Nicky Hager's 2014 book Dirty Politics, which outlined a campaign to place damaging stories attacking public health messages about the dangers of sugary food, alcohol and tobacco. The defamatory blogs were posted on the website Whale Oil between 2009 and 2016.

Rich and the Food and Grocery Council settled their case last year with a confidential payment. Blogger Slater, who published the attacks, effectively withdrew his defence when he "consented to judgement". That left Graham.

In his apology Graham admitted the statements made against the men were "untrue, unfair, offensive, insulting and defamatory".

Murphy says the revelations in the case will have shocked not only ordinary New Zealanders but journalists, marketers and communications teams, "even the PR industry"  would be surprised at the extent of it.

"People sometimes make allegations against public relations firms and comms teams, marketers .... and claims that some media are used for certain positions. But this would be the most explicit, elaborate, probably worst intended that we've seen in New Zealand.  

"Very few people would expect that …. commentary in whatever medium would be able to be purchased, effectively."

Murphy says the plaintiffs' lawyers did a lot of "sleuthing" to uncover the information.

"Even the lawyers were taken aback as they went further and further. No one would expect that level of intensity and brazenness."