After news of Cameron Slater’s departure from Whale Oil, Liam Hehir reflects on the fading influence of New Zealand’s politics blogs.
Cameron Slater, founder of Whale Oil, is stepping away from his creation and has filed for bankruptcy. This follows an earlier announcement that the blogger had suffered a stroke, and that recovery was not coming along easily. Being tangled up in a series of protracted defamation lawsuits at the same time cannot have helped.
Slater has many enemies. Decent people, however, will be wishing him well. Whatever you think of him, he is a family man. There are people who depend on him. That base level of empathy should trump the feuds of the past.
In any event, the announcement marks the end of an era for a blog that was quite consequential at a moment in our political life. It was not so long ago that Slater had the ear of politicians and prominent journalists. That gave Whale Oil a large degree of sway.
That became the subject of a book by Nicky Hager, Dirty Politics, based on emails stolen from Slater. It was an imperfect book (unavoidably so, given the source material) but it set off a discussion that dominated the news night after night. There was something like a moral panic over whether blogs were exercising an undue influence over public affairs.
Personally, I never had much involvement with Slater. We come from different strands of conservative politics and had different styles. Even so, when I started out as a writer, he was one of the only people who would regularly link to my work (David Farrar of Kiwiblog was another). Whenever this happened, I could be assured of text messages telling me I had been quoted in Whale Oil.
That doesn’t really happen anymore.
The writers at Whale Oil argue that its readership has held up since Hager’s book and for all I know that could well be right. Nevertheless, there is no doubting that the soft power of the blog is a shadow of what it once was. It no longer really sets the agenda in the way it used to.
Some people would sheet that home to the ongoing effects of Dirty Politics. It seems to me, however, that the blog format is simply in a general state of decline. Gone are the days when the Labour leader of the week would put in an “Ask Me Anything” style appearance at The Standard. Where once starting a blog held out the hope of influencing political debate, trying to start one today is likely to mark one out as some kind of eccentric.
The big hitters are still going, of course.
Martyn Bradbury’s The Daily Blog continues its lonely war against neoliberalism and those who have incurred the ire of its proprietor. Public Address continues to crank out posts about legalising weed and bands you’ve probably never heard of. Kiwiblog still publishes dispatches on the news daily, though you get the feeling Farrar has more important things occupying his time now.
These legacy blogs are like the Kmarts in the struggling shopping centre of the New Zealand blogosphere. You still go there, but when you wander the rest of the joint, there are lots of faded signs and closed shops.
Danyl Mclauchlan’s Dim Post shuttered its doors a while ago. Now he writes (usually very good) essays for The Spinoff instead. The Dim Post was a great blog and people were sad to see it go – but at least his readers can continue to enjoy his work in a interesting form.
Unfortunately, few people seemed to have followed his lead. Drifting towards Twitter seems common. It’s ironic that those who used to run their own places have sequestered themselves in what is essentially a formless and toxic comments section.
I met up with a fellow writer for dinner recently and we got to talking about it. So many formerly good bloggers, he noted, just never seem to write anything of substance any more. In fact, they seem to do very little besides scroll lazily through their phones quote-tweeting their adversaries with sarcastic one-liners.
I must confess to a sense of shame here. When I took a six-week sabbatical from Twitter for the summer, I found I could write 800 publishable words every night. I haven’t been able to do that since I reactivated my account.
Twitter really does fry your brain. I don’t think blogs did that. Not to the same degree, at least.
Anyway, social media seems to have ensured the end of blogs as a fearsome political force. It is hard to see blogs coming back any time soon. And perhaps that is a good thing, considering all the trouble that they caused.
For news nerds of a certain generation, however, blogs were lively and fun. Those who wrote them, read them or commented on them felt like they were participating in a revolution in how we perceived current events.
It was one hell of a ride.