‘Hit’ jobs case: PR consultant apologises and promises cash to settle defamation case that came from Dirty Politics

An apology and cash payment has been made by a public relations consultant to three public health experts who were victims of defamatory online attacks alleged to have been funded by money from Big Sugar and Big Tobacco.

The apology from Carrick Graham came in the opening hours of a defamation case at the High Court in Auckland in which evidence was to be produced showing he had taken money from clients in alcohol and food industries and paid former Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater to attack public health researchers.

Graham and his Parnell-based company Facilitate Communications Ltd were the only ones left standing to face trial.

The case was also taken against Slater, former National Party MP Katherine Rich, and food and grocery lobby group New Zealand Food & Grocery Council (FGC), of which she is chief executive.

The case also saw claims tobacco money was paid to Graham over a period during which one of the health researchers was targeted on Slater’s now defunct blog.

Court documents show Rich and the FGC settled in October. The documents also showed the Slater had told the court he would “consent to judgment” against him.

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And it was Graham who halted the case with a public apology to those public health experts – Dr Doug Sellman, professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine at the University of Otago, Dr Boyd Swinburn, professor of population nutrition and global health at the University of Auckland, and Shane Bradbrook, senior adviser at Te Arawhiti, the Office for Māori Crown Relations.

Graham, son of former Justice minister Sir Doug Graham, said he would make a payment along with the apology.

Graham’s lawyer Chris Patterson, on behalf of his client, told the court that Graham was apologising for “untrue, unfair, offensive, insulting and defamatory” statements made through the Whale Oil blog.

He said he did so as part of his PR business, and “to advance the interests of industry”.

Patterson said Graham had admitted making cash payments to Slater and accepted the public health experts were working “responsibly and in the public interest”.

Graham’s surrender followed barrister Davey Salmon, the lawyer representing Sellman, Swinburn and Bradbrook, laying out the case against him and others drawn into the defamation case.

Salmon said the trio took the case in 2016 after journalist Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics alleged blog posts on the now-defunct Whale Oil website were allegedly part of a funded campaign driven by the FGC.

He said a series of defamatory blog posts on Whale Oil came about because of payments from the FGC and British American Tobacco.

Salmon said money was paid to Graham, who wrote some of the blog posts Slater published under his own name. He said Graham also wrote comments on the blog posts under “a variety of anonymous usernames”.

Documents released by the High Court at Auckland in response to media requests showed Graham had denied the allegations, saying he did not author posts, or pay for posts, or make comments other than under the pseudonym LionKing. In his apology, he conceded he had used other pseudonyms.

Graham’s Statement of Defence showed had been preparing to mount a defence of truth or honest opinion – defences which Salmon described as “hopeless”.

Salmon said Graham’s “credibility” was a key factor in the trial.

“As will be explored at the trial, he has given inconsistent evidence on oath at various interlocutory stages of the proceeding. His evidence has also been at odds with the available documentary evidence.”

Evidence that was to be produced at trial included material taken from Slater’s computer by the hacker Rawshark, which was used by Hager to write Dirty Politics. The book, said Salmon, was the first the public health experts became aware of Graham, Rich and the FGC’s involvement.

The hacked material included emails from Graham to Slater containing the entire text of an article about Sellman that was then published under Slater’s name. There were also articles defending Fonterra, Coca-Cola and Frucor – all members of the FGC – with the subject line “KR” or “KR hit”.

Salmon’s opening statement to the court described how the health experts’ lawyers had obtained access to the Whale Oil website’s database of comments after Slater’s company, Social Media Consultants Ltd, went into liquidation.

He said access to the database led to a forensic effort that traced a particular IP address – a unique internet identifier – to Graham, allegedly exposing him as having “posted hundreds of comments” on Whale Oil, including many that were defamatory of the public health experts.

Graham, however, had said he used only one pseudonym, said Salmon. “The plaintiffs say Mr Graham was lying. It is wholly implausible that he has forgotten doing so.”

Graham had said on oath: “I have talked and shared information with (Slater) on the basis that it might contribute to his knowledge or understanding of an issue. I have never procured nor instructed the first defendant to publish a blog post. The closest I have come to ‘requesting’ a blog post is communicating with the first defendant ‘this would be a good story’.”

Salmon said: “The evidence will show that Mr Graham’s assertions are untrue.” He said Graham had paid Slater for posts which would benefit his public relations clients, including the FGC and British American Tobacco.

He said evidence showed Graham’s company, FCL, had paid Slater $124,430 between October 2012 and May 2016. He said neither Graham or Slater had “given any proper explanation of what services” were provided for the money, or to whose benefit those services were.

Salmon said there was also evidence the FGC had paid FCL $365,619 between November 2009 and July 2016 with invoices carrying “generic narrations”.

While there was evidence from Rich that she had not heard of Bradbrook, or the agency at which he worked, before the lawsuit, Salmon said the particular posts targeting the expert in 2009 and 2010 “were published for the benefit of BAT”.

He said Graham had not produced any invoices from BAT and there was a subpoena requiring him to produce them at trial.

The public health experts welcomed the end of the case, with Bradbook saying it was a “good feeling” to have acknowledgement they were defamed, and to receive an apology.

“To be accused of being a fraudster and associated with terrorism, as I was by the dirty PR campaign orchestrated by Graham… was a terrible burden on me and my whānau for too many years. It’s a great feeling to have a burden like that off your back”.

Sellman said the case wasn’t fought just for the trio who took it, but “for all our colleagues who are advocating for strong public health policies”.

And Swinburn said it showed “dirty tactics” employed by tobacco, alcohol and processed food industries also happened in New Zealand.

“I hope that uncovering these connections between big money, underhand PR and defamatory blogs is a wake-up call and we can begin to see better public health policies from Government.”

A statement from the FGC said it was pleased the court case was “effectively now at an end”.

“However, NZFGC wishes to reiterate it did not pay anyone to write any stories on its behalf on Whale Oil, or any other publication. Nor was NZFGC otherwise involved in any such stories.”

The settlement almost brings an end to the defamation case, with the amount of money paid not disclosed. The court will reconvene on Friday to rule on Slater, and on the experts’ efforts to have BAT disclose Graham’s invoices.

It is the latest in a series of defamation cases which had centred on publications on the Whale Oil blog, which collapsed in credibility and readership after the publication of Dirty Politics in 2014. Slater has struggled with overcome health difficulties to launch a new blog.

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