AMANDA VICKERS, CRAIG WOOLLIAMS, PAUL BAKKER, NIKKI HUDSON, TOBIAS TAHI, GAYLENE BARNES AGAINST STUFF (Fire & Fury)
Case Number: 3347
Council Meeting: October 2022
Decision: Not Upheld
Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Behaviour of Journalists
Te Reo and reporting on Te Ao Maori
- Six complainants have alleged that the Stuff video “Fire and Fury”, first published on 15 August 2022, breached Media Council principles. Further, one of the complainants, Ms Vickers, complains about an accompanying Stuff opinion piece “Pushing Back against the Monsters”. The Media Council finds that there has been no breach of its principles in either the video or the accompanying piece.
- The subject of the complaint was a video prepared by Stuff into what it described as “disinformation in Aotearoa New Zealand”. It lasted for just over one hour, and featured clips of people speaking online to their public audiences, about how the New Zealand Government, Government authorities and the mainstream media are damaging New Zealand and must be stopped. The clips range from people urging the killing or harming of politicians and journalists and doubting whether accepted historical events took place, to those expressing strong anti-vaccination sentiments.
- The video is designed to show how extremists are luring New Zealanders into the extreme rejection of authority, a process that, it is said, culminated in the occupation of Parliament grounds and its subsequent violent termination. The people who are said to be inciting this extremism are not interviewed, but are shown in clips and footage prepared largely by them which are available on the internet and intended for the consumption of their audience. There is analysis and commentary of this phenomenon from commentators who clearly regard most of them as spreading disinformation and as negative and dangerous influences in our society.
- The video is entitled “Fire and Fury” with those words being preceded by the phrase “A Stuff circuit investigation”. It is not easy to give a descriptive label to the video. The complainants would deny that it is a “documentary”, as they would say that it is not a factual report on a particular subject, but rather an inaccurate and biased attempt to damage the speakers and organisations referred to within the video. Stuff, although it uses the word “investigation” rather than “documentary”, maintains that the video is factual and not opinion. We will use the neutral word “video”.
- There is a background narrator of the video, Paula Penfold, who also on occasions expresses views, as well as three other commentators who express their concerns about the actions of the people from various groups who are quoted and referred to. The commentators are Kate Hannah, Khylee Quince and Ed Coper. There is a rough equality between the time taken for the clips and the time taken for the commentary.
- The video follows a progression. It starts with a general reporting about individuals and organisations who it is said are spreading disinformation, (that is deliberately false statements about factual events that happened or are happening), and who show extreme hostility to, and threaten violence towards those in Government. It progresses to referring to how all the activities reported “converge” at the protest and occupation of Parliament grounds. It shows the Director-General of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS) Rebecca Kitteridge expressing concern that there is “a distinct element in New Zealand that is politically motivated, [with] violent extremism, that might loosely be described as anti-authority”. She says that some of the people who took an active interest in the protest in Wellington were of concern because of their “violent extremist beliefs”. She made it clear that the occupation was not monitored by the SIS, and was firm but cautious in her language, not naming any individuals or groups.
- The narrative then progresses to the occupation of Parliament grounds by protestors from 6 February to 2 March 2022, with considerable footage of the violent events of the last day. It shows clips of two women who attended the protest, who appear to accept aspects of the extreme beliefs being put forward by some of the individuals highlighted in the video, and state that they are losing their freedom. One of them says she has stopped reading mainstream media and gets her news from Voices for Freedom (VFF) (one of the groups that is the subject of the video) or sometimes from Kelvyn Alp’s Counterspin Media. One appears to say that it is a lie that there is a terrible virus going around. One of them is shown participating in the angry pursuit of a journalist who is being walked out by other protestors. The effect of this appears to be intended to show how VFF and others are affecting the thinking and actions of ordinary New Zealanders.
- The last comments in the video are a reflection on what the extremists may do now.
- In considering the complaints we work off the video itself, and a transcription of what is said.
Pushing Back Against the Monsters
- In the accompanying written ‘opinion piece’ “Pushing Back Against the Monsters” Stuff explained why it carried out the investigation and prepared the video, and why it took certain decisions including not interviewing the main protagonists.
- The opinion piece plainly displays the same adverse view of those protagonists Stuff displayed in the video, but does not publish new information or conclusions. Much of what is said in the article is in the Stuff response to the Media Council in reply to the complaints about the video, summarised below.
- There are six complaints.
- Paul Bakker
- Mr Bakker complains that the documentary defamed, demonised and named people without right of reply. It was not fair journalism.
- Gaylene Barnes
- Ms Barnes complains that in the course of the video the Director-General of the SIS Rebecca Kitteridge is shown making comments. She refers to 40 to 50 individuals who she says her organisation is actively investigating in relation to violent extremism, and may have the actual intent and capability of conducting an attack. The complaint is that while what Ms Kitteridge is saying is truthful, the context created by the video is misleading, and labels all persons who may be anti-vaccine in the violent category. There is also a complaint that the views of a Māori human rights activist were not sought to give balance.
- Nikki Hudson
- This complaint is that the video was an opinion piece and should have been labelled as such. It was misleading to call it an investigative documentary.
- The complaint also states that the video was biased and very one-sided. It was a publicly funded hit piece on New Zealanders, aimed at swaying public perception. It was sensationalist, unbalanced and unfair.
- Tobias Tahi
- This complaint stated that the video was a biased one-sided opinion piece, intended to sway readers against certain individuals. Certain types of statements were shown to paint an adverse picture of people who had genuine concerns, worries and opinions. The programme was biased and not honest. The Media Council’s first principle of accuracy, fairness and balance was breached and there was an intention to mislead. This was opinion and not fact, or an investigation as such. The clips shown lacked context, and were obtained by subterfuge. There was discrimination and denigration, and every principle designed to protect the public was breached.
- Craig Woolliams
- This complaint is that the documentary gave no right of reply and was inflammatory. It showed people as fascists and Nazis, and took away the privacy of a nurse featured in the video.
- Amanda Vickers
- This complaint was made specifically with respect to claims about Voices for Freedom (VFF). The following points were made in detail:
- The documentary was set to support a predetermined premise; the claim that VFF spread disinformation; and the claim that disinformation fuelled the protest.
- The overall theme set out to condemn VFF. By creating a deliberately crafted narrative, imagery and sound, the documentary resulted in defamation of VFF.
- False accusations constitute the entirety of the documentary with respect to VFF, such that a timeline of statements is necessary to unpack them all. The timeline points out the lack of evidence and the deliberately negative implied messaging and false accusation that it portrays to the viewer. This shows that the documentary was focussed on proving a predetermined narrative.
- Anti-vaxxers are not bad and anti-social, and VFF has never discussed any vaccine other than the Covid vaccine.
- There is a misleading claim that the role of women in VFF has been used to promote fascism, which is particularly unlikely as one of the VFF women is of Jewish heritage. In fact, VFF promotes the opposite of fascism.
- The programme wrongly implies that because some of the phrases used by Steve Bannon are used by VFF, VFF supports the same political ideology as Steve Bannon.
- It is wrongly implied that VFF supports QAnon, misogyny and violence.
- The lack of interviews with protagonists is not accurate, balanced or fair journalism.
- There is a misleading claim that VFF provide a gateway to other portals, when in fact hundreds of other chat rooms do the same.
- Stuff responded that the programme was the result of several months of investigation by the Stuff Circuit team, into the increase in and mainstreaming of disinformation and violent rhetoric in New Zealand.
- Certain editorial decisions had to be made in the investigation, which were made based on a thorough review of the literature available to journalists as to how to report on disinformation, extremists and manipulators. It reviewed media reporting guidelines and consulted with experts as to how to responsibly report.
- Response to Bakker, Barnes, Hudson, and Woolliams
- In addition to Stuff not wanting to provide a platform for more misinformation and disinformation, Stuff say that the views of those mentioned in the video are set out in detail in their own public platforms and other public platforms such as Gab and Telegram. The risk of “both sides-ism” is that is gives respectability to “unsupported, dubious, or dangerous positions”. Given the vast amount of material the protagonists publish, selectivism in what was shown was inevitable.
- Stuff strongly contest Ms Barnes’ summary of the interview comments of Ms Kitteridge. Further, Stuff points out that VFF has been held by the Advertising Standards Authority to have published misinformation, and continues to publish that misinformation despite the ruling. It also points out that Counterspin Media’s Kelvyn Alp and Hannah Spierer face criminal charges for the alleged distribution of objectionable material.
- Response to Ms Vickers’ complaint
- Stuff denies it set out with a pre-determined premise. It denies it had any obligation to investigate the Government’s Covid response or mandates. It has based its conclusions on hard evidence, and that evidence is shown in the video. It further denies the inappropriate targeting of certain interviewees, but says that Voices for Freedom does give a platform for discredited information and speakers who promote violence, including QAnon.
- It is pointed out by Stuff that many of the individuals and organisations referred to in the programme are not said to be fascists, but to have some features of fascism. They communicate populist right wing rhetoric, of the people against the elite. They do exhort making Aotearoa New Zealand ungovernable.
- Stuff says: “The decision to not interview the documentary subjects was taken after extensive research and consultation from which we concluded it would have been irresponsible to do so; that our responsibility was to provide the public with the balance and context to what was already extensively in the public domain, including what was said by VFF itself in the documentary” (Stuff italics). It refers to Gill Booth, a VFF supporter, who has said “Make yourself a nuisance – become ungovernable.”
- There is a good deal of factual material in the Stuff response put forward to support the claims that VFF and other popular social media figures referred to in the video are linked to those who propose violence to politicians and the media. For instance, there are screenshots of VFF’s page on the messaging app Telegram promoting Counterspin Media (run by Kelvyn Alp) coverage of the convoy to Wellington, and VFF posts on Counterspin Media’s page, promoting its Freedom TV content. There are examples of VFF members posting or reposting messages from other subjects of the video such as Damien De Ment, on the Telegram app. Similarly, there are frequent mentions of VFF in Counterspin Media’s videos and messaging. There have been no responses from the complainants to the Stuff reply.
- In summary it is said: “Stuff Circuit and Stuff editorial management stand by Fire and Fury and the accompanied written pieces as an important and rigorously researched piece of investigative journalism that is of vital public interest, given the vast amounts of disinformation being promulgated throughout Aotearoa New Zealand, and the actions taken in the name of that disinformation. The fact that two people involved in the ‘freedom movement’ are currently facing criminal charges, and that public figures including politicians, public servants, academics, and journalists, are being subjected to ongoing and serious harassment and threats from within that movement, is testament to the fact that the issue warranted investigation, and that the ‘freedom movement’ is not the benign endeavour some of its adherents believe it to be. There was no breach of Principle 1, as there was nothing inaccurate, unfair, or unbalanced about the reporting. Principle 4 does not apply, as it is a factual, thorough investigation founded on evidence — it is not opinion or comment.”
- Four of the complainants provided final comments. The Media Council’s practice is not to seek a response from the media outlet to final comments unless significant new material is raised, and it followed this practice. Some of the comments were lengthy, and the Council has carefully considered them, but summarises them only briefly here.
- Ms Vickers elaborated on her contention that Stuff had a predetermined premise. She said Stuff had failed to address her point that disinformation was the deliberate spread of false information and there was no evidence of that as regards VFF. She provided research she said backed up her case that the protests were fuelled by opposition to mandates rather than disinformation. She said VFF could not be responsible for participants in their social media groups sharing content from more radical sources.
- Mr Woolliams said restricting right of reply was a denial of natural justice and elaborated on his concerns that the visual effects used were unfair.
- Mr Tahi said these was a power imbalance. Stuff claimed to reach 3.5 million people each month. VFF had told him the footage that was “mis-used” on the video had 953 viewers on the day and 2087 views subsequently.
- Mr Hudson said that giving VFF a right of reply on the “ungovernable” comment would have allowed them to explain this was about developing supportive communities, gardening and so on.
- The complaint made by Ms Vickers is the only complaint that specifically challenges factual conclusions in the video on the basis of a clearly identified lack of accuracy. Her complaint challenges the use of the word “disinformation” in relation to many of the comments in the video about what the named individuals such as Kyle Chapman are spreading, and in relation to VFF and its three founders, Alia Bland, Claire Deeks and Libby Johnson. She gives examples of what she says are false accusations. There were no valid complaints from people referred to in the video.
- To respond to the level of detail in Ms Vickers’ complaint, it is necessary to deal with the references and statements made about each of the individuals referred to, and consider her claims that they are inaccurate.
- Damien De Ment – clips and commentary
- Mr De Ment is shown on video clips which appear to be directed to New Zealanders, saying to what appear to be New Zealand politicians that they are culpable of multiple crimes. He talks of “satanic ritual abuse, trafficking on a scale you’ve never, ever imagined. Cloning of humans, for God’s sake, it’s just enormous.” In the final clip he is shown querying whether the politicians and elites will be able to walk down the street without getting themselves killed. Politicians will fear for their lives, “and rightfully so”. Mr De Ment filed a complaint, but out of the Media Council time frame and it was not accepted.
- Kelvyn Alp – clips and commentary
- Mr Alp has a site called Counterspin Media, which live-streamed throughout the occupation of Parliament’s grounds. The clips of Mr Alp show him on video denying deaths from Covid. He is also said to have stated on the platform Telegram in the Counterspin chat group that the Christchurch massacre was a false flag event. He is shown proposing a “popular uprising” using ex-military and police personnel. He is shown proposing overthrowing Parliamentarians and “that is including arresting them and putting them on trial and then if it’s bad enough, execute the bastards”. There are posts on his site, Counterspin Media, about chopping the head off the Prime Minister. He is shown as associated with and encouraging the occupation of Parliament grounds. There is no complaint from Mr Alp.
- Hannah Spierer – clips and commentary
- Ms Spierer is said to be Mr Alp’s partner. Among other things, she is shown welcoming the former leader of the National Front Kyle Chapman, and has spoken under her former name about child sex trafficking with implications that Governments are involved. There is no complaint from Ms Spierer.
- Voices for Freedom/founder Claire Deeks - clips and commentary
- Ms Deeks is a founder of VFF, which opposes the Government’s Covid vaccine and Covid mitigation policies. She says she is not anti-vax but pro-freedom. She is shown urging her followers to “flood the zone”. The American right winger Steve Bannon, now sentenced (subject to appeal) to imprisonment for contempt of Congress, is attributed with that phrase. Indeed, it is a quote from an interview between Mr Bannon and the writer Michael Lewis where he said supporters should “flood the zone with shit”.
- Ms Deeks is shown interviewing a German lawyer who says that the Covid pandemic is a hoax by world leaders, and has led to “crimes against humanity”, a phrase created to describe the holocaust. She is on a list of lawyers supporting the “People’s Court of Public Opinion” where votes are sought to indict defendants who appear to be world leaders on a “global conspiracy” charge.
- She invites followers to sign up to Gab. Gab is a platform that was one of the favourite sites of the Christchurch mass shooter. It features quotes from QAnon. She also invites followers to sign up to another platform, Telegram, on which a user (not Ms Deeks) is shown publicly threatening “trial” towards a named member of Parliament, and another stating “I will remember that fuckface. She will pay that plastic bitch.” Ms Deeks is herself shown on the video making a statement implying that the protestors who turned violent on the last day of the occupation, were agent provocateurs, although not making a direct accusation. She uses the word “plants”.
- She is quoted saying “…strengthen resilience to start really looking at what it takes to become ungovernable and that way is that when the Government says jump we don’t need to.”
- Voices for Freedom/founder Alia Bland - clips and commentary
- Posts from Ms Bland are shown where she indicates that at the time of the measles outbreak there was “vaccine failure” and indicates doubts about the efficacy of vaccines at a time when the epidemic was rife among children in Samoa. She appears to be advocating “natural immunity”. She has shown a video which says that the Capitol riot was caused by agent provocateurs and plants. There is no complaint from Ms Bland.
- Voices for Freedom/founder Libby Johnson - clips and commentary
- Ms Johnson is shown asking about the “Nuremberg Code”, and the video voiceover talks about Nuremberg 2.0 and the suggestion leaders can be tried for “crimes against humanity”, and “could be hung”. Ms Johnson is shown saying after the final day of the occupation of Parliament’s grounds that “it’s not over”. There is no complaint from Ms Johnson.
- Voices for Freedom supporter Lauren Bransgrove - clips and commentary
- Ms Bransgrove is shown saying “We will rip the bribes from your hands, we will slash your tires, and we will remove the poison from the truck. If you come for my children, rest assured we will be coming for you.” There is no complaint from Ms Bransgrove.
- Chantelle Baker - clips and commentary
- Ms Baker has a large social media following, and opposes the Government’s Covid vaccine and Covid mitigation policies. She is shown in a clip telling her followers that they need to fight back and “just drown their feeds”. She is shown as telling her followers to join the convoy to Parliament. She is shown denying that the protestors who occupied Parliament grounds were violent. She is shown saying that the media spreads lies and propaganda to all of New Zealand. During the violent last day of the occupation when the police moved in, she is shown saying angrily to reporters from the media “it was your propaganda that caused this, your propaganda caused all of this”. There is no complaint from Ms Baker.
- Carlene Hereora - clips and commentary
- Ms Hereora is recorded as expressing extreme hostility and distrust of Government, and after the occupation is ended says on the video, “the next time, and there is going to be a next time, don’t bring a pen, bring a sword”. Ms Hereora is shown talking about child sex trafficking, and making antisemitic remarks about leading figures. There is no complaint from Ms Hereora.
- Mr Tahi’s complaint
- As an aside, Mr Tahi has taken strong issue with the quoting of the remark about looking at what it takes to “become ungovernable”, asserting that the remark is quoted quite out of context. He quotes the entire statement with the part that Stuff quotes in italics:
- We're really proud of what we've created, mostly proud of the network of local groups and people and communities all around New Zealand. And that's the main focus now of what we're doing.
- We're looking at "Rebuild Free": it's our initiative to help local groups, individuals and communities all around New Zealand to strengthen resilience, to start really looking at what it takes to become ungovernable; in that way is when the government says jump we don't need to because we are resilient, we have put things in place – start off with planting a garden, learn more about your finances and we will do our best to bring more help to you on our webinars, on our website and in live events and so forth.
- We are unable to agree with Mr Tahi that the full quote and context makes the meaning any different. The word “ungovernable” means what it says. Subsequent statements appear to exhort people to live in a way that avoids obeying Government. We do not agree that there was anything unfair in the way the quote was presented. Ms Vickers in her extensive reply points out that the word “ungovernable” is one innocuous word only used once, but we note that Stuff has referred without contradiction to it being used by another VFF supporter, Gill Booth: “Make yourself a nuisance – become ungovernable.”
- There is no complaint from VFF or Ms Deeks.
Was it inaccurate to describe the material covered in the video as including “disinformation”?
- The Media Council approaches this issue on the basis that certain terrible past events such as the holocaust are proven. Included under that definition are the facts that 9/11 happened and was implemented by terrorists, that the Christchurch massacre happened and was at the hand of the right-wing extremist who has been convicted of the murders, and that the global Covid pandemic was real. The Media Council proceeds on the basis that there was no conspiracy of national leaders including the leaders of New Zealand, deliberately to harm the population by promoting the administration of approved vaccines. It proceeds on the basis of the experience of all New Zealanders that there was violence shown by some of the protestors on the last day of the occupation of Parliament grounds.
- The above analysis of what is quoted and recorded from the founders of VFF appears to show that they associate themselves with persons who deny the truth of these events, and at times they are associated with those who put the propositions that there is a conspiracy of world leaders in relation to Covid and that world leaders should be treated in the same way as Nazi war criminals were treated when they were tried at Nuremberg, (where many were sentenced to death in the aftermath of World War II). Also that vaccines do not help suppress viruses, and that viral epidemics should not be resisted, (see the reference to natural immunity). The responses emphasise the lack of specific adoption of these extreme views by VFF, but there is a willing association shown by its founders for those who espouse such disinformation. We have nothing from VFF or its founders offering their explanation for such an association, or stating that they reject the disinformation.
- We do not accept Ms Vickers’ charts that she prepared for the complaint, designed to show that there was no disinformation. Many of the propositions she claims were put forward in the video, were in fact not put forward. For example, it was not suggested in the video that VFF members are all “secret fascists and neo-Nazis” as Ms Vickers claims. It was not suggested that they have been infiltrated by QAnon. There is evidence that founders of VFF have been against all vaccines. This is given a factual base by the clips shown. There is evidence that the phrase “flood the zone” used by VFF is a Bannon phrase. However, it is not said that Mr Bannon has “infiltrated VFF”, as Ms Vickers claims.
- Other propositions in the video where VFF members appear to be spreading disinformation are ignored by Ms Vickers. Ms Deeks interviewed a German lawyer who talks about “crimes against humanity committed under the guise of a Corona pandemic”. There is Ms Deeks’ assertion in her online statements after the video that the people who were violent were people she had never seen and “who knows… whether they were plants or anything but they were not the people who’d been there or who cared about the protest”. In fact, in the material before us there is no evidence that there were any “plants” present on the last day of the occupation. There was evidence that Ms Baker was present and would have seen violence, but she appears to deny there was violence. The video is not shown to be inaccurate in its showing of the clips.
- Other people quoted are much more directly perpetrating disinformation such as the former university lecturer who maintains that the Christchurch massacre was a false flag event and stated that those who colluded in mass genocides and degradation of the human condition should turn themselves in. It is accepted that these extremes are positions that have not been shown to have been adopted by VFF. Nor has it been shown that VFF directly encourages violence.
- But as we have set out, it has not been shown that the statements implicating VFF and others in “disinformation” are inaccurate.
- It must be remembered that much of the accuracy of the video must be measured against whether the clips were inaccurate or false, or out of context. However, save for Mr Tahi querying the use of “ungovernable” discussed above, and Ms Vickers challenging the use of the word “disinformation” there is a lack of specific factual challenge in any of the complaints, including the more lengthy complaints of Mr Tahi and Ms Vickers as to the accuracy of the material presented in the video. This is unsurprising given that none of the people said in the video to be spreading disinformation have themselves complained save for Mr De Ment who was out of time. The complainants have not made the claim that they have been wrongly quoted. They have not provided evidence that the clips were false, or shown out of context (as is asserted in some of the complaints).
- We have no information before us to indicate that any of the clips were inaccurate or false, and in the one detailed challenge to context, we do not find the extract to be a distortion or to be unfairly used.
- We have above set out a number of statements and actions of the three founders of VFF which appear to state or promote disinformation in interviews or references on their websites. Stuff does appear to show links between the founders of VFF and those who are denying that there is a Covid pandemic and other extreme positions. We have no material before us showing that the links shown by Stuff are misleading.
- Inaccuracy has not been shown.
- The need for balance
- It is a key Media Council principle that reporting should be balanced. The principle does not apply to opinion pieces, or long running issues where the respective positions have been the subject of a lot of public debate, and the different background perspectives are understood by readers or listeners. However, Stuff makes the point that this was not an opinion piece. In a reversal of the usual position, the complainants say it was an opinion piece.
- Most of these complaints before us raise lack of balance, presumably because the people criticised in the video were not interviewed by Stuff to get their perspective. The need for balance is an important Media Council principle, and a failure to approach and obtain comment from a party criticised or denigrated in a publication is often a basis for upholding a complaint.
- There must also be caution in accepting the Stuff proposition in response to the criticism of lack of balance, that because the named subjects of the video would have used the chance to comment as a platform for their views, they should not be approached. That proposition is seen by the complainants as preventing free speech and the suppression by Stuff of views it does not like, and they have a point. Those whose actions are being attacked in an article might expect to have a platform for expressing their position in reply. However there will come a point where if the views are to be expressed in a hostile way, or where propositions will be put forward that are plainly not in the public good, that may be a legitimate reasons to not seek comment.
- Therefore, balance in reporting must always involve elements of judgment. To take an extreme example, balance is not required when reporting on the Christchurch massacre, by publishing the views of those who think it a false flag event. Nor is it required from Covid deniers when reporting on Covid-related events. There will be occasions when those who are criticised or whose views are to be contradicted, do not have to be contacted.
- Stuff, in explaining its decision not to seek comment from those referred to in the video, makes the point that their views were already aired and before the viewer, because their statements about what they think make up much of the video. However, the video is much more than just the clips and quotes of others. There are the statements by the narrator and commentators about the various persons and entities all having links, and the way in which their actions culminated in the occupation of Parliament grounds and the violent last day. These aspects of those substantive opinions of the commentators were not put to those named in the video. So while it is true that the views of those criticised are given prominence in the clips and quotes, and some balance is provided in that sense, this is not in itself a complete answer.
- There are however four observations to be made.
- First, the people mentioned in the video have used their own platforms through the likes of Telegram to respond to it. They have been scathing about the video, and The Spinoff, for example, reports that the video has helped the movements it criticises, presumably by providing a basis for bolstering support by adversely commenting about the video on their own platform. The point is that the people mentioned all have their own platforms, and most appear to be expert at getting their views through to their target audiences. VFF is reported to have over 100,000 followers.
- Second, we accept that there are certain circumstances where to seek the other side’s views is to just give a platform to inflammatory and harmful material. In certain circumstances we are sympathetic to this argument. As we have indicated, we would not expect holocaust deniers to be contacted for their views in an article about the holocaust. For the same reason, we would not expect 9/11 and Christchurch massacre false flag theorists, and those who say there is no Covid pandemic, or that vaccines cannot work, to be contacted about articles wherein their views are criticised. We accept Stuff’s point that to do so would be irresponsible.
- Third, those who were targeted in the video, were targeted through their views being shown in video clips. Therefore, their views were already aired and before the viewer, because their statements about what they think make up much of it. So to that extent there was already some balance within the video. As we have said, this is not a complete answer, but it is a factor to be weighed in the judgment as to whether the comments of those who were the subject of the video should be further aired.
- Fourth, we note that none of the people mentioned in the video have complained to the Media Council. The complaints are by third parties. VFF has sent a written complaint, but despite being invited to do so, has not met the Media Council preliminary requirements. The lack of complaints from those individuals gives rise to the question whether they would or could have provided “balance” even if they had been approached.
- In our assessment, given the points we have set out, we do not think that the Media Council Principles required the individuals targeted in the video to be consulted by Stuff and their views aired as part of the publishing process. As we have said, balance and the requirement to obtain a response involve matters of judgment, and in our view this was a rare case where it has not been shown that responses from those who were the subject of the video were required. Further, as we have said, some balance was achieved by those who were the subject of the programme having their views shown in the various clips.
- For these reasons we are unable to uphold the complaints on the basis of lack of balance.
- There is no evidence that the clips were obtained by trickery or unfair means. There is no evidence of any subterfuge. Indeed, Stuff makes the point that all the material referred to could be seen on the internet.
- We see nothing to indicate a breach of privacy. All the persons shown have actively engaged in publicly disseminated footage. The allegation that the “privacy of a nurse” was breached is not accepted. The nurse in question has not complained, and she is shown willingly participating in the protest, and speaking to interviewers.
- Unfair context of the Director-General of the SIS’s statements
- The Director-General of the SIS was very careful to make it clear that there are only a small group of 40 to 50 individuals who her organisation is actively investigating in relation to violent extremism. Only some of them had a “connection” to the occupation. Despite her concern, she was plainly not saying or implying that all anti-vaccine people are in that category, or that all protestors or indeed a substantial number were in that category.
- This is quite clear on the video. We do not agree with Ms Barnes’ complaint that Ms Penfold in her questions or narrative made it appear that the 40 or 50 individuals the Director-General is referring to are on the “path to Wellington” and are involved in “extreme violence to Covid measures”. To the contrary, the Director-General’s language is unambiguous that only some of the persons of concern had a “connection” with the occupation, and the context of the narrative does not suggest a different meaning to her words.
- Further, we note that the Director-General herself has not made any complaint that she was quoted inaccurately.
- We also comment that we see no basis for the proposition that a Māori human rights activist should have been approached for comment.
- There is nothing in the video that targets any ethnicity, religion or sex. There is the comment that women are targeted by the disseminators and brought into the fold, but we do not see that as discriminatory. Māori individuals present their opinions on both sides of the debate within the video, giving a required level of balance.
Decision: The complaint is not upheld.
Council members considering the complaint were the Hon. Raynor Asher (Chair), Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Marie Shroff, Reina Vaai, Alison Thom, Richard Pamatatau, Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Scott Inglis, and Jonathan Mackenzie.