Case Number: 3374

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2023

Decision: Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions

Ruling Categories: Unfair Coverage
Conspiracy Theories
Disinformation, Misinformation
Local Body Elections


  1. Stuff published an article on August 18, 2022 titled, The Covid-19 conspiracy theorists targeting Northland’s local elections.

  2. Joshua Riley, of Sovereign, which put up the candidates, complains the article breaches NZ Media Council Principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; (4) Comment and Fact; (6) Headlines and Captions; (9) Subterfuge; and Principle (12) Corrections.

  3. The complaint is upheld on Principles (1) and (6).


The Article

  1. Stuff’s article outlined how eight Sovereign candidates were standing for Far North District Council in the local body elections, ‘’espousing conspiracy theories’’ and ‘’Covid-19 disinformation’’. The article named all eight and featured their photos, including that of mayoral candidate Joshua Riley.

  2. The article stated Sovereign shared many characteristics with the anti-vaccination, anti-mandate group Voice for Freedom and appeared influenced by and shared much of the language used by the US sovereign-citizens movement. The article stated US sovereigns consider themselves exempt from federal government jurisdiction and US law and have been linked to illegal and violent activities.

  3. The article linked the group with anti-UN sentiments – including pushing debunked claims about UN sustainability goals, known as ‘’Agenda 30’’. Agenda 2030 comprises sustainable development goals the UN devised in 2015 and aim to end hunger, achieve gender equality and combat climate change. The article stated the group opposed co-governance, water infrastructure reform - and drinking water fluoridation, citing controversial research that scientists have questioned.

  4. Mr Riley was quoted as saying: ‘’I believe we need to stop using words like conspiracy theory so loosely and do a little research ourselves".

  5. The article stated Mr Riley claimed to be the owner of an online education business but said there was no evidence of a Joshua Riley having any current involvement in any NZ registered company.

  6. Fight Against Conspiracy Theories (FACT) Aotearoa spokesman Stephen Judd was quoted as saying his organisation recently became aware of Sovereign. Judd described one of the conspiracy theories as including the belief ‘’shadowy forces’’ working through the UN want to reduce the world’s population, achieve a one-world government and in some way the UN and forces behind it are trying to control local government to achieve this outcome.

  7. Judd linked this conspiracy theory to Three Waters and significant natural areas policy. Judd also commented that many conspiracy ideas were harmful and that ‘’people are wound up to use violence or underhand methods to subvert our institutions’’.

  8. The article stated one Sovereign candidate said on the group’s website that he held freedom signs on a daily basis before standing for council. It stated another subscribed to the UN ‘’Agenda 30 conspiracy’’. It stated one candidate denounced ‘’the Covid-19 mRNA experiment’’, another lost their job for refusing to be vaccinated and a third talked of ‘’junk science’’ used ‘’to strip away our rights’’.

  9. Stuff put questions to Mr Riley in writing and he responded with answers. The article quoted Mr Riley saying Sovereign rejected any UN agenda, developed by unelected foreign entities, from becoming NZ law without a referendum, that he had never heard of the US sovereign citizens group, that Sovereign did not have vaccine or mandate policies, and the group accepted man-made climate change but rejected the Government’s zero-carbon policies.

  10. The article said, however, one of its candidates, Rob Eady, referred to ‘’climate hysteria’’ and opposed ‘’the fraudulent climate change pseudo-science, and held anti-vax views.

  11. The article stated Sovereign opposed Māori wards but was standing a candidate in one.

The Complaint

  1. Mr Riley complained to Stuff that the reference to him not owning a New Zealand-registered business implied he was lying. Mr Riley stated he owned a business registered in Texas and the reporter knew he was from Texas and more effort should have been made to follow this up with him. “She never asked why I don’t have a business registered in NZ but instead insinuated I was lying.” He requested a correction. Stuff added a line to the story quoting him as saying he owned a business registered in Texas. Mr Riley complains this still left the readers with questions about his credibility.

  2. He also complained that the article ignored most of the interview responses he provided and that they should be included for balance. He attached a copy of the Q&A interview that Stuff and Mr Riley participated in via email.

  3. Mr Riley provided Stuff what he said was an email he sent to Mr Judd the same  day the article was published. In the email, Mr Riley took issue with Mr Judd’s comments. Mr Riley objected to Stuff publishing what he believed were Mr Judd’s ‘’defamatory and unvetted’’ comments.

  4. In his formal complaint to the Media Council, Mr Riley complained that Stuff included ‘’almost none of my responses’’ to its questions, provided no evidence Sovereign was associated with the US sovereign-citizens movement (a claim Mr Riley said he specifically rejected), relied heavily on Mr Judd’s comments but did not give Mr Riley the chance to respond to those comments before publication, claimed Sovereign held Covid-19 conspiracy theories and labelled the entire group that way but did not attribute any comment from him on that. Mr Riley said the quoted opinions about mRNA vaccines came from two of nine candidates, and were primarily from Robert Eady, copied from his candidate statement and they did not have an impact on Sovereign’s stated policies. The council notes that Mr Riley, in his response to Stuff’s questions, said Sovereign ‘’does not have vaccine or mandate policies as this is beyond the scope of Local Government’’.

  5. Mr Riley further complained the article misrepresented and defamed the group, and significantly damaged the reputations of its candidates. The article implied all of its candidates were Covid conspiracy theorists and that his full answer to a question about this was not published and prevented readers from drawing their own conclusions on this point. His answer to the reporter included:  ‘’Can you be specific about Covid 19 ’conspiracy theories’? Did Denmark, which has one of the best health reporting systems in the world, recently block vaccinations for people under 18 because of conspiracy theories or because the vaccines had a negative risk/benefit ratio? I believe we need to stop using words like conspiracy theory so loosely and do a little research ourselves. ‘’ As earlier noted, this last sentence was used in the article.

  6. Further, he complained ‘’countless people’’ referred to the article on the group’s social media account claiming it was ‘’trying to destroy society, end democracy and usher in anarchy’’. The article hurt the candidates during the election season and “the bias approach taken’’ led to reputational damage and a potential loss of election(s)”.

  7. Mr Riley complained the article’s headline, The Covid-19 conspiracy theorists targeting Northland's local elections, was designed to create stigma for the reader. It implied that all of the group’s candidates were Covid-19 conspiracy theorists.

The Response

  1. Stuff responded by updating the article in regard to Mr Riley owning a Texas registered business and annotated this as a clarification at the end of the article.

  2. But Stuff also said it was satisfied the article gave ‘’due weight’’ to Mr Riley’s written replies and maintained there was not and never had been a requirement to publish the transcript of interviews.

  3. In its formal Media Council response, Stuff further said the article contained ‘’an ample response’’ from Mr Riley and included significant detail on Sovereign’s key policies.

  4. The article did not state that Sovereign was aligned with the US movement but the name, language and ideas were shared by various sovereign ideas from the US. Stuff noted that Mr Riley was quoted as denying involvement with the US movement and that he had never heard of the group named.

  5. The article quoted Mr Riley saying Sovereign did not have vaccine or mandate policies but it pointed out this was contradicted by statements, now deleted from the Sovereign website – including the denouncement of ‘’the  Covid-19 mRNA experiment’’ and the assertion that ‘’junk science’’ was used to strip away rights. Stuff said the public could make a reasonable assumption that because these views were included in the candidates’ personal statement on the website that Sovereign endorsed, or at least did not oppose them.

  6. Stuff maintained the headline was an accurate reflection of the story and did not breach Principle (6).

  7. In response to not giving Mr Riley a chance to respond to Mr Judd’s comments, Stuff stated that people standing for public office are and should be subjected to a high degree of scrutiny. Stuff acknowledged that reporting on groups or candidates spreading misinformation or disinformation was challenging. Stuff further stated: ‘’And we have also sought, as per this story, to give those we report on full opportunity to reply.’’

  8. Further, Stuff said reporting Mr Judd’s views was perfectly reasonable and did not constitute a breach of Media Council principles. There was no requirement to provide comments for vetting prior to publication.


The Discussion

  1. The principles cited in this complaint are Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Principle (4) Comment and Fact; Principle (6) Headlines and Captions; Principle (9) Subterfuge; and Principle (12) Corrections.

  2. In terms of Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, the test is whether the Stuff article demonstrated and contained the necessary facts and comments to support its first sentence that Sovereign’s eight candidates are ‘’espousing conspiracy theories and Covid-19 disinformation’’. This test also includes whether the article backs up its statement that Sovereign appears to be influenced and shares much of the language used by a ‘’sovereign citizens’’ movement from the United States, and whether Stuff went far enough in achieving accuracy, fairness and balance in its interactions with Mr Riley.

  3. The council believes the article has not provided enough evidence that all eight candidates ‘’espouse conspiracy theories’’. For example, on climate change conspiracy theory, it only mentions Rob Eady as referring to ‘’climate hysteria’’ and opposing ‘’the fraudulent climate change pseudo-science’’.

  4. Sovereign, as a group, has expressed anti-UN views when it comes to Agenda 2030 and the eight candidates, by standing on the Sovereign ticket in the elections, could be seen to endorse or hold those views. However, the council believes the article did not go far enough in providing enough detail about the group’s stance on the UN agenda and how it related to New Zealand policies and therefore supporting the statement that all candidates ‘’espouse conspiracy theories’’.  This is a serious allegation, and there should be solid back-up for it.

  5. Stuff has also not provided enough supporting material to show that all eight candidates are espousing Covid-19 disinformation. The article stated: ‘’Their views on vaccines overlaps with ‘wellness’ and natural health movements…’’ But apart from describing Eady as holding ‘’anti-vax’’ views, the article only mentions three candidates – one who denounced ‘’the Covid-19 mRNA experiment’’ and another who talked of ‘’junk science’’ used ‘’to strip away our rights’’. A third is included as having lost her job after refusing to get vaccinated – but choosing not to get vaccinated does not equate to espousing disinformation. The article implies the group members all hold the same views on vaccines but does not lay out the evidence to prove that. Stuff, in its response, said statements – including the denouncement of ‘’the  Covid-19 mRNA experiment’’ and the assertion that ‘’junk science’’ was used to strip away rights – were deleted from Sovereign’s website but the fact that these comments had been on the Sovereign website was not mentioned in the article.

  6. Mr Riley complains that Stuff provided no evidence Sovereign was associated with the US sovereign-citizens movement. The council agrees. The Stuff article has not adequately supported its statement that the New Zealand group ‘’appears influenced and shares much of the language used by a sovereign-citizens movement from the United States’’.

  7. Therefore, there has been a breach of Principle (1).

  8. Mr Riley has also complained that Stuff included ‘’almost none of my responses’’ to its questions. The council disagrees. Stuff is under no obligation to publish all of his answers. Stuff provided what the council believes is a fair summary of his responses in the article. There is one exception, however, in that the article did not contain a response about why Sovereign was standing a candidate in a Māori ward. The council believes it would have been fairer to have included this for balance.

  9. Mr Judd’s comments were clearly in the context of Sovereign and its candidates and provided a wider context on conspiracy theories. Mr Riley complains he should have had an opportunity to respond to these comments before publication. The council believes that while that would have been ideal it does not agree that Mr Judd’s comments meet the necessary threshold to require a right of reply.

  10. The council finds that Stuff could have done more to ascertain the specifics of Mr Riley’s business registration. However, Mr Riley did not clarify this in his emailed answers to the interview questions, and Stuff, in its response, pointed to an earlier online media article Mr Riley participated in where he is clearly described as a local businessman. On balance, the council does not uphold Mr Riley’s complaint on this point. 

  11. Mr Riley believes Principle (12) Corrections was breached in terms of how Stuff dealt with this part of the complaint. The council disagrees and finds Stuff dealt with this part of the complaint appropriately by updating and annotating the article with a clarification regarding his business being registered in Texas.

  12. In terms of Principle (6) Headlines and Captions, and as previously outlined in this decision, there are insufficient facts in the article to adequately back up the headline, The Covid-19 conspiracy theorists targeting Northland’s local elections.

  13. There is no breach of Principle (4) Comment and Fact which states a clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion and that an article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such. Material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate.

  14. There is no evidence of Principle (9) Subterfuge being breached.

  15. It is important that a news article and its headline contain the necessary facts, comments, references and other information to properly support its key statements and achieve fairness particularly when serious allegations are made that will immediately attract adverse attention.  This article failed to do so in some instances and none has been forthcoming in the reply, as outlined.  It is especially important care is taken to accurately and fairly represent the views and positions of individuals and parties during an election campaign so the public can base their voting decisions on reliable information.

  16. Christine Godinet made a previous complaint in relation to this article and the council ruled at the time there were no grounds to proceed in reviewing that complaint.  Ms Godinet complained that the story misrepresented the facts and answers given by the founder of the Sovereign group, lied about the group’s intentions and included photos that wrongly linked them to the disinformation in the story. The council notes that it considers each complaint on its own merits. In the case of Riley v Stuff, Mr Riley is a party to this complaint, provided detailed information that was not available at the time of the Godinet decision and the substance of his complaint was materially different to Ms Godinet's.

  17. Despite its findings of a breach, the Media council records that investigative journalism about local elections is an essential part of the democratic process and is to be encouraged.

Decision: The complaint is upheld on Principles (1) and (6).

Council members considering the complaint were the Hon. Raynor Asher (chair); Rosemary Barraclough; Tim Watkin, Scott Inglis, Hank Schouten, Ben Frances, Jo Cribb, Marie Shroff, Alison Thom and Richard Pamatatau.


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