Radio New Zealand continues to exhibit utter contempt for its obligation of impartiality.

by Karl du Fresne

In a story published on the RNZ website [Wednesday] under the headline NZ’s right wing turn up in force for controversial free speech case, reporter Matthew Theunissen painted a lurid picture of “notable right-wing figures” turning up at the Auckland High Court, where the Free Speech Coalition was challenging Auckland Council’s right to deny a public speaking venue to Canadians Lauren Southern and Stephan Molyneux.

Theunissen reported that Don Brash, “the man behind the Orewa speech”, made an appearance and Jordan Williams from the Taxpayers’ Union was listening intently in the gallery, “a few seats down from a man wearing a MAGA (Make Ardern Go Away) hat”.

He added that “old” Conservative Party leader Colin Craig (I think Theunissen meant “former”, but hey – who expects journalists to have a command of correct English?) “poked his head around the door at one point”.

There you have it, then: as sinister a collection of shadowy right-wing rogues and conspiratorial schemers as you could wish for. Theunissen seemed intent on making it sound like a clandestine meeting of the Ku Klux Klan, or perhaps a reunion of old Nazis. I’m not sure they turned out ‘in force’, as the headline said, which implied a room full of menacing men in brown shirts and jackboots, but let’s not get too picky.

Theunissen went on to describe one of the applicants appearing in support of the Free Speech Coalition’s case as “would-be Dunedin mayor, climate change denier, Donald Trump supporter and rare books dealer Malcolm Moncrief-Spittle” (whose name Theunissen misspelt, but hey – who cares about getting names right when it’s the sneering tone that matters?).

The relevance of Moncrieff-Spittle’s views on climate change and Donald Trump wasn’t clear, but never mind; the important thing was to convey the impression that this was a court action brought by a bunch of crazy and possibly dangerous old men.

Even Jack Hodder QC, who represented the Free Speech Coalition, didn’t escape. Theunissen’s assiduous research had established that Hodder also acted for the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners in opposing aspects of the recent changes to the gun laws.

No further evidence needed, then. It was left to readers of Theunissen’s piece to conclude that the disreputable figures congregating in the Auckland High Court were racists (Brash – ref. the Orewa speech of 2004), religious cranks (Craig), champions of heartless free-market capitalism (Williams) and probably white supremacists (Moncrieff-Spittle). Oh, and possibly gun nuts too (Hodder).

The unmistakeable purpose of the article was to denigrate those involved in the Free Speech Coalition’s case and by doing so, to discredit the court action.  Never mind that the coalition’s motivation is to defend the freedom of speech that Theunissen and his colleagues – all funded, incidentally, by the taxpayer – depend on every day for their livelihood.

RNZ followed that up today with the results of an obviously laborious investigation (pun not deliberate) into Pregnancy Counselling Services, an organisation that offers support to pregnant women facing a choice between having an abortion or carrying their baby to full term.

It’s no secret that PCS is loosely affiliated with Christian churches and tries to encourage women to at least consider having a baby rather than immediately taking the abortion option, so that was hardly a “stop the presses” exclusive. RNZ reporter Susan Strongman concentrated instead on portraying PCS as dishonest in the way it promotes its services and highlighting the fact that it has received modest financial support under the government’s Community Organisations Grants Schemes (Cogs).

Trouble was, Strongman’s credibility as an impartial journalist was fatally compromised when she was sprung collaborating with pro-abortion activist group ALRANZ. As reported on this blog last month, Strongman used the ALRANZ Facebook page to seek information from women who had sought counselling from PCS “only to find they [the counsellors] are pushing a pro-life agenda”.

Strongman’s post on the ALRANZ page introduced her as a “friendly journalist” and said that “Terry [Terry Bellamak, president of ALRANZ] can vouch for me as being a reliable and trustworthy journalist”. Prospective sources were told “you can get my mobile number off Terry”.

It’s one thing for journalists to use contacts to go on a  fishing expedition for information, but another to align themselves so closely with one side of a divisive and contentious political debate, especially when the reporter is working for a state-funded broadcaster with an obligation of neutrality.

Certainly, pro-life groups were convinced that Strongman was out to do a hatchet job on PCS with the aim of cutting off an important source of funding. Reading Strongman’s 3400-word article does little to dispel that impression, although I can’t help wondering if it was toned down once she realised she’d been rumbled.

It includes, for example, an interview with the chair of the PCS board of trustees, but there’s no concealing the article’s partisanship. As with Theunissen’s piece on the Free Speech Coalition’s court action, it can only reinforce concerns about the increasing incidence of activism disguised as journalism, and further undermine public confidence in Radio New Zealand as an impartial source of information on matters of vital public interest.

(from Karl du Fresne’s blog)  (Radio NZ failed to respond to a complaint we made about two articles on its website so it has now been sent to the Media Council.– Eds)