Formal complaint by Voices for Freedom now to the Media Council
Complaint by Voices for Freedom about the Stuff Circuit ‘Fire and Fury’ Documentary & Articles in the Same Series
ABOUT VOICES FOR FREEDOM
Voices for Freedom (VFF) is a grassroots, not-for-profit, community advocacy organisation. It is focused on raising awareness of the human issues associated with the Government’s response to Covid-19 and other matters impacting the rights and freedoms of New Zealanders.
VFF was founded by three Kiwi mums; passionate women with professional backgrounds in law and education as well as running online communities in the health, wellbeing, and arts arenas.
Our audience exceeds 100,000 supporters spread throughout the country with over 40,000 members active and engaged in local community groups. Our supporters are diverse in nature and span all ages, ethnicities, socio-economic groups, religious and political beliefs, and abilities.
We advocate for the open discussion and debate of important issues, information, research, and data affecting New Zealanders, particularly as a result of the Government’s response to COVID-19 including their public messaging, unethical and coercive policies, and rushed legislation.
When tens of thousands of upstanding Kiwis were forced out of their jobs, homes, and lives as a result of Government policy, VFF was there to assist them with resources, advice, and supportive community networks. We cared at a time when the Government and media turned their backs, instead using their power to encourage and create a two-tier society in New Zealand.
FIRE AND FURY ‘DOCUMENTARY’
On Sunday 14 August, Stuff Circuit published a 1 hour and 3-minute ‘documentary’ called ‘Fire and Fury’ (The Programme). VFF was one of several subjects of focus in The Programme.
VFF believes The Programme, Paula Penfold, Louisa Cleave, and the Stuff Circuit production team have breached Stuff’s own Editorial Code of Practice and Ethics (Stuff ECPE) as well as multiple Media Council Principles and Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand.
This formal complaint is broken down into sections to address the relevant standards, including:
- Right of Reply
- Accuracy, Fairness, and Balance
- Diversity, Discrimination, and Prejudice
RIGHT OF REPLY
Stuff’s own Editorial Code of Practice and Ethics states:
“Any subject of a news story who is facing criticism or allegations must be afforded reasonable right of reply before publication. Journalists must make every reasonable effort to reach the subject of a story to extend them right of reply. This should not be construed as harassment. ‘Reasonable’ right of reply means they must be given a fair summary of the allegations against them, and adequate time to respond. The response time allowed will vary depending on the nature of the story and production requirements.”
VFF was not given the right of reply to the allegations made about our organisation, its founders, or the many statements taken out of context from our online content and twisted to suit the narrative of The Programme. No one from the Stuff Circuit team sought comment from VFF management at any point, including during the planning and production of The Programme or after The Programme’s release.
In an article published the day prior to the release of The Programme, Paula Penfold and Louisa Cleave acknowledge and defend their departure from the Stuff ECPE and the decision not to seek comment from the parties featured in The Programme. They state:
“All the information we reviewed also helped us take an unusual editorial position: We did not seek to interview the main protagonists, for two reasons. One, they’ve had their say in their endless online videos, chatrooms, and posts, so in this instance, we are providing the balance and context to what they have already said. And two, it would elevate their hateful and dangerous behaviours to a platform equal to the harm being done, in what after all is an infodemic driven by adept manipulators.”
Paula Penfold has since gone on to defend the position of refusing a right of reply in numerous interviews and podcasts following the release of The Programme. In response to widespread criticism of The Programme’s departure from standard journalistic practices, Penfold argued that groups like VFF had ample opportunity to have their ideas and positions heard via our online content, webinars, etc.
“The main screaming allegation that is thrown at us repeatedly is that ‘you didn’t give them the right of reply.’ And, you know, ordinarily that’s a really, really fair allegation/accusation to make. Because we didn’t. We didn’t give them the right of reply – intentionally… The documentary includes their own words. Like, do they want to reply to their own words? Because, that’s what’s in there. These are their own words… They’ve had, I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of hours of video and webinars and emails. Their content is out there and it has been unchallenged, largely… We wanted to bring the right of reply to what they’d already published… I’ve never done this before… I’ve never elected to not give a right of reply.”
When discussing the ability for the protagonists to respond to The Programme on their own channels and networks, Penfold remarked:
“They have plenty of opportunity for right of reply.”
As Ms. Penfold admits in her own words, the choice to refuse a right of reply is not typical industry practice and her argument tortures the very standards she and her team are meant to abide by.
‘They’ve had their say’
While Voices for Freedom’s audience is comprised of everyday Kiwis spread across New Zealand, it is still limited to those who actively seek out our content. As we have been de-platformed we do not have an official presence on mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube where wider audiences may be achieved. We are forced, out of necessity, to communicate with our supporters via direct email and our accounts on alternative social media platforms as a result.
VFF is routinely prevented from communicating and advertising via traditional methods such as TV, radio, billboards, posters, newspapers, and other mainstream media publications where the NZ public can easily be reached. We continue to be heavily censored across all mainstream media platforms and when we do feature in the news our comments are regularly reported out of context by the mainstream press.
Arguing that VFF has had the opportunity to have our side of the story heard, especially as it pertains to reaching everyday Kiwis, is absurd.
Arguing that The Programme is “providing balance and context” to what we have already said is a laughable impossibility – The Programme was heavily biased and directed towards a mainstream audience with little-to-no experience of VFF content outside of the mainstream media context. VFF webinars and other footage were cherry-picked to fit a pre-determined script, and all-important context was distorted and misrepresented throughout The Programme.
The audience reached by The Programme is completely different from VFF’s subscribers, followers, and online viewers. Mainstream audiences would not be familiar with VFF’s full-context statements, ideas, content, or resources; their thoughts and opinions about VFF would almost entirely be shaped by statements and opinions gleaned from mainstream news.
‘Hateful and dangerous… Adept manipulators’
Given the Stuff Circuit team’s decision to lump a diverse range of individuals and groups together in order to push a particular perspective, it is difficult to differentiate who the ‘hateful and dangerous… adept manipulators’ comment was intended to describe. Readers could be forgiven for presuming Paula Penfold and Louisa Cleave were describing all of the subjects of The Programme with these comments.
Had VFF been given the right of reply, for both The Programme and the adjacent articles, we would have challenged such statements and requested supporting evidence for these opinions cloaked as facts.
A failure to remedy Stuff Circuit’s decision to deny VFF the right of reply will result in a dangerous precedent being set.
Public faith in mainstream media to present balanced perspectives on controversial topics is waning. It is eroded further by decisions to provide cherry-picked, distorted, one-sided ‘investigations’ on complex topics such as those explored in The Programme.
VFF urges Stuff Circuit to remedy this situation by:
- Removing The Programme from its online platforms,
- Immediately seeking a right of reply from VFF, and
- Editing the documentary to include the response before considering republishing.
ACCURACY, FAIRNESS, AND BALANCE
Stuff’s Editorial Code of Practice and Ethics states:
“Journalists should strive to verify information is correct before publication. When alerted to errors, we should correct the record promptly and transparently, according to the Corrections Policy in this document.
We subscribe to the ABC of accurate journalism:
A: Assume nothing
B: Believe no one
C: Check everything
Journalists should strive to represent all significant sides to a story, to serve our audience with a balanced picture.
Journalists should be diligent and thorough about ensuring pertinent facts and views are included in coverage. Content should not mislead, either deliberately or through the omission of relevant information. Coverage should be proportionate and in context, which means not unduly emphasising sensational issues or opinions, neglecting matters that are in the public interest, being unnecessarily negative, or making fringe views appear more popular than they truly are.”
With respect to Accuracy, Fairness, and Balance, The Media Council states:
“Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.”
The Broadcasting Standards Authority states the following pertaining to Balance:
“When controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs or factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant viewpoints either in the same broadcast or in other broadcasts within the period of current interest unless the audience can reasonably be expected to be aware of significant viewpoints from other media coverage.”
The Programme was presented as providing a ‘balanced’ perspective due to the inclusion of footage from VFF webinars and other recordings and posts. In their article entitled ‘Pushing Back Against The Monsters’, Paula Penfold and Louisa Cleave state:
“We took many steps to try to achieve a balance.
We consulted and followed numerous international journalistic guidelines for what to do — and what not to do — when reporting on dangerous speech.
We listened to those who study this, experts who spoke of the value of inoculation: that it’s more effective to prevent disinformation gaining a foothold by showing people the context in which it exists, than to try to counter it with facts once people have fallen for it.”
A veneer of credibility
The Programme was presented to the NZ public as a serious piece of factual investigative journalism. It has been defended as such since the release of The Programme and in response to criticisms waged by alternative media and sections of the NZ public.
Paula Penfold is an award-winning senior investigative journalist. This reputation affords Ms. Penfold the trust of the audience with respect to the information she presents as fact.
The Programme makers have admitted that this project took six months to complete. They had plenty of time to ensure their content was accurate and to contact VFF for comment.
The Programme featured subject ‘experts’ including Kate Hannah from The Disinformation Project, Khylee Quince, Dean at the AUT School of Law, and Rebecca Kitterage, Director-General at the NZ Security Intelligence Service. These ‘experts’ were integral to The Programme as they brought a credible, authoritative flavour to the story, giving viewers confidence that their statements and perspectives were superior and could be trusted as factual representations of the truth.
Misinformation and disinformation
The Programme focuses on the terms ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ and suggests that VFF, alongside the other subjects, is responsible for the spreading of mis- and dis-information in NZ. It is important to define these terms:
Misinformation “Misinformation is wrong information which is given to someone, often in a deliberate attempt to make them believe something which is not true.”
Disinformation “false information spread in order to deceive people.”
Direct and indirect statements were made throughout the documentary relating to the protagionsts’ responsibility for the spread of mis- and dis-information in NZ. This theme applied to all the subjects including VFF.
“how the Wellington protests and riots were fuelled by disinformation.”
The VFF team prides itself on sharing factual, referenced material, including emerging science, research, and expert opinion, to provide balance to an incredibly one-sided onslaught of Government and media propaganda, particularly on the topics of:
- Covid-19 vaccine safety and efficacy,
- Mask science, and
- The negative impacts of mandates and lockdowns.
While the media has vehemently opposed our sharing of such material over the course of the pandemic, our statements have been shown to have been accurate time and again. This fact may have been a reason why Stuff Circuit chose not to list any examples of such claims in The Programme.
The supposed ‘misinformation’ spread by VFF over the past 20 months included highlighting and asking questions about the following serious issues. Subsequent research found these concerns to be scientifically valid:
- Despite assurances from ‘experts’ and media that the vaccine solution remained in the vaccine recipient’s deltoid muscle, research shows this is false, with spike protein and lipid nanoparticles being found all over the body.
- Research showed the spike protein to be dangerous to cells and it was a valid question to ask how this fact may impact the health of vaccine recipients.
- Myocarditis was a safety signal found early in the vaccine rollout in Israel. It was routinely ignored and later downplayed by NZ’s media and health authorities.
- Menstrual issues were another early warning sign of little understood non-specific effects occurring amongst recently vaccinated women.
- The Covid-19 vaccines were not designed to prevent infection or transmission and any Government and media suggestions otherwise were not grounded in scientific fact.
We argue that rather than VFF being responsible for the spreading of mis- and dis-information, Stuff Circuit is guilty of promoting damaging and dangerous disinformation with its biased portrayal of VFF, its co-founders, and our content.
Straying into defamation territory
The Programme engaged in desperate character defamation in many instances. Derogatory language was used to describe the various subjects of The Programme and included words such as ‘hateful,’ ‘violent,’ ‘monsters,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘grotesque,’ and ‘adept manipulators.’ Ms. Penfold also posited that the subjects were ‘strategically intertwined’ without providing evidence for such a claim. The audience takeaway was that the protagonists are essentially one and the same; a patently false allegation.
One of the most egregious instances of defamation occurred when, alongside commentary from Kate Hannah, visual narratives of marching Nazi women were bookended with remarks about the VFF cofounders being interested in wellness and health. Ms. Hannah stated when talking about the VFF co-founders:
“The role of women in protofascist and fascist movements has always been significant.”
When asked by Ms. Penfold whether VFF were agents of fascism, Ms. Hannah responded:
“All of the different groups that we see in NZ have features of fascist ideas, around power and control and then features of white or national identity ideas related to fascism”.
The Programme continued on to relate statements from far-right white supremacist groups in NZ to VFF despite the fact that VFF has no connection to such groups whatsoever and the men quoted did not even appear to know the name of the co-founder they were referring to.
Had Stuff Circuit, Paula Penfold, or Louisa Cleave bothered to reach out to us for comment, they would have learned that “the dark-haired” co-founder Libby Jonson is of Jewish heritage, and the suggestion that she is a modern-day fascist or protofascist Nazi is utterly abhorrent.
The definition of fascism is:
“a far-right, authoritarian, ultranationalist political ideology and movement, characterised by a dictatorial leader, centralised autocracy, militarism, forcible suppression of opposition, belief in a natural social hierarchy, subordination of individual interests for the perceived good of the nation and race, and strong regimentation of society and the economy.”
The 100,000+ followers of VFF know that VFF stands for:
- Openness, transparency, discussion, and debate.
- Local governance and autonomy.
- The separation of Industry and the State.
- Individual rights and responsibilities.
- Community connection and resilience.
VFF’s values are the antithesis of fascism. In fact, VFF stands firmly against fascistic ideology and regularly challenges the media to investigate the ways in which the Government and the media perpetuate these qualities, including:
- The increase of centralisation in NZ – e.g. Three Waters, Te Whatu Ora – Health NZ.
- The forcible suppression of opposition – including the silencing and belittling of alternative viewpoints, positions, and choices such as questioning the popular narrative, declining vaccines, or being subjected to draconian mandates and shut out from society.
- The belief in a social hierarchy – e.g. The vaccinated are superior and should be afforded greater freedoms. The PM’s own remarks were evidence of this when asked about her policy of creating a two-tier society – “That is what it is, yep, yep.”
- The subordination of individual interests for the perceived good of the nation – for example, everyone must be vaccinated, wear masks, and adhere to all Government measures for the greater good despite the lack of supportive scientific evidence.
Flooding the zone
Another instance where the information presented in The Programme lacked accuracy is the assertion that the reference by co-founder Claire Deeks on social media to ‘flood the zone’ was “a strategy of far-right political advisor Steve Bannon.”
If Paula Penfold and the Stuff Circuit team had approached VFF for comment on this matter, they would have learned that VFF took the phrase from Event 201. This event, held in October 2019 at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in partnership with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was a pandemic training exercise focused on simulating an international response to a global coronavirus outbreak.
We deliberately adopted this term as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the curiously-timed event held just prior to the discovery of SARS-CoV-2, where participants advocated for saturating the media with pandemic-related messaging and ‘flooding the zone’.
“I also think we are at a moment where the social media platforms have to step forward and recognize the moment to assert that they’re a technology platform and not a broadcaster is over. They in fact have to be a participant broadcasting accurate information and partnering with the scientific and health communities to counterweight, if not flood the zone, of accurate information. Because to try to put the genie back in the bottle of the misinformation and disinformation is not possible.” Matthew Harrington (18 October 2019)
The Programme’s insistence that the ‘flood the zone’ phrase was used because VFF is a far-right, neo-Nazi organisation or is influenced by overseas far-right political personalities is false and breaches accuracy and fairness standards.
Representing the significant sides to a controversial story
In order for a publication to achieve balance, it is necessary to fairly represent all sides of the story. This becomes even more important when the topic is highly controversial. Failure to achieve this fairness and balance leaves the consumer with a one-sided limited perspective on a topic.
The Programme explores a serious topic that is controversial in nature. Commentary by Paula Penfold reinforced this fact with claims that VFF and others are a threat to national security. The Programme states:
“A shift in the threat is being noticed by the Government group assessing risk to national security.”
“Now, there is a distinct element that is politically motivated violent extremism, that is might loosely be described as ‘anti-authority’.”
These ‘expert’ comments were necessary for Paula Penfold and Louisa Cleave to build a picture around VFF and the supposed ‘danger’ it presents to the people of New Zealand.
Spooky music and dramatic editing ensured that viewers were emotionally manipulated into believing that VFF is a threat to society.
There was no opportunity for VFF to oppose this storyline or request supporting evidence for their claims.
The audience was very likely to be misinformed about the nature of VFF and our organisation’s values and goals.
In a subsequent interview online, Paula Penfold complained that she and the team had to sit through hours of footage during the process of making this documentary. Viewing hours of VFF webinars would have afforded Ms. Penfold a good understanding of the context in which specific comments were made by VFF co-founders. It was disingenuous to portray specific messaging as nefarious when the reporters would have known otherwise.
Post-release consequences of The Programme
In the weeks following the release of The Programme, there has been much mainstream media reporting on VFF as an organisation.
The Programme spawned a flurry of inaccurate reporting based on the false and misleading claims attributed to VFF.
Media coverage has been circular. Misleading and out-of-context statements from The Programme have been quoted as facts from an authoritative source without any effort to verify their legitimacy or context.
Candidates in local body elections have been physically hounded by reporters in a modern-day witch-hunt to uncover even the most minuscule of VFF connections. And the public has been steered into believing that any candidate with an affiliation to VFF is a threat to society and a ‘cancer’ that will undermine democracy.
Reports that VFF instructed candidates to ‘hide’ their affiliation with VFF are blatantly false and continue to be made despite a press release on the topic. Stuff reporters, in particular, continue to perpetuate the lie.
Stuff Circuit is responsible for this phenomenon. It is no wonder that public trust in journalism is at an all-time low.
Stuff’s Editorial Code of Practice and Ethics states:
“Stuff is politically non-partisan. Journalists should take care not to allow bias – or the perception of bias – in their reporting and in public comments, including on social media.
Journalists should guard against bias based on societal structures or their personal background.”
“Bias is a disproportionate weight in favour of or against an idea or thing, usually in a way that is closed-minded, prejudicial, or unfair. Biases can be innate or learned. People may develop biases for or against an individual, a group, or a belief.”
One in three New Zealanders supported the protest at Parliament in Feb-March this year. Over 100,000 Kiwis support VFF. Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders were impacted by the vaccine mandates and efforts to divide our society and exclude an entire subset of New Zealanders from everyday life.
While it may not be comfortable to acknowledge this percentage of New Zealand’s population as a formal group, this community represents a sizable portion of New Zealand society.
This group has been routinely treated with disdain and is regularly denigrated with minimising and belittling labels in mainstream media reporting.
Clear media bias against this group has been on display throughout the entire pandemic. Reporters are closed to hearing other points of view, especially those that run contrary to popular Government and media narratives.
The Programme was no different; falling into the trap of perpetuating the same narrow-minded perspectives and failing to engage with the protagonists to actually hear their reasoning and points of view.
DIVERSITY, DISCRIMINATION, AND PREJUDICE
Stuff’s Editorial Code of Practice and Ethics states:
“Stuff seeks to fairly represent Aotearoa New Zealand in the voices it publishes. We believe an inclusive approach makes our coverage both richer and more accurate, by incorporating a wide range of experiences and perspectives. We will reflect diversity through our story selection, a rigorous approach to gauging a broad range of perspectives, and actively committing to an inclusive editorial recruitment policy.”
As outlined prior, Stuff’s commitment to incorporating a wide range of experiences and perspectives ends with those who question the status quo or oppose problematic and unethical Government policy and popular mainstream narratives.
The perspective of those with lived experiences different from those promoted by Stuff and the media, such as those experiencing hardship, discrimination, harm, or injury due to the Government’s COVID-19 response, remains unheard. Worse yet, this group of Kiwis is further victimised and discriminated against via coordinated media attacks that taint the fabric of our society.
Stuff has denied VFF, its supporters, and more broadly people with different perspectives a voice. The Programme and subsequent reporting have misrepresented their ideas and devalued their experiences without ever giving them an opportunity to respond.
The Stuff Circuit team should hang their heads in shame for participating in this active division of NZ society and the “othering” of a significant percentage of New Zealanders.