Wellington protesters' extreme distrust of mainstream media

Kristin Hall
Source: 1News

Over the last 19 days Parliament grounds have become a soapbox for just about every political message imaginable. From anti-mandate views, to anti-vax beliefs, and most recently claims that illness at the camp is due to electromagnetic radiation.

One feeling that unites many protesters with disparate views is a mistrust of mainstream media. News crews have faced chants of “tell the truth”, “media lies” and allegations that journalists covering the protest are paid government operatives.

“Regular people posting comments to social media are more reliable and more accurate than you guys downscaling everything to suit Jacinda,” a man wearing a New Zealand flag told 1News early on in the protest.

“Fifty-five million dollars to be Covid friendly…says a lot doesn’t it,” he said.

He was referring to the Public Interest Journalism fund, a $55 million dollar fund announced in February 2021 to help support ailing newsrooms.

So far funding has been awarded for hundreds of reporting roles, training programmes and projects across the country, with the money set to last for three years. New reporters for papers like the Greymouth Star, the Ashburton Guardian and The Indian Weekender are being hired because of the fund.

Funded projects and programmes range from an investigative documentary on child poverty, to a multimedia series focusing on New Zealand’s first Asian immigrants and their descendants. Very few of the funded projects are focused on Covid-19.

NZ on Air says around 40 per cent of the first funding round has gone to projects benefiting Māori journalism. Through the Pīpī Paopao project, veteran broadcaster Mihingarangi Forbes says she’s been able to help train 74 iwi radio journalists.

“Over three weeks we rain 19 workshops which were three, four hours long and there were 200-and-something sessions done,” Forbes said.

She says New Zealand newsrooms are seriously lacking in diverse voices, and the funding will go some way towards helping that.

“When you invest in diversity, when you invest in tangata whenua it always works out well. In the last 15 to 20 years we’ve had no investment, and our newsrooms are starving. They’re really scratching for different voices, for people who come from different communities and see things differently. [Currently] we’re having this mono kind of news offering and it’s just not cutting the mustard.”

A summer series of her show The Hui, which will feature up and coming Māori talent, has also received funding.

“What I want to say to people is, really, if you did an audit on the stories that we do and the change we make for people…10 times out of 10 I’m hoping that we’ve done some good.”

Several funded projects also focus specifically on criticism or analysis of the Government. Businessdesk is carrying out a long-term investigation into New Zealand’s public service. North & South magazine is being funded to produce a long-form story about state care. Investigative journalist Bryan Bruce is producing Inside Child Poverty 10 Years On, a follow-up TV documentary about what’s been done in the last 10 years to fix child poverty.

Media commentator Gavin Ellis helped assess two rounds of funding applications and says the idea the money is being used by the Government to gag journalists is “a nonsense".

“I can assure you that in no way were we agents of the Government in assigning those grants, far from it. Nor were the applications in any way aimed at supporting the government. When you have a grant to look at the efficiency of the public service, that goes in there with an inherent inquisitive attitude.

“For the Open Justice scheme, NZME and a number of other collaborators have put journalists into the courts where previously they were unable to fund that resource. We're now seeing much better coverage of courts as a result. How does that put media in the governments pocket? It's a nonsense.”

Part of the anti-media sentiment comes from platforms like the conspiracy-based online platform Counterspin media. Host and far-right extremist Kelvyn Alp regularly rails against media outlets like TVNZ, Newshub, the NZ Herald and Stuff, and has called for journalists as well as politicians, academics and police to be arrested and put on trial for crimes against humanity.

“State-funded media only reports Government propaganda and never reports the full story,” he said in a recent livestream.

Other figures that have picked up a huge following over the course of the protest include Chantelle Baker, who produces daily livestreams from the protest grounds on Facebook. The daughter of former New Conservative politician Leighton Baker uses her platform to report the peaceful element of the protest, but has shied away from addressing the abuse of Wellingtonians, or the violent rhetoric associated with the occupation.

Ellis says the social media broadcasts of the kind that are currently being shared from Parliament can’t be counted as journalism, and there are therefore very few standards for them to adhere to.

“They're not journalists. They don't profess to follow the dictates of a regulatory body like the Media Council or the Broadcasting Standards Authority. They’re free agents as far as they're concerned. Do they have a moral responsibility to tell the truth? Of course they do, but of course they have an alternative reality that they stick to…it's propaganda.”

Disinformation researcher at Te Pūnaha Matatini Sanjana Hattotuwa says some of the people who are promoting and livestreaming the convoy online “are some of the worst disinformation producers in Aotearoa New Zealand".

“They are producing the most compelling livestreams because they are sensationalist. They are like reality TV on steroids, so you get a lot of attention but not perhaps for professional journalistic integrity or the frames that mainstream media would use.”

The latest World Press Freedom Index has New Zealand sitting at number eight out of 180 countries.

Regulations for ‘mainstream’ media

The Media Council is an independent self-regulatory forum for resolving complaints about print and digital news offerings. Member organisations which sign up agree to a range of principles around accuracy, fairness, and balance. If false or misleading information is published, members agree to publicly correct errors, or in serious cases offer an apology or a right of reply. Articles based on comment or opinion need to be clearly identified as such.

The Broadcasting Standards Authority is a New Zealand Crown entity created by the Broadcasting Act 1989 to develop and uphold standards of broadcasting for radio, free-to-air and pay television. If a media complaint is upheld by the BSA, news organisations can be ordered to pay the complainant, or in the most serious cases can be ordered off-air.

If a journalistic project or programme is funded by NZ on Air, it is laid out in the Broadcasting Act 1989 that the government cannot dictate the content.