Voices For Freedom (VFF) have laid formal complaints over legacy media programme ‘Fire & Fury’ and its associated written articles.
VFF allege the programme 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.
‘Fire & Fury’ was presented by journalist Paula Penfold. It was produced by Louisa Cleave and the Stuff Circuit Investigation team, and was funded by New Zealand On Air via the ‘Public Interest Journalism’ fund.
The complaint is founded on breaches of the following standards:
- Right of reply
- Accuracy, fairness and balance
- Diversity, discrimination and prejudice
Right of Reply
The programme did not give VFF a right of reply.
The right of reply is one of the basic tenets of journalistic fairness, and is practised widely around the world, including in New Zealand.
The Stuff ECPE states:
‘Any subject of a news story who is facing criticism or allegations must be afforded reasonable right of reply before publication.’
In its complaint, VFF said:
‘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 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 their online content, webinars, etc.
However, VFF point out that while their audience is comprised of everyday Kiwis spread across New Zealand, it is still limited to those who actively seek out their content. A right of reply ordinarily should be granted within the same forum or publication in which the allegations are being made, or, if that is not possible, in subsequent publications while the interest in the story is still evident.
Additionally, VFF have been de-platformed from most mainstream social and legacy media platforms. Therefore, Penfold’s view that VFF ‘have plenty opportunity for right of reply’, is ‘absurd’ according to VFF:
‘The audience reached by [‘Fire & Fury] 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.
‘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 ECPE states journalists and content should:
- Strive to verify information is correct before publication
- Strive to represent all significant sides to a story
- Should not mislead, either deliberately or through the omission of relevant information. Coverage should be proportionate and in context.
The Media Council guidelines state:
‘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 requirements state:
‘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.’
VFF say the programme was presented as a piece of serious investigative journalism. It accused VFF of spreading misformation and disinformation. Derogatory language was used to describe the various subjects, and included words such as ‘hateful,’ ‘violent,’ ‘monsters,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘grotesque,’ and ‘adept manipulators.’
The programme sought comment from Kate Hannah, head of ‘The Disinformation Project’. Hannah stated ‘the role of women in protofascist and fascist movements has always been significant.’ When asked by Penfold whether VFF were ‘agents of fascism’, 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’.
Hannah’s comments were accompanied by images of marching women in Nazi Germany.
VFF claim these statements are ‘grotesque’ and ‘borderline defamatory.’ The three co-founders of VFF are women, one of whom has Jewish ancestry.
VFF say its principles are the ‘anti-thesis of facism’ and they are firmly against facism of any form. It’s common knowledge amongst its supporters 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 note that public trust in legacy mainstream journalism is at an all-time low. VFF claim this is due in part to the not uncommon practise of legacy journalists to deliberately set out to misrepresent and/or mislead the public.
One clear example of this is Stuff’s claim in associated articles that VFF instructed candidates to ‘hide’ their associations with VFF. VFF say this ‘is a blatant lie.’
Stuff’s ECPE 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.’
‘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…
‘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…
‘[Fire & Fury] 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 ECPE 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.’
‘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.’
In closing its complaint, VFF said:
‘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.’
NOTE: The above has been reproduced with the kind permission of VFF. You can read the full complaint material and information on the VFF website.