OPINION: If you’ve ever wondered what a documentary made by a conspiracy theorist about conspiracy theorists would look like, Paula Penfold’s hour-long Fire and Fury pretty much fits the bill.
A conspiracy theory can be defined as an attempt to explain unfortunate, harmful or tragic events as the result of the actions of a small and powerful group which operates in ways hidden from most people.
In a textbook example of a conspiracy theorist at work, senior Stuff journalist Paula Penfold promotes the idea that the anti-mandate protests at Parliament and suspicion toward Covid vaccines generally were being driven and harnessed by a small group of conspirators.
Fire and Fury focuses on the influence of the likes of “extreme-right conspiracy theorist” Damien de Ment and Counterspin Media’s Kelvyn Alp, alongside other players such as Facebook influencers Chantelle Baker and Carlene Hereora, and Claire Deeks from Voices for Freedom.
They are also depicted collectively as a serious threat to democracy.
It’s true that some of the players in the documentary employ extravagant and disturbing rhetoric, and make general threats about bloodshed and targeting politicians, but that is hardly a novel phenomenon in New Zealand — although Penfold doesn’t mention that.
Anyone whose memory stretches back to 2012 will remember protesters erecting a mock guillotine in Auckland’s CBD and pretending to decapitate John Key, Bill English and Judith Collins as part of a nation-wide demonstration against the sale of public assets.
In 2014, a hip-hop artist sang about wanting to kill John Key and rape his daughter.
To underscore the sinister nature of her agents provocateurs, Penfold and her producers regularly insert ominous background music — including when she notes Alp led the “far-right” Direct Democracy Party at the 2005 general election. She didn’t mention, of course, that it was actually dedicated to monetary reform, and wanted to establish binding Swiss-style referendums as well as a New Zealand Constitution to enshrine people’s rights and freedoms.
Once you understand those inconvenient facts, the doomy music seems more comical than sinister. As does the fact its 32 candidates won 782 votes (or 0.03 per cent of the total vote) between them.
Similarly, Penfold’s attempts to find parallels between an interest in health and well-being among female fascists in the 1920s and the 1930s and the fact that some of the women opposed to vaccines and mandates in 2022 like to knit and use essential oils was another thigh-slapper.
It did, however, give the producers a chance to show old footage of a crowd giving Nazi salutes and women marching under a swastika symbol just in case viewers were underestimating the deeply unpleasant nature of the women involved in the Wellington protest who like to knit and crochet.
Perhaps the funniest own goal was Penfold’s plaintive declaration about her forays into documenting the vaccine-mandate protests at Parliament: “We haven’t experienced this kind of hostility — just for doing our jobs — anywhere in the world we’ve reported,” she opined.
It may have been wiser to have kept that observation to herself. It flings open the door to the unfortunate conclusion that New Zealand’s mainstream media — in some quarters at least — is possibly among the most despised by the public anywhere.
Penfold sounded surprised by the hostility she and her media colleagues encountered but she is clearly not a deeply reflective person so she didn’t tarry to wonder why that might be the case — even though the documentary, unwittingly, offered many clues.
She did at least seem to be vaguely aware that her one-eyed documentary will only reinforce the view that journalists are committed to relaying government viewpoints. Which is hardly surprising given it was clear throughout that Penfold was a reporter with an agenda — and that agenda appears to have been to paint the protesters not only as deplorables but also as mugs whose brains had been colonised by the inflammatory words of anarchists and activists.
No doubt some of the protesters fell into that camp but the documentary implied most were. In fact, they might be more accurately described as conscientious objectors.
To make her case, Penfold avoided examining the screamingly obvious reasons why so many people have subscribed to what she sees as fringe beliefs about vaccines as well as the deep dishonesty of the government.
Perhaps if Penfold had shown the clip of Jacinda Ardern telling voters in September 2020 — shortly before the election — that there would be no penalty for refusing a vaccine, alongside her infamous interview in which she grinned as she agreed that she intended to create two classes of citizens, the vaxxed and the unvaxxed, the whole protest might have been put into better perspective.
And, of course, Ardern also promised: “People who are vaccinated will still get Covid-19 — it just means that they won't get sick and they won't die.”
It’s not a statement that has aged well, given the numbers of the vaccinated who have ended up in hospital and the morgue.
Rather than investigate the myriad and complex reasons for the “mistrust and anarchy” she witnessed in Wellington, Penfold’s single drum beat was the notion that most of those opposed to the mandates or who went to the protests were in thrall to right-wing extremists and white supremacists.
Perhaps if Penfold had shown earlier footage of the peaceful refugees from Golden Bay and the teachers and nurses who took part in what often looked like more like a hippy music festival than a sinister group of anarchists during most of the protest, viewers might have been better informed.
Instead, the documentary focused mostly on violence, and particularly on the last day — even though it is now widely accepted that most of those rioters were blow-ins and hadn’t been part of the protest up to that point.
You’d have to say that a lot of the footage she presented revealed a crew of very brown white supremacists. Of course, Penfold had a predictable explanation for that awkward fact — they were obviously duped by the aforementioned white supremacists and right-wing extremists.
This would be a dangerous conclusion for a white woman to come to but, fortunately for her, that deeply patronising view of Maori had a champion in the form of Khylee Quince, the Maori dean of law at AUT.
Describing herself as “incredibly angry”, Quince said: “I think those people were manipulated… and I feel uncomfortable in saying that because you don’t want to deny either the agency of those people for their own thoughts and behaviours — and I mean those Maori individuals. But in the broader picture for them to ally themselves with those people and those movements disgusts me.”
In short, having declared she didn’t want to deny Maori protesters their agency, Quince proceeded to do precisely that.
Overall, it was difficult not to think the entire Fire and Fury team were wearing blinkers that shut out any evidence that didn’t support their all-too-obvious mission to demonise the protesters and to gloss over their grievances about a government they saw as authoritarian and intruding into personal liberties and human rights.
In the text accompanying the documentary, the fact some protesters wanted to move on to opposing Three Waters was condemned as a case of “agenda surfing”.
The possibility that they might have reasons for disliking the government’s confiscation of community assets in Three Waters that are every bit as justified as their opposition to its heavy-handed approach to managing Covid wasn’t considered.
Predictably, Stuff’s text labelled opposition to iwi being given 50 per cent control of the nation’s water assets as “racism”.
Why such a seasoned and accomplished journalist as Penfold has produced such a one-eyed piece of agitprop perhaps can be best explained by a column she wrote in January that was sparked by her sister’s diagnosis of advanced breast cancer and her immunocompromised status.
She related how she unfriended someone on Facebook who was “pro-choice” before she railed against the unvaccinated as lacking “capacity for critical thought”.
“Being unvaccinated,” she said, “doesn’t make you clever.”
When another person she knew had written on her Facebook page that “vaccine mandates for health professionals were a breach of human rights”, Penfold described how she “felt sick to my stomach at the thought of someone unvaccinated being anywhere near my sister in hospital”.
She explained: “[This] is why I felt utter contempt towards those people who’d lost their sense of community or any concern for others, who chose to prioritise themselves for the most misguided of reasons.”
Public support for mandates for health workers has been high — with 65 per cent in a poll conducted for the NZ Herald in March agreeing that mandates are necessary for some jobs — but the question of whether a journalist who had already publicly expressed her contempt for those opposing Covid vaccines and mandates could ever be a reasonable and unbiased investigator remains a problem for the production.
The most depressing feature of Fire and Fury, however, was that amongst its repeated warnings about threats to democracy it never once mentioned the elephant in the room — namely Ardern’s government steadily undermining democracy by threading a radical view of the Treaty as a 50:50 partnership with iwi throughout legislation and policy wherever it can, and for which it has absolutely no mandate.
Yet, Penfold and the Disinformation Project’s director Kate Hannah — who Stuff’s cameras returned to time and again for comment — seemed to think the real threat to democracy were a few loudmouths who make no secret of their views and who are already well known to police and security intelligence agencies.
Far more people than the few thousand protesters camped at Wellington are now beginning to twig that the real threat to democracy is coming from within Parliament, not from those who camped temporarily on its doorstep.
It will also come as no surprise to many that the documentary was funded by the $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund. Its evident bias will only further cement the widespread view that the mainstream media has been bought by the government — in this case by as much as $190,000 of taxpayers’ money.
So New Zealanders get to pay through the nose to be told by implication that many of those who objected to the mandates, the politicised nature of the vaccination programme, or the vast state overreach in their personal lives — which included being barred from returning to their own country or to see loved ones before they died — were the dupes of neo-Nazis or plainly stupid.
Perhaps a reference to the results of a Horizon poll published on February 18 that showed 30 per cent of New Zealanders supported the protest — while 61 per cent opposed it and 9 per cent didn’t know — would have provided some of the much-needed perspective Fire and Fury so clearly lacked.
That’s well over a million New Zealanders who the documentary makers imply were deluded, along with the thousands who camped outside Parliament for more than three weeks.
And it’s not as if the poll results were not readily available. They were, in fact, published in… Stuff.
As the newspaper’s political editor, Luke Malpass, commented: “The 30 per cent level of support will be a shock for many in the government and its fellow travellers. Various parliamentarians have written off the protesters as unrepresentative, feral and anti-social.”
Much, it would seem, like Fire and Fury.