Sunday, August 28, 2022

A few thoughts on Stuff's Fire and Fury documentary

I didn’t intend to watch Stuff’s video documentary Fire and Fury, but after reading Stuff columnist Jenny Nicholls’ gushing review (headlined “Fire and Fury documentary shows journalism at the peak of its powers”, and of course given great prominence on the Stuff website), I felt compelled to.

The one-hour doco, which describes itself as “an investigation into disinformation in Aotearoa New Zealand”, got a wholly uncritical tick from its in-house reviewer. But I watched it this morning and came to the conclusion that Fire and Fury (which, incidentally, brazenly pinches its title from a book by American author Michael Woolf about Donald Trump) is part of the very problem the makers purport to deplore.

Let’s start with the positives. Fire and Fury is unquestionably well made. The editing is slick, the photography is first-class (the riot on the last day of the Camp Freedom protest at Parliament has never been more graphically captured) and the music is suitably dark and ominous.

The makers have dug deep, unearthing a wealth of damning video footage and exposing a web of connections between various malignant “influencers” and conspiracy theorists who stand accused of poisoning the public conversation with misinformation and toxic rhetoric.

So it showcases formidable journalistic skills. But to say it’s well made isn’t necessarily, by itself, a ringing commendation. Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi Party’s favourite film-maker, made impressive documentaries too.

As with many propaganda projects (which Fire and Fury is), the producers appear to have started out with a particular premise and set about gathering whatever information and images were necessary to substantiate it. But an equally skilled documentary maker might arguably approach the subject from the reverse direction and come up with something just as persuasive.

Here are some of my misgivings, in no particular order:

Fire and Fury paradoxically amplifies messages that the producers tell us are a threat to democracy and national wellbeing. It provides a platform for extremist fringe activists who I suspect will revel in the exposure. If there’s a common characteristic the main players seem to share, it’s that they are egoistical loudmouths and fantasists who are gratified by their notoriety – none more so, I suspect, than Damien De Ment and Kelvyn Alp, founder of the website Counterspin. Fire and Fury gives them more of the oxygen they crave. The documentary will also serve to reinforce their conviction, and that of their followers, that a corrupt mainstream media is deaf to legitimate grievances, has no interest in the truth and is determined to discredit them and suppress their messages. But more on that later.

■ Because the makers set out with a preconceived objective, there’s not even a token attempt at balance, and most notably no attempt to understand what drove the Camp Freedom protesters, many of whom gave the impression of being fairly normal, conservative, middle-class New Zealanders who had never before engaged in protest activity. It’s almost axiomatic in journalism that there are always two sides to a story, yet Fire and Fury makes no attempt to get to the bottom of whatever sense of discontent led an extraordinarily disparate group to converge spontaneously on Wellington from all over the country – an unprecedented phenomenon.

In that respect Fire and Fury is an epic fail because it gets us no closer to comprehending what happened outside Parliament six months ago, possibly because the producers didn’t want to know. Perhaps they convinced themselves that the protesters couldn’t possibly have a valid reason to think the way they do and so the question wasn’t worth asking.  The documentary makers preferred to get the truth, or at least their version of it, from approved voices of the left-wing establishment such as law academic Khylee Quince, Kate Hannah of the Disinformation Project (whose funding isn’t clear from its website, though I suspect we pay for it) and the Australian “misinformation expert” Ed Coper, whose LinkedIn profile indicates he’s well marinated in woke dogma. It goes without saying that none of these people could possibly be suspected of having an ideological agenda of their own – and if they do, we're expected to assume it’s an honourable and righteous one.

Again, this perpetuates the yawning them-and-us gap – no, let’s call it a chasm – and sense of alienation that generated such ill-will toward what was seen during the occupation as an elitist, hostile media. There was no more telling image than that of Trevor Mallard and a press gallery pack looking down on the protesters (that is, looking down both figuratively and literally) from the balcony of Parliament. It was predictably characterised as a Marie Antoinette moment.

■ The reporter and narrator of Fire and Fury, Paula Penfold, doesn't reveal whether she tried to confront any of the figures she identifies as the villains of the piece. She did, however, interrogate a genteel-looking elderly woman who's presented as some sort of public enemy after being caught on camera at the protest telling a media crew to “get out”.  Quite apart from the fact that Penfold chose the softest of targets, challenging the woman to justify herself when she had no obligation to do so (and this in her own home, months after the event) looked perilously close to bullying.  When an experienced TV journalist puts questions to a private citizen unaccustomed to being in the public eye, and has the power to edit the interview in such a way as to emphasise whatever message she wants to convey, there’s never any doubt which side the power is on.

■ Crucially, Fire and Fury doesn’t ask a central question that arises repeatedly: namely, why so many people no longer trust the media. It’s more convenient to leave that particular stone unturned.  Yet distrust of the media was a potent issue at Camp Freedom, as Penfold concedes when she comments: “Since they [the protesters] distrust journalists, they bypass the media entirely.” She goes on to say she and her colleagues have never encountered that level of hostility anywhere in the world. Well, there’s a rather big clue, right there. I deplore threats against anyone lawfully doing their job, but rather than sounding hard done by, Penfold might ask herself how things got to this point.

I have my own ideas about that. I believe the mainstream media in New Zealand have lost sight of what was previously their primary objective, which was to reflect society back to itself and report, as neutrally as possible, on matters of interest and concern to the communities they purported to serve. Instead they have positioned themselves in the front line of the culture wars and put themselves at odds with their diminishing audiences by haranguing them with an ideological agenda largely driven by disaffected minorities. The subjects of Fire and Fury just happen to be the wrong disaffected minorities.

To summarise: While purporting to be concerned about the potential harm done by wacko extremists (and some do have the appearance of being truly wacko), Stuff's big-statement documentary drives another wedge into an already dangerously fractured society. Oh, and by the way: did I mention that it was made with funding from the Public Interest Journalism Fund?




Doug Longmire said...

Fire and Fury - Fully funded government propaganda.
Paid for and delivered as ordered.

George Orwell wrote several books on this style on government/control of media/control of population.

Anonymous said...

It also cannot be coincidental that the basic argument of the documentary just happens to reflect the sentiments expressed by the PM in her address to the nation shortly after a police had broken up the protest - that is, it was all due to misinformation, disinformation and nothing at all to do with the current government, their policies and how they are forcing so many initiatives on us (like Three Waters) without proper consultation. Nothing to see here folks, move on.

David McLoughlin said...

Very timely column, Karl. I am sure you have noticed the current nationwide media campaign to "out" local body election candidates holding the "wrong" views, the wrongness decided by the journalists. No more of just telling us who candidates are and what they stand for; the journalists now are deciding which candidates are fit for office, and running swathes of articles attacking those they deem unfit to stand.

I was wondering how long it would be before this campaign misfired badly, and then out came yesterday's Wairarapa Times Age in good old Masterton, with its front page an image of "extremists" pulling the puppet strings of candidates, and a story claiming local councillor and mayoral candidate Tina Nixon was a "follower" of and endorsed by several extremists.

I've known Ms Nixon for many years; she is a communications specialist who has worked for many mainstream organisations. She is also an iwi leader, for Ngai Tahu, and has been anything but extreme in her views as a Masterton councillor these past three years. To suggest she is some kind of extremist is absurd. I briefly discussed it with her yesterday and passed on my opinion of such "journalism."

The Times Age article suggested the paper got its information from an organisation called "FACT Aotearoa-Fight Against Conspiracy Theories" which I had not heard of before this story. I immediately checked it out.

FACT has a website, Facebook page and Twitter account. Those sites boast: "FACT Aotearoa have been working with media to get stories about conspiracy theory candidates out to the public. We have been receiving tip offs from all around the country and have a team dedicated to transparency in the upcoming elections so keep them coming." And: "We've been talking to journalists up and down the country sharing our confirmed candidates linked to CTs."

Nothing on FACT's website, Twitter or FB page gives the slightest clue who is behind FACT, which set my antennae clanging. So much for transparency. This is an organisation of invisible activists that boasts how it is feeding claims about people standing for public office to journalists who are happily publishing such claims. At least some of those claims are palpably false -- FACT's Facebook page was by lunchtime yesterday carrying a grovelling apology to Tina Nixon for the false claims about her that FACT gave to the Times Age. It will be fascinating to see if the Times Age carries an apology tomorrow.

I have googled to see if any of the media so happily running FACT's material has run any articles telling us who the shadowy figures behind FACT are, with whom they are linked, and what their motives are, but I have been unable to find any. I can barely believe that people who call themselves journalists will publish material from anonymous activists like this day after day and claim to be acting in the public good. In my view they are as bad as those who in the 1940s and 1950s supported Joe McCarthy, just from the opposite extreme of the political spectrum. In fact, our media and their academic and activist friends and fellow travellers have ushered in an age of New McCarthyism, from which nobody is safe who does not agree with their extreme demands. That this has accelerated into the public domain from its academic roots mostly while the world has been caught in a pandemic and many people have been concentrating on that does not seem like a coincidence.

Karl du Fresne said...

Thank you, David, for so eloquently drawing attention to the pernicious media witch hunt now underway for non-compliant council candidates. You've saved me the trouble. However, much as I disapprove of the hatchet job on Tina Nixon, I still won't be voting for her.

Gary Peters said...

"However, much as I disapprove of the hatchet job on Tina Nixon, I still won't be voting for her."

Karl, that's the beauty of democracy, long may it last. Pretty sure ardern has a plan for that.

I supported the protest at Parliament. I do not believe mandated medical treatment is something that should happen in a free society. If I, as an unvaccinated individual, have individuals that choose not to engage with me, either socially or professionally, I don't have a problem with that, your loss 😎 But forcing someone to undergo that procedure is barbaric. If we can have maori medical centers and non maori medical centers maybe we could have had "unvaccinated" medical centers 😁

Now that even the most simple of minds can see that that the treatment mandated neither stops infection nor stops transmission and unfortunately doesn't stop death for the highly at risk, why are we still on this path?

I am not a white supremacist, merely a superior person not standing for election ...... In my opinion 😎

Trev1 said...

When journalists are paid by the government to demonize New Zealanders who disobey the government, in this case by refusing a medical procedure, and those journalists do this so enthusiastically, then we are in serious trouble in this country.

The Redbaiter said...

Yes, the Disinformation Project is funded by the taxpayer. There are at least another four or five govt departments doing similar work. (monitoring social media for "unapproved" speech). Disgraceful in a free supposedly democratic society really, but few seem concerned.

Stuff have collected around $6-7 million or more from the PIJF since it was initiated. Some say its bribe money, but its not really.

The so called "journalists" at Stuff (and most other NZ legacy media) already agree with and think the same as Jacinda Ardern and her progressive liberal govt. They're happy to do her propaganda voluntarily, and the fund payments are merely to cover expenses (and a bit extra).

The remarkable thing (IMHO) in this whole scenario is the widespread and gormless acceptance in NZ of the absurd notion that govt should be the sole arbiter of what is disinformation.

Even more remarkable is that the media (so called) would agree with such a ridiculous proposition, but they do.

Ken said...

Thank you Karl. I watched the program and was hoping for a response like your's.
As you've pointed out in recent years many of todays 'journalists' are advocates for a perspective rather than the reporters of previous decades.
Ken Maclaren

Anna Mouse said...

To David....try here:

confirm you're not a robot and look at the admin contact.

David McLoughlin said...

To David....try here:

Thanks Anna Mouse. The domain registration goes to a Blitz Digital Ltd which appears to be a digital marketing company in Tinakori Rd Wellington owned by an Abby Cattermole. Blitz looks like a holding space for the domain. A search of Abby Cattermole shows no obvious links with the activities of FACT other than the domain name being registered at her business address (and seemingly others in Dubai and Singapore). So FACT appear to be trying to keep their backers secret.

I have a busy day at work today, so I will have to get back to FACT later.

Nicole Foss said...

I am running for mayor of Porirua, and I am one of the people Stuff has been demonising as some kind of extremist. I am a former research fellow at Oxford with two science degrees (biology) and two law degrees. I'm an international public speaker, writer and researcher. Stuff outright lied about me, and our local paper carried their story as well. Stuff is a rag unworthy of the name journalism. Fire and Fury was pure propaganda piece, pushing a considerable amount of government-sanctioned disinformation in its own right. If the government wants to be taken seriously as a source of truth, the least they could do is keep up with the international data. It does not support their position at all. If you'd like to discuss the actual science at any point, that can be arranged.

Another incident I heard of today affects Barbara Mackenzie, who is running for mayor of Wellington. She was disinvited from a mayoral debate at Victoria University. The disinvitation came in the form of a defamatory press release extreme enough to be legally actionable. They called her a racist and a transphobe and accused her of spreading hate. She did nothing of the kind. She has a PhD in German literature, and is obviously not an uneducated extremist.

New Zealand is in the grip of nascent totalitarianism, and it is not alone. Many western countries have recently abandoned the rule of law. Have you noticed how all of them are pushing Build Back Better in a coordinated fashion? This is a euphemism for a radical shift in western politics. The reason for this is the bursting of the global financial bubble, combined with looming global energy shortages and failing supply chains. Many western government feel the need to establish greater control over their populations prior to the period of upheaval, hence a vaccine passport system that actually has nothing to do with health. I would be happy to discuss any of this, as global finance and energy are the fields in which I lecture. I am running for office in part because I understand what is about to happen and have spent many years contemplating what one might do about it. I did ten hours of lectures for Voices for Freedom on these topics.

Anonymous said...

Isn’t it interesting that Penfold’s Fire & Fury doco has had some pretty harsh criticism (along the same lines you discuss) since it first aired on the Stuff website, and yet, if Jenny was to be believed in her opinion piece on the same Stuff website over the weekend, you be forgiven for thinking that it had already won a Voyager media award. And to give greater credibility to her Op-Ed, Jenny’s byline describes her as a “science writer”. Clearly an expert in this field. Having dealt with her in her past life, prior to the departure from the NZ magazine market of Bauer Media and the subsequent closure and sell off of their titles, Jenny was much better known as the art director at one or other times for Metro and North & South Magazines. The segue into writing about science is a relatively new career path for the good Jenny of Waiheke Island (a location about as distant from the Wellington Parliament protest as you can get, whilst still remaining in the country.
For a contrasting perspective on the protest, during the peaceful period as well as the final day of pitch battle with the riot Police, made entirely un-funded by the PIJF taxpayers cash, I recommend that you have a look at the work produced by two former Blenheim wedding photographers who attended and established the trust of the participants at the protest. We’re they to have held press photographers credentials, their work at those events would certainly have been deserving of a Voyager award or two. It can be found over at their website:
Well worth a look if just to see from a historical perspective another side to this seminal moment in NZ social history.

Lucia Maria said...

I spent a bit of time looking into FACT earlier in the year, so can give a quick run-down of what I know.

FACT's website started up in 2022, as can be seen through the WayBack Machine here. Vaguely remember that they might just have had a Facebook group to start with before getting the website.

They backfilled their articles in February 2022, making it look like the website had been up longer.

This article, dated 12 Dec 2021 on a Hui that was held, names Christopher von Roy, but doesn't specify whether he is part of the group.

Stephen Judd was FACT's spokesman in March this year - quoted in this article on 1News, dated 4 March 2022. He might have left, vaguely remember this being reported in an article.

Two more spokespeople are mentioned here : Andrew Mackie and Nick Wilson.

FACT on Twitter are friends with the disinformation crowd. Get regularly retweeted by @Te_Taipo who seems to be their information tracker & broadcaster for the activists.

I tried talking to whoever is behind their twitter handle a few months back, but they just ignored me. Was calling into question one their "facts", but they don't seem to be into debate with people that disagree with them.

Lucia Maria said...

Another FACT spokesperson named in this RNZ article: Lee Gingold.

Ah, Stephen Judd is still speaking for them at the end of June, in this RNZ article

Scott Ewing said...

'Fire and Fury' ~ The review of the review

'Safe and Effective" ~ is now 'Disinformation'.

Stuff published a gush-piece about its own hit-piece 'fire and fury' ~ that said "fire and fury shows journalism at the peak of its powers".

After I stopped laughing, uncurled from foetal position, got up off the floor ~ then filled a hot water bottle to soothe my aching stomach muscles ~ I reread it.

The first bum-phrase used ~ is 'misinformation merchants'.

The author seems to think that questioning the failing covid narratives ~ is somehow akin to 'grifting' ~ that these people are the nefarious 'intellectual arms dealers' of this terrifying new decade.

Second thought straight out of the gate ~ when re reading stuff's gush/puff piece was:

'Safe and effective" ~ is now 'disinformation'.

These vaccines have failed Worldwide ~ and there is growing Global data showing these things can indeed 'harm or kill'. Fire and fury failed to address this and the people that made it ~ have yet to admit this openly either to themselves or to anyone else.

Third thought ~ while trying to keep my lunch down whilst rereading this published hackery ~ was the wide and incessant use of the bum-phrase 'conspiracy theorists'.

"Conspiracy theorists" ~ is a negatively connotated, non-specific smear term ~ purposefully designed to close down conversations and stop people from thinking, talking, and looking further into certain sets of information.

I don't use the term 'conspiracy theorists' ~ and I can't intellectually respect people ~ who still do. Author of article and fire and fury makers included.

Fourth thought rereading ~ was that all the ferocious online harassment, including threatening emails and phone calls penfold and experts she interviewed have been subject to (for some reason) ~ is well deserved.

Fifth thought. The makers of this fire and fury hit piece ~ neglected to interview 'any' of the people who were the targets of this hit piece.

Thought number six ~ was that Chantelle Baker’s Facebook page was deactivated for 'spreading disinformation' ~ but no one (article writer and fire and fury makers included) can seem to be specific about the exact nature of this 'disinformation' ~ and what this 'disinformation' actually is.

My seventh thought was that New Zealand news media ~ has never been this bad.

And number eight : The makers and participants assumed for themselves a consensus reality 'high ground' of the (ever-changing) 'Science' ~ and that anyone questioning the currently failing narrative of vaccines being 'safe and effective', or questioning the necessity of mandates (useless now that vaccines don't stop contagion or transmission) or questioning the potential centralised control of our own personal finances through a completely digital banking system ~ are not 'real New Zealanders' ~ and that they should 'definitely' be treated with caution and suspicion.

Fire and fury ~ is an intellectually dishonest, manipulative, unappreciated, and ill-conceived assault on the minds of New Zealanders everywhere ~ the likes of which I've never seen on screen in this country ~ over the course of half a century. We should all be very concerned.

Two thumbs down.

Anonymous said...

'A local character'

It is possible this Dunedin-based activist is part of FACT. It is a hit piece on one of the Wairarapa candidates who received the subsequent apology from the Times Age.

Kyle said...

Great write up Karl! You hit the nail on the head. Sadly the more you look into this subject matter the more it raises concerns about the slow erosion of the checks and balances that are the bullwork of our democracy. Thank you and keep up the great work.

Anonymous said...

I live in Auckland but would vote for you in a heartbeat

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response/review. I'm glad for it as the F&F piece truly resembled an absolute propaganda piece in my opinion. One sided and continuing with the ongoing false labelling of those who dare to challenge what they see as something that is ever encroaching on their rights and freedoms. Following the money is much easier today and Stuff are not the only ones able to draw conclusions based on connections and finances.
(Q)When is a conspiracy theory not a theory? (A)When the content at issue is in fact true.
I have to say I've seen a lot of that happening over the last 3 years and it's still happening. I think like me, many NZ's want to see investigative and unbiased reporting from our MSM like the good old days. We haven't seen that for some time. Thats the only way they will win the public back and I just don't see that happening.