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?