6 Mar 2022

Newsroom accused of publicising anti-vax PR pitch

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 6 March 2022

A few days before the occupation of Parliament dissolved in a wave of fire and violence, Newsroom published soft-focus vision of it in a report called 'A visit to Freedom Village'. It's now being accused of falling for the PR strategies of professional purveyors of misinformation.

* This article has been amended following a complaint and further information received from Newsroom, set out in an amendment below *

Melanie Reid talks to the founders of Voices For Freedom

Melanie Reid talks to the founders of Voices For Freedom Photo: Newsroom

The police operation to clear the occupation had only been going a few hours when two Stuff journalists were chased down a road by protesters shouting “We’ll hang you”. 

It was just one disturbing incident in a full day of violence. Afterward came the fires, the explosions, and the scorching of Trevor Mallard’s $243,000 children’s slide.

When the protest was finally cleared, Newshub’s Jenna Lynch stood above the grounds and assessed the damage.

It was "absolute carnage", she said.

Viewers could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion the so-called anti-mandate protests were fuelled by an undercurrent of conspiracism causing people to behave in increasingly volatile ways. 

But a little earlier in the week, Newsroom’s Melanie Reid was painting a very different picture of the tent site at parliament, in her video report ‘A visit to freedom village’.

"We’ve decided to give one group - who are vaccine- and mandate-focused - their say," says the online intro to the report.  

“It’s really lovely here,” Voices For Freedom co-founder Libby Jonson told her.

“There’s a lot of families here and people are really looking out for each other.”

Reid was at the Parliament protest primarily to interview Jonson and the other founders of Voices For Freedom - the former Advance NZ candidate Claire Deeks and crochet designer Alia Bland.

Their organisation is one of the largest and most well-resourced anti-vaccine groups in the country.

It has supplied the distinctive blue and yellow signs seen at multiple protests with slogans like ‘WE CALL THE SHOTS’ and ‘IS THIS THE FUTURE YOU WANT FOR YOUR KIDS?’

The group has been banned from Facebook for repeatedly breaching its rules on vaccine misinformation and has distributed thousands of flyers containing false or misleading claims about the vaccine in spite of the Advertising Standards Authority ruling the material is “socially irresponsible” and “misleading”.

But that wasn't top of mind as Reid introduced the trio.

“You guys started it, yeah?” asked Reid.

“Yeah the three of us,” they replied.

“Three mums,” said Reid.

Stuff journalist Kirsty Johnston has written about the anti-vax sentiment rife in the country’s coterie of mums with substantial followings on Instagram, or ‘mumfluencers’. 

"The 'just mums' argument that VFF are pushing is an anti-vax strategy recognised by researchers studying the global misinformation war against vaccines. It's designed to draw other mums in and prey on their anxieties about vaccination and undermine public health," she tweeted.

Reid did acknowledge in the report that many people do have serious qualms about Voices For Freedom. 

"To their detractors they’re peddlers of misinformation and a threat to public health,” she said.

Voices For Freedom's founders have carried out interviews with conspiracy theorists including the German lawyer Reiner Fuellmich who falsely claimed elites planned the Covid-19 pandemic.

They’ve also promoted and shared content from people with a range of strange or demonstrably false views, including elites using vaccine passports to bring about a 'great financial reset'.

These facts weren’t mentioned by Reid in her interview with the founders of Voices For Freedom. Her report - paid for from the government’s Public Interest Journalism Fund - also didn’t include comment from an expert on vaccines.

It wasn’t the first time Reid has given a platform to people airing anti-vax misinformation. She also gave space to the anti-vax views of people behind the debunked film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe in a story prior to its New Zealand debut in 2018.

More recently Melanie Reid has again been digging into allegations of vaccine harm.

Mediawatch was contacted by a man who was contacted by Reid after he sent false stories to a woman purporting to catalog post-vaccine medical issues.

That man, who asked not to be named due to having been targeted by anti-vax groups, wanted to demonstrate the inadequate efforts to verify the information.

But soon after she published his tall stories, the woman got in touch.

“They said that Melanie Reid had reached out to them and was looking to investigate the misreporting or underreporting of injuries and death that had come about with the Covid vaccines,” he told Mediawatch.

The man told Reid his stories were false.

“I thought it would have been a good way to uncover that they were sharing these fake stories,” he said.

“She wasn't interested in that at all . . . because she was more interested in investigating the potential for undercounting of these injuries and deaths.”

* NOTE: Mediawatch confirmed with Melanie Reid that she had spoken with this man prior to our March 6 programme and the original version of this article, but Mediawatch did not put his claims to Newsroom directly at the time in the written questions to Newsroom.  According to RNZ’s own editorial policies, we should have. 

Mediawatch also did not mention he had used a false name and fabricated the death of his own child to expose the group circulating misinformation.  Newsroom says Melanie Reid was not interested in his story because of “the highly dubious methods the man was using” and that Reid was not conducting an interview – as Mediawatch described it on March 6 – but only having a background conversation to find out what he had to say.

Mediawatch sincerely regrets that Melanie Reid and Newsroom was not given the opportunity to properly respond to the interviewee's account in the programme on March 6 - and in the original version of this article. 

Newsroom's foray into freedom village has won plaudits from at least one group - Voices For Freedom. 

In its emailed newsletter, it hailed Reid’s report as a media exclusive, praised her balanced reporting and encouraged members to let Newsroom know it was happy with its fair representation.

Fight Against Conspiracy Theories, or FACT, a group formed to combat misinformation and disinformation, was less enamoured with the report.

Its spokesman Stephen Judd said Reid likely played into its PR strategy by introducing them as “three mums”.

He said Voices For Freedom put on a welcoming, inoffensive facade, but drew people into more extremist content as they got invested in the group.

“There's nothing wrong when you're a mum with saying that you're a mum,” he says. “The problem is, that's not just what they are. What they are, is the head of a large misinformation organisation that’s soliciting large sums of money, apparently spending large sums of money to persuade people not to be vaccinated. And that's really dangerous.”

Judd said Reid failed to put some important questions to the Deeks, Jonson, and Bland.

“‘Are you vaccinated?’ That will be really interesting to know. I would ask ‘Why do you put disclaimers on your content saying it's not medical advice?’ Because it sure sounds like medical advice. What are you worried about? I would ask ‘Why have you set yourselves up as a limited liability company? Why don't you tell people how you spend your donation money? Why don't you let your members vote in a democratic structure’?” 

Newsroom co-editor Mark Jennings and investigations editor Melanie Reid were held overnight at the main Suva police station.

Photo: File photo

Newsroom and Melanie Reid declined to be interviewed on Mediawatch but Reid and co-editor Mark Jennings answered questions in writing.   

They said the report should be considered alongside other stories Newsroom has done on the pandemic and misinformation - in reports from the likes of journalists Marc Daalder and David Williams. 

It was aimed at getting the founders of Voices For Freedom in front of the public for the first time to explain their motivation.

“This was not a story about vaccine safety and efficacy.  We made that clear. It was about this group’s involvement and aims out of this protest - deliberately focused on 'the now'.”

The pair said Reid did challenge Voices For Freedom’s founders on misinformation - but didn’t include much of those exchanges in the report because it amounted to “unenlightening recitation of claim and counterclaim.” 

They added that In hindsight, that may have been an error of judgment.   

Jennings and Reid didn't accept ‘A visit to Freedom Village” bought into a Voices For Freedom’s PR strategy, as alleged by FACT. 

“It could well be that they bought into our journalistic strategy. To get them in front of the public - to explain themselves and their intent over this protest,” the statement said. 

“Yes, they are mums but that term was not used to soften their image.  That’s how they identified to us. Why would we replace that with other descriptors?" 

“When questioned about the extreme or fringe groups the women denied any association with or support for those groups.” 

In response to criticism of Reid’s previous reporting of vaccination issues, Melanie Reid and Mark Jennings said she has done many investigations of many other highly-contested issues and “that is the nature of leading edge journalism.”