28 Aug 2022

'Funny Boy' Williams caught up in current affairs

From Mediawatch, 6:00 pm on 28 August 2022

The comedy current affairs of self-styled ‘volunteer journalist’ Guy Williams made real news recently when his now-notorious interview with Auckland mayoral hopeful Leo Molloy aired on TV. He’s also confronted conspiracy theorists on his show New Zealand Today. But a suit and a mic don't make him a journalist . . .

Guy Williams, host of New Zealand Today.

Guy Williams, host of New Zealand Today. Photo: supplied

Stuff’s multimedia documentary Fire And Fury vividly illustrated the impact of the misinformation which helped to fuel the occupation of Parliament earlier this year - and the people that spread it.

But the makers decided not to directly confront them.

Comedian Guy Williams took a different approach in his latest series of New Zealand Today.

“Oh for f---’s sake. Not you again,” he said in the final episode recently, upon discovering the brains behind a magazine full of conspiracy theories was a familiar face.

Williams was 'investigating' The Real News which is on sale all over the country and carries plenty of Covid-19 misinformation. It made headlines last year when the New Zealand Herald reported around 60,000 copies were distributed in Auckland by members of Advance NZ and anti-vaccination group Voices for Freedom. 

“It's been labeled one of the leading sources of anti-vax misinformation in New Zealand, famously claiming that vaccinated people are becoming magnetised," Williams bellows on the soundtrack to his show. 

"If I could stop The Real News, I could stop the spread of one of the biggest sources of bullshit in New Zealand,” he declared. 

But it turned out he and Jon Eisen had already met on his show four years ago. 

Eisen was spreading conspiracy theories on paper long before Covid-19 or even social media apps were a thing.  He founded Uncensored in 2005, a magazine reprinting lurid online theories about 9/11, aliens, ‘chemtrails’ in the sky (actually just vapour trails from aircraft). 

And now he's still at it with The Real News.  

Eisen played along for laughs on the New Zealand Today finale, appearing not at all sinister. 

“You show me one story in The Real News that doesn't stand up factually, and then I'll stop," he promised at one point.

“This article is called: ‘Was Napoleon gay?’ That's not proven,” countered Williams. 

“There's some references in there,” said Eisen. “There's literally no references,” replied Williams.

That interview is now on Uncensored magazine’s website with the claim: “All publicity is good publicity. Just ask Donald Trump.”  

“So often in media, I think it's broken down into ‘good versus evil’. My theory, Jon is a little bit separate from the (conspiracy theorists) that have become very prominent. A lot of conspiracy theorists I've talked to genuinely believe what they're saying,” Williams told Mediawatch.

“I wanted to at least show that he's not some sort of evil mastermind working away behind the scenes trying to bring down democracy - or something like that,” he said. 

Can misinformation and malice be countered by comedy?

“I occasionally do think I can talk some sense into people - or at least talk them around to my perspective,” he said. 

“I was amazed when I went to Christchurch to talk about The Crusaders, in my opinion, having a terrible name for a Canterbury rugby team. As soon as I explained where the name came from, 90 percent of the people - besides the dudes who claimed to be on ketamine - instantly changed their opinion," he said. 

"With some of these more entrenched views - no, I don't think I've made much progress. But maybe I have enlightened some viewers a little bit? Maybe I haven't. I don't know,” Williams told Mediawatch. 

Leo Molloy and Guy Williams in the ring on New Zealand Today.

Leo Molloy and Guy Williams in the ring on New Zealand Today. Photo: Three

Williams’ show may have had an impact on the election of Auckland’s next mayor. 

Just before the recent deadline, the candidate who had made more headlines than any other pulled the plug on his bid. 

He cited a poor poll result, but when reporters asked if the fallout from his now-notorious New Zealand Today encounter with Williams was a factor, he replied: “I wouldn’t do that again.” 

Leo Molloy came across as volatile, vindictive and angry in the broadcast which ended up in a mock boxing match outside one of his Auckland bars. 

“I wanted to discourage him from running because he'd embarrass himself - and maybe my interview was the embarrassing thing. I'm not sure,” Williams told Mediawatch.

At that time, Williams was criticised by some for giving Molloy the oxygen of publicity. Molloy himself sympathised with Williams getting “a hard time from fellow wokesters.” 

But Williams was praised by others for lifting the lid on Molloy’s personality, 

“You should be actually proud of what you did. You made people laugh, you gave people information. And I'm proud to be your friend and your colleague,” Newshub’s Patrick Gower told Williams on The Project.

“The interview (with Molloy) was great. I was more criticised for the story as a whole and the fluff I put around it. Most of the criticisms are fair, but I think some of them maybe were a little bit harsh,” Williams told Mediawatch.  

“I definitely did underestimate the situation. I did this interview a long time ago and I did not think Leo Molloy was a serious candidate or he would be the biggest name in the running. 

“I thought I was doing a kind of fringe New Zealand story. As time went on, it became less than fringe. Maybe I became out of my depth. I was proud of what I put out, but I understand the criticisms."

Would he have done it differently if he’d known Molloy would be polling more strongly when it aired?

“Yeah, I might have. Everyone told me not to do it, from friends to my bosses, producers. The other thing is a side-pressure that I was feeling that one of the criticisms I have of my show myself is that too often it deals with people who are not so rich or not so privileged. So I was looking for more stories (about) people who were rich or well-educated and Leo Molloy fitted the bill perfectly for what I was looking for at the time,” he said. 

“He's not one of these Trumpian figures (from) this new brand of politicians that don't have the ability to experience shame, or to apologise. 

"I think he genuinely was regretful for the things he had said. I think he has the ability to learn. But I can't deny that I was interviewing a controversial figure." 

"I didn't know if being on New Zealand Today is a good thing or a bad thing. It's a bit like me coming on Mediawatch,” he told Mediawatch.

What does it say about coverage of local politics that his joke interview in a comedy show was seen as a significant moment? 

“I think the state of local democracy reporting is probably dire. I think the state of journalism in New Zealand is probably dire. My view of it from starting in the media in Auckland 10 or 11 years ago, is that things have gone drastically downhill. All the journalists have been fired. Ironically, I - a pretend journalist - am still there. Is that a good sign for society? No.” he said. 

In each episode of NZT, the intro says Williams always wanted to be a proper journalist - but lacked the skills or determination.  

But while not to be taken seriously, New Zealand Today does tell stories that don't get told elsewhere because he’s not bound by current affairs conventions, and is one of few shows routinely putting ordinary people in the regions and small towns on screen - without talking down to them.

“I think my show is good but think we need to fund journalists. Half of them have become real estate agents. The other half have become publicity people who are obscuring the truth,” he said.  

“Because I'm in a suit and I’ve got a microphone, a number of people call me a journalist when I think it's obvious I'm a comedian,” Williams told Mediawatch

“And then you get the situation like this where I am accidentally part of real news stories. And then yeah, it's troublesome. Patrick Gower told me some person in a car he was in said his favorite journalist was me. If Joe Rogan's [show] is number one podcast and I'm a journalist in New Zealand we're... we're doomed.”