26 Feb 2023

Claims and counter-claims on post-cyclone crime spike

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 26 February 2023

Media on the ground in cyclone-hit communities found road-blocks and local people reporting looting, theft and being threatened with firearms - while police and politicians insisted there was no spike in crime and complained of disinformation in the media and online. Did the media sort the facts from the fiction and the emotion?   

Newshub finds a grim message for would be thieves in Esk Valley.

Newshub finds a grim message for would be thieves in Esk Valley. Photo: screenshot / Newshub at 6

On Newshub at 6 last Sunday, a woman told Sam Hayes how a neighbour had saved her by breaking into her own home in Hawke's Bay during Cyclone Gabrielle.

“He came and broke the door and said, 'hang on to the sofa'. We floated with the dog across to his fence line,” she said. 

But other locals told Sam Hayes people breaking into homes in the region weren't doing it to save them.

 “Lawlessness, looting and gun violence escalated further in Hawke's Bay,” she told Newshub viewers. 

“Gangs are coming in or just looters in general are coming in trying to threaten people and stealing stuff,” one man told her. “They’re trying to steal the food that's been dropped off, filming the streets so that they can come back later,”  another woman said. 

Locals had set up their own roadblocks and Sam Hayes said a traffic worker told her he had had a gun pulled on him by people who refused to stop. 

When Esk Valley residents were evacuated again this weekend, Newshub found workers staffing the cordon were accompanied by police officers. 

There was plenty more in other media.

One woman told RNZ on Friday a group of people tried to get into her place nearby. 

“It is really widespread. We've got a lot of concerned community members,” Napier’s mayor told Newstalk ZB. 

Vodafone’s chief executive said on social media generators were stolen from cellphone sites - and a New Zealand Herald reporter heading along State Highway 5 found locals were guarding diggers and trucks restoring the Napier-Taupō road. 

Earlier, Newsroom’s Bonnie Sumner vividly described how fear and anger about looting was stressing out locals and several Hawke's Bay towns. 

“They'll take anything and the gangs are more organised than the police,” one woman told her. 

The police minister last weekend told gangs to "pull their heads in" and pull their patches off  - and pull out shovels and wheelbarrows instead. 

But last Tuesday morning, the prime minister told today FM that law and order was still all in order in Hawke's Bay. 

“Police aren't seeing any evidence to suggest that there's a degree of lawlessness there that some of the rumour mill might be suggesting,” he said. 

He said reported gunshots turned out to be fireworks, and “disaster tourists” had been mistaken for would-be thieves taking videos of things to steal. 

The police commissioner had already told the media that family violence was up in the affected regions but fewer dishonesty offences than usual had been recorded in the region after Gabrielle. 

The impression that things were out of control prompted opposition politicians to pile in, and that gave more grist to the media's mill. 

 National leader Christopher Luxon called out “lowlife scumbag behavior” after calling for the doubling of the sentences of those caught stealing during a state of emergency. 

Act MP Nicole McKee, speaking on The Platform dismissed the low number of arrests. 

“When someone comes at you with a weapon ... to take your generator and your food, they don't want statistics. They want the boys and blue and the boys and green to be down the streets,” she said.

Winston Peters also called for the army to be brought in to deter “feral thugs threatening robbing, stealing and looting”.

Through the news, people got two completely contrasting accounts:

  •  local people insisting that looting and threats of violence were rife, backed by opposition politicians and some local ones. 
  •  And police and the government (and some mayors) insisting there was really nothing you wouldn't expect to see during something like a power cut. 

Oddly, the authorities were on the same page as Mongrel Mob spokespeople like Harry Tam, who claimed it was the truth that was being beaten up by politicians and the media. 

People in Puketapu and elsewhere were not manning roadblocks 24/7 for no reason, but so much of what was being said in the media was based on compelling anecdotes rather than full facts. 

Newstalk ZB and RNZ both confirmed that a traffic management crew had been threatened with a gun - and reported that to the police. 

But no other cases of firearms being presented had been confirmed by the police or reported by the media. 

Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking was frustrated when Police Commissioner Andrew Coster couldn’t tell him how many of those arrested were in gangs. But it would be no surprise if gang members were among them given that the Eastern and Bay of Plenty police districts have more gang members than any others. 

Soon after, a guy called Brent - who said he had been manning overnight roadblocks in Eskdale - called Newstalk ZB claiming 34 cars came by in the night. 

“We took the plate numbers of every single one of them. Twenty-three of them are known to the police as gang affiliates,” Brent said.

 Brent's claims appeared on ZB news bulletins a couple of hours later, but vanished after that. More information - and corroboration - could have added to coverage crying out for hard facts. 

(He also claimed the media didn't want to report that 1400 people were missing in the Esk Valley. I don't know who's controlling the press but they dumb that down so nobody knows," he told Kerre Woodham. The audio of Brent's talk-back has been posted to online forums, accompanied by unverifiable claims of undeclared deaths, secret morgues and even that the government had prevented the army from entering Hawke's Bay.) 

After Brent’s call, host Kerre Woodham read out a listener's message from someone who claimed “the scum are cruising around like sharks”.

“There's so much politicisation of this tragedy and we won't be forgetting it. Vigilante groups are rallying,” the listener’s bleak message said. 

On Thursday, Tairawhiti’s police chief - alongside Gisborne’s mayor - called for “a bit of calm and truth” over similar claims that crime was spiking on their patch. 

He also said police social media teams were working to have disinformation removed. 

Thanks to the media, it is now clear that theft and the threat of it is very real for the people who are highly vulnerable and stressed in cyclone-hit regions - and that they weren't reassured at all by the police and the prime minister deliberately played it down. 

“We're not going to remember the details - but we will remember the new prime minister told us crime wasn't that bad,” Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan said on air this week. 

“It proved not to be true, which is going to feel for an awful lot of us like trying to mislead us - whether he meant to or not,” she added. 

She might be right, but they might also feel that the way the ‘crime spike’ was covered by parts of the media was part of the same problem.