Foreign media misinformation pushes ‘Saint Jacinda’ from her pedestal

11:00 am on 6 September 2021

By Anke Richter

Opinion - After endlessly hailing New Zealand's prime minister as "Saint Jacinda", some overseas media are now reporting with glee her alleged failure with the Covid-19 pandemic.

A German author has compared Covid measures down under to "hunting terrorists" and MIQ to "camps". German-born New Zealander Anke Richter asks what happened.

No caption

Following the Christchurch mosque attacks, Jacinda Ardern had even been called 'Saint Jacinda'. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Lockdown started for me inside the Sudima Hotel in Christchurch. My sun-less room only had windows I couldn't open, but it was a pleasant enough place to decompress after a rushed trip to Germany. I was grateful to be back in Aotearoa - and very lucky to have a spot in MIQ. Since I arrived there on the same day as a cohort of Olympians, I even received a goodie bag with Kiwiana lollies.

While chewing Jaffas and Pineapple Lumps, I watched the daily Covid press conference from Parliament and all the news on TV. Nothing jumped out on Sunday 22 August apart from rising cases in Auckland, and they were to be expected. When an editor at the newspaper I regularly write for called me that night from Berlin, which only happens twice in a decade after an earthquake or terrorist attack, I was wondering which disaster I had missed.

The Sudima Hotel in Christchurch which is being used as an isolation facility.

The Sudima hotel in Christchurch. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

"Can you file a quick commentary piece about the announcement today?", she asked. I wasn't sure if she had called the right person on the right continent, or if I'd had too much wine with dinner. Which big news? "New Zealand's government admitted their failure of the elimination strategy", she said, sounding urgent. It was on the German wire.

I went online. There were plenty of stories, from quality newspapers to the mighty Stern magazine to state broadcasters like Deutsche Welle, all with a headline that translates as "New Zealand fails with its No-Covid Strategy". Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins was quoted as having "big questions" - meaning that the playing field and pressures had changed with the faster spreading Delta variant. But his concerns were turned into a concession and twisted into failure. The original news source was AFP (Agence France Press).

Meanwhile in Wellington, the prime minister kept saying that her proven strategy was still the way forward.

In the week leading up to this punchy but misleading item, plenty of international news outlets had already mocked New Zealand for shutting the whole country down over "one positive case". Europe's biggest broadsheet BILD listed "Jacinta" (sic) Ardern as "Loser of the Day" for urging us not to speak to our neighbours on this "island of insanity" (yes, singular).

It's one thing seeing a populist right-wing tabloid, renounced for its inaccuracy and malice, run a typo-laden dig at a left-wing female leader, but it's another to see a renowned news agency unwittingly spreading incorrect information that multiplies - hard to fact check for a trusting reader 18,000 kilometres away from its origin.

AFP's Wellington bureau chief Neil Sands had no idea what had become of his original report in my home country. When I told him, he immediately checked with the German service who reviewed the translated story and found it "overcooked". It issued a correction overnight, but it hasn't changed any of those headlines yet.

The damage has been done. Author Jörg Phil Friedrich, who is also a columnist for the conservative daily Welt, boiled up a side dish from the overcooked version to the point of unpalatability. Under the headline "No Covid is showing its true face now", his article claims at the start: "Infected people are locked up in camps and hunted like terrorists when they break quarantine rules. Politicians advise citizens not to talk to their neighbours. Australia and New Zealand demonstrate where the No-Covid strategy is heading."

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins at the Covid-19 media briefing on 14.7.2021.

Some reported Chris Hipkins had admitted failure. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The rest is behind a paywall, saying that "the news that is currently coming in about Corona pandemic politics from Australia and New Zealand is scary". It mainly describes the current lockdown and quarantine situation in Australia as inhumane and unsustainable and also links to "health minister" Chris Hipkins' alleged admission of failure.

Never mind that Hipkins is not a minister for health but Covid-19 response minister. All journalists make mistakes, and it's also not unusual that reporters on the ground have to counter what a foreign news desk at the other side of the world dreams up or deems correct. But I haven't heard the term "camps" used for four-star hotels since demagogue Laura Ingraham threw it around on Fox News and Billy Te Kahika Jr, super-spreader of conspiracy theories, staged a protest outside MIQ facilities. It brings up images of degradation and deprivation, especially in the German context. And it fans the flames of hundreds of thousands of truthers, neo-Nazis and anti-vaxxers who rally over there. Some of the "Querdenker" faction likes to compare itself to victims of the Holocaust.

Friedrich, the author of the Welt article, is not a demagogue, but a philosopher and scientist with a background in meteorology, not epidemics. When I pointed out to him that there are differences between Australia and New Zealand's latest approaches to lockdowns which he might not be aware of, he defended his stance - but claimed that the inflammatory opening sentences about camps and terrorists were not his own and edited in as a "teaser".

We had a lengthy email exchange after which I asked the Welt to change this misinformation. I haven't heard back from them and the story remains online.

In my early years in Aotearoa, it was frustrating when German publications were only interested in New Zealand as the "clean and green" tourist destination or Lord of the Rings location. Reporting from a small country where nothing much happens, from a global perspective, made my spot very niche.

That changed dramatically. The Christchurch mosque attacks put us on the map and "Saint Jacinda" on a pedestal, which was then upgraded into an altar following her successful response to Covid. The long forgotten Land of the Long White Cloud wasn't just cool - it was hot.

I spent a lot of 2020 writing profiles on Ardern and explaining the "team of five million" to eagerly listening Germans. A year later, some of their adoration for the Kiwi way has waned or even flipped.

After 18 months of lockdowns, home-schooling, political incompetence and confusing pandemic measures, no-one in Germany wants to keep hearing how good we've had it here. A perceived failure of our elimination strategy which puts us in the same camp - excuse the pun - as everyone else gives a bit of comfort to those who never had our luck in the first place.

I have compassion for envy which comes from suffering. But I detest a false narrative that serves the harmful political agenda of anti-vax and anti-lockdown influencers. It's not about making us look good or bad. It's about accuracy.

*Anke Richter is a freelance correspondent and a member of FACT (Fight Against Conspiracy Theories).