A sign at the Parliament protest

Yesterday as recriminations and new conspiracy theories dominated the social media channels that have been central to the Parliament protest, NZ on Air’s leadership were before a Select Committee defending their Public Interest journalism fund.

The role of the media and “fake news” is emerging as a central issue as the post mortems on the protest begin.

The hard right has persistently claimed that the New Zealand on Air fund is a “$55 million bribe” to the mainstream media to get them to toe the Government’s line.

NZonAir chair Dr Ruth Harley told Parliament’s Social Services and Comunity Committee that the fund arose out of an appetite for plurality and diversity in journalism, so as to provide material that simply wasn’t there before.

National MP, Melissa Lee, quoted from a recent Ministry of Culture and heritage report about media funding which quoted some respondents as saying funding decisions had crossed into editorial decision making, with New Zealand on Air effectively holding a beauty contest to choose which proposed stories, investigations merited support.

“I think New Zealand on Air has a 30 year history of selecting funding projects for funding in a competitive environment, and that hasn’t changed for the Public Interest Journalism Fund,” said Harley.

“It’s the same process and the same investment principles that we’ve always operated under.”

National MP Maureen Pugh was more direct.  

In early February, she had to delete a Facebook post thanking the protest, Convoy 2022, for its efforts.

Yesterday she said there was an “almost violent distrust” of the media in New Zealand, and that was on display during the protest.

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“I’m just wondering what New Zealand on Air is doing to measure the level of mistrust, but also controlling or countering the misinformation or fake news that is gathering momentum in the country?” she said.

NZonAir chair Dr Ruth Harley said the question went to the heart of why the Public Interest Journalism Fund had been created.

“I think we all became aware, I don’t mean New Zealand on Air, I mean New Zealand, of the impact of fake news,” she said.

“And we all understood the importance of having reliable, trustworthy news services supplied across the islands.

“I think that we can see that firstly, we’re very polarised, but we know that; there are some parts of our society who simply don’t accept information and wear aluminium hats as a result.

“But a great many people do engage with news services that I think we all have come to trust more than we ever did, and that the new material supplied under the Public Interest Journalism Fund has supported that trust.”

Harley said NZonAir had been measuring trust in the media and that the well-established outlets, like TVNZ and RNZ, had high levels of trust.

Pugh, however, continued her line of questioning.

“There is an assumption made by some that taxpayer-funded media is bought media; how do you respond to that?” she asked.

Harley: “I think the first thing we have to do is be confident in our processes and the integrity of those processes, and we are confident.

“And the second thing is that we are tracking trust as a measure, but it’s over a short period so far because we’ve only just begun to do it.

“But it is a very important thing to track.”

Dr Harley and Ms Pugh only needed to look at the Telegram social media platform to get some idea of what they might be up against.

On various channels, posts maintained the “cops” started the fires at Parliament on Wednesday.

“May there be great shame descend upon those who wear the badge of NZ Po-lice and all their kinfolk too,” said one.

“Another attacked Ross Ardern, the father of the Prime Minister, and claimed he was responsible for the forced vaccination of people in Tokelau.

On his web page, right-wing blogger Cameron Slater said: “The protest was peaceful until the police moved in. The complicit media cheered them on, and the tyrant stood at the podium of truth and lied as she has never lied before.”

But Parliament has begun to debate fake news.

Greens co-leader James Shaw reminded the House yesterday, during a special debate on the Parliamentary protest, that he had been a victim of fake news.

In 2019 he was punched and had his eye socket broken by a random person while walking along a Wellington street.

“You seem to be able to get a great many thoughts through your head in the time that it takes from standing up to lying down,” he said.

“And one of the thoughts that crossed my mind in that moment was what he might have meant.

“One possibility: that he was connecting my work as climate change Minister to the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory.

“Another was that he was worked up about the UN migration pact, which had been the subject of a highly coordinated disinformation campaign over that summer—a campaign which was driven largely out of Russian internet troll farms and had managed to find its way into mainstream political discourse even here in Aotearoa.

“Either possibility has the same root cause.”

Shaw said the Christchurch terrorist spent a great deal of the time over the course of his life in the dark recesses of the internet, where his grievance, his entitlement, and his hate metastasised into the evil fantasies that drove him to kill so many people.

And the attack on the US Capitol last year was fuelled by the misinformation and disinformation campaigns of far-right and proto-fascist movements aimed at destabilising and fracturing society and causing and creating the conditions for authoritarians like Trump and Vladimir Putin, he said.

“The doubts about vaccines, mandates, and other elements of the public health response were seeded by the same actors,” he said.

Shaw said there was another virus “which we, with our breezy “She’ll be right” attitude, have almost no immunity to.”

“What I’m interested in is preventing the disease from overtaking us in the first place.”

Shaw had no answers; nobody appears to at this stage. But bodies like NZonAir and the politicians will have to find them if they want to prevent any more protests like the one that has been on Parliament’s front lawn for three weeks.

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