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Alistair Boyce

A Sad Day for NZ Journalism

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Alistair Boyce meets Hone Harawira at the Protest

Please do not be proud of yourself,
this is a sad day for NZ journalism.

16 February 2022.

‘It’s 4 in the morning’, ‘and I am weary’, but I have a mission. I head out and into the occupation zone, up the supply route, the wrong way on the one way back street, the only way in. Too early to meet the protest security but early enough to survey new arrivals sleeping in cars and makeshift tents, all with stories to tell.

I am listening to RNZ news reports and shortly will alternate to the chatty tones of Kate Hawkesby on Newstalk ZB. I park the car and quietly enter via the back entrance of the dockway to the backbar, the venue for the ‘leaders’ meeting the early evening before. It is going to be a hell of a day, just like the one before and the one before that…

In between making scones and muffins for a business start-up I review my scribbled report that I intend to read to the ZB listeners. Then there is the innocuous live ‘Magic’ interview and no doubt more media to come through the day. My fully charged phone will be running hot.

ZB calls and I surprise Kate with a request to read an “update” on the state of the protest. I set the scene, outlining a reasonable emerging leadership, meaningful dialogue and potential negotiation ending with the bombshell…”by the end of the day I am confident a leading NZ politician will meet representatives of the protest”. Kate uses her considerable charms to prise the name, but I will not budge. ZB has the scoop, but the story is left hanging…there is no turning back.

It is the second full week of occupation and numbers are swelling following the failed ‘push’ by the police and the idiocy of loudspeakers and sprinklers.

Uniformed police have not entered the protest zone since the ‘push’. The Ardern government has put a blanket ban on any parliamentarians entering dialogue with the protest. The mainstream media (MSM) blindly follow the government line as being the only truth, a sacred cow, lines that cannot be crossed, just like lockdowns and mandates. The way through the impasse can only be one of meaningful dialogue or a violent and unpalatable eviction. But the main instruments (parliamentarians, media and police) are hamstrung by a government hopelessly out of its depth. Police are trying to negotiate but trust and credibility is low. The government are trying to call the army in with the pretext of towing vehicles. Tensions are high in the protest with regular calls to “hold the line”.

“Jacinda-you need to step up, come down from heaven and talk to the people” …the closing line to Sean Plunkett, first interview (unedited and not ‘contextualised’) of The Platform that got 1000’s of views in a matter of hours (14/2/22). This on-line interview was widely disseminated within the protest movement.

To break the ice and in the absence of government led dialogue a significant sitting politician needed to enter the fray and MSM needed to report impartially the true state of the play on the ground at the protest. The NZ public needed to hear the full story and from different perspectives. The occupation protest could be de-escalated with a gradual, staged withdrawal from the streets around parliament, but only on the back of sincere, meaningful and concerted communication from politicians and police. The wider public environment and messaging to achieve this required an impartial news framework from MSM to reach the hearts and minds of mainstream NZ. There was a vast, angry chasm of division that needed to be bridged and the three key institutions were compromised by ignorant government led actions and inactions.

It’s 9 in the morning and I am wired. The protestors have woken up and are roaming, the generators are droning, and various free, donated breakfasts are being cooked and served from the infrastructure of food tents. It is time for me to meet the politician who has flown in at my behest. Our rendezvous is on the outskirts of the occupation in upper Molesworth Street, near police headquarters. I do not wear a mask. My bare face is my identity and street credibility. I meet David Seymour and am encouraged that Nicole Mc Kee has joined him. They are masked and ready to enter the zone. These politicians have bravely done the ‘right thing’, broken the government protocol. They know that they will likely be vilified and ostracised from an antagonistic media and an acquiescent, compliant parliament and wider electorate. It is short term political suicide. We walk briskly through the tents on pavements, campervans, trucks and cars receiving expectant flashing eyes and flickers of interest. Word will spread on the alternative organic information train, an adjunct to the new media.

We duck into the waiting, slightly ajar side door to the Backbencher, regroup and take ‘one more cup of coffee’. David has a plan of engagement. I make the phone call and we wait in the dockway. We meet the intermediaries. David outlines the parameters of engagement, and a carefully judged dialogue begins, one that will reach many leaders and influencers in the protest. Gradually a crowd forms, places change, and a line begins. I liaise with protest security to maintain the safe space. Protestors share their stories of anguish and State betrayal, with David and Nicole as their audience and witness.

The ice has been broken; the statement made. ‘Good faith’ actors are safe, genuine dialogue is respected.

I escort David and Nicole through the side of the protest encampment to parliament with only a ‘lone wolf’, yelling incoherently about Cave creek.

It’s 11 in the morning, and I am waiting. The phone starts ringing. David Seymour has directed Jenna Lynch my way for a firsthand account of the proceedings and background. We have an in-depth 25-minute interview masked as a chat and I give honest testimony to the events and their significance as to possibly being the beginning to the end of the immediate street occupation. Dialogue necessarily predicates toward solutions. Jenna wants to interview me on camera. She won’t come in personally but sends a delegation. Later that day there is a 10-minute TV3 interview recorded in the Backbencher ostensibly for the 6pm News. The NZ Herald conduct a phone interview. Newstalk ZB line up a drivetime live interview with Heather du Plessis Allan. RNZ news do a shorter phone interview, but a longer video recorded interview for Checkpoint and their website. I escort their crews in and out of the zone, without incident.

There were many incidents of MSM being abused and intimidated, some of which I witnessed, during the occupation protest. Too often during the COVID mandates dissenters and then protestor’s stories, personal truths and perspectives were cancelled or misrepresented. There was a clear perception of a hopelessly biased and corrupt media. Next to the protest being anti-mandate this was a common and unifying thread. MSM were fair game for open and public condemnation.

It’s 3 in the afternoon and I am concerned. One of the influencers has been visually identified by RNZ from the meeting in the dockway. Lisa Owen has done a gratuitous cold call to him, and he is likely to be exposed on Checkpoint.

Public exposure of any leaders, intermediaries or influencers undermines and compromises ‘good faith’ dialogue. Trust between parties is crucial and paramount to any process of honest communication. If the public exposure turns to ridicule the breakdown is probably irretrievable. The other likelihood is the ‘contact’ (intermediary) in the process of dialogue and negotiation is pointlessly lost to the negotiation process, their credibility undermined. This side hustle by Owen was completely peripheral to the real story and an obvious vacuous deflection (the intermediary had previously worked at RNZ and in the parliamentary sector so was personally known to Owen).

I call the reporter at RNZ and advise against a line of exposure reporting because of the consequences. The Checkpoint team is having a production meeting to finalise their show. I ask that they seriously consider the efficacy behind their final news reporting, especially relating to any possible positive role toward the occupation ending peacefully. If there was ever a time for genuine ‘public interest journalism’, this was it.

My pleas, testimonies and primary documentary evidence fell on deaf journalistic ears apart from Newstalk.

The main Checkpoint piece was a dismissal of the Seymour meeting with the Lisa Owen opportunistic public exposure of a protest ‘intermediary/leader’ becoming the ‘story’.

The live Newstalk ZB crossover with Heather Du Plessis Allan was honest, upbeat and reasonable, based on critical analysis and discussion.

The NZ Herald gave another pro-government commentary.

Jenna Lynch and TV3 Newshub reduced the Seymour meeting to an opportunistic political grab for attention and relevance against a background of an ACT decline in the polls, which was announced after the meeting. Lynch even gravitating to the excess of implying he conspired with “his mate, Boycie”. TV3 coverage was the biggest lie and the grandest, most brazen hitjob. Jenna had received full disclosure; she had the whole story and primary witness account.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern dominated MSM coverage of an event she had nothing to do with. By refusing dialogue and failing the ‘responsibility test’ she had little relevance to the story. She was appalled at David Seymour breaking her protocols calling it “irresponsible”, especially for a “law and order party”. Ardern offered no solutions (apart from it being a police matter) to the standoff and MSM failed to ask for any.

The chance for meaningful dialogue, communication and negotiation was effectively scuppered. The ‘good news’, ‘the positive development’ was cancelled. Major actors were humiliated and belittled. Most of the MSM undermined themselves as impartial journalists and along with the government were exposed as ‘bad faith’ actors with a pre-determined agenda. Apart from Newstalk ZB the MSM support act undermined their profession by refusing to engage in impartial critical analysis and the use of primary, witness and documentary evidence. MSM were not even prepared to ‘cut and paste’ as that would have opened up liability and the requirement to report the story accurately.

The next weekend the protest occupation had record numbers with people flooding in from all over the country. Both police and protest security had difficulty controlling law and order. Wellington city was brought to a standstill and residents unnecessarily lived in fear. The protest had ‘dug in’. A ‘Freedom Village’ was erected on parliament’s lawn that was no alcohol, no drugs, no smoking. For a time, the protest became a seething festival, and in its epicentre almost ‘peacenik’.

Further attempts at a negotiated peaceful end to the protest failed in a changing sea of leaders and bureaucratic discussion.

POSTSCRIPT – notes of interest

I had some terse phone calls and text exchanges with Jenna Lynch the next day….”do not be proud of yourself…this sort of reporting undermines media… is not a good day for NZ journalism”.

The TV3 and RNZ interviews never hit the light of day, they are ‘cancelled’, not even part of history.

RNZ ‘Mediawatch’ show no interest in discussing responsible journalism regarding the occupation protest.

Newstalk ZB ratings continued to rise. TV3 and RNZ ratings continued to plummet. ‘Magic’ no longer exists. The Platform establishes itself as a vibrant new media force.

Trust in MSM continues to slide. Live, unedited media trumps ‘cut and paste’ opinion pieces as believable genuine journalism.

Calling in the army was not considered as a solution again.

The Backbencher was the only building in the area of the occupation protest that is not tagged with anti-establishment graffiti.

The occupation protest ended in acrimonious violence and is still an open wound in the NZ psyche.