A new Stuff documentary, Fire and Fury probes the beliefs and backgrounds of the inciters driving the 2022 New Zealand Parliament protests.
The work – by the Stuff Circuit investigative team – has drawn 1.39 million views.
In an INMA Ideas Blog, investigations and special projects journalist Paula Penfold tells how in January 2022, protestors inspired by the “truckers’ convoy” in Canada rallied in Wellington in opposition to COVID-19 vaccines and mandates.
They set up camp in the grounds of Parliament, settling into a month-long occupation which ended only when police finally moved to shut it down, leading to a violent riot.
Stuff’s investigative team delved into the beliefs and backgrounds of the inciters driving the protest, the key spreaders of mis- and disinformation, and how they were recruiting mainstream New Zealanders to their cause. Their investigations were released on the platform and reported across Stuff’s range of digital and print products.
At the Parliament protest, leaders tried to convey the occupation as one of “peace and love” that was concerned only with government COVID-19 response measures. “But when they started talking about making the country ‘ungovernable’ and calling for a military overthrow of the government, it became clear there was a more concerning agenda,” says Penfold.
“Hundreds of hours of the key protest drivers’ own video was analysed and that footage used to show what was really driving these disseminators of disinformation, how they were all interconnected, and that their messages were not all concerned with peace and love.”
A rigorous and unusual editorial process was used, concluding with the rare journalistic decision not to give the protagonists a right to reply. “We published an op-ed the day before the release of the documentary, explaining the rationale for this unusual decision and why we had decided to give them coverage at all.”
The resulting 63-minute documentary, Fire and Fury, is Stuff Circuit’s most controversial piece of work to date – and its most-watched. With more than 1.39 million views, it significantly outperformed television current affairs viewership figures, and its evergreen nature means even months after publication, significant numbers of viewers are still watching.
Fire and Fury also led to an unpleasant backlash. “Our journalists received threatening responses and unprecedented levels of abuse that required us to elevate our security,” says Penfold.
But outweighing that were unprecedented levels of audience engagement, positive feedback, and appreciation for the work. “Many viewers expressed their thanks for giving them the means to have a difficult conversation with family members who had fallen for conspiracy theories.
“On platforms where the protagonists garner the most support (mainly Telegram), we saw a significant decrease in their followers in the months after Fire and Fury. Anti-vaccination group Voices For Freedom shed thousands of followers between August and December 2022.
“The New Zealand Media Council subsequently supported our unconventional editorial decisions in a landmark decision for journalists forced to navigate how to report dangerous speech, calling it a ‘rare case’ where a response from the protagonists was not required.