Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Graham Adams: Film-makers follow the money on ‘disinformation’ bandwagon

Web of Chaos gets a rerun on TVNZ; River of Freedom out in the cold.

If you are a film-maker looking for an injection of taxpayer cash, a pitch focused on fake news purportedly propagated by “conspiracy theorists” looks to be a good bet — as long as it is “far-right” groups who are depicted as the shadowy forces pulling the strings of a gullible New Zealand public.

The nation’s state funding agencies seem to have a voracious appetite for such politically loaded fare. In the past few years, NZ on Air, Te Māngai Pāho and the Film Commission have financed Fire and Fury, Web of Chaos, Trick or Treaty? and Jacindamania.

In fact, exposing disinformation allegedly put about by the far-right is looking like becoming a genre all of its own. Exposing the disinformation disseminated by the far-left — and by the state itself (as the Twitter Files revealed) — doesn’t seem to hold a similar appeal for our film-makers and cultural commissars. In fact, you might conclude the left generally is blameless, despite even its run-of-the-mill activists being dedicated to promoting radical transgender ideology, extravagant climate-change scenarios, selective state censorship and anti-democratic Māori nationalism. A cynic might think the “far-right” includes anyone to the right of Te Pāti Māori or the Greens.

Fire and Fury — first shown in August 2022 and funded with up to $324,000 from NZ on Air — was an attempt by Stuff journalist Paula Penfold and her colleagues to expose the motives of those so deeply opposed to vaccination mandates they camped out in front of Parliament for more than three weeks. The documentary-makers made it clear that, in their view, the protesters were in thrall to right-wing extremists and white supremacists (despite the disproportionate number of Māori and Pasifika in the encampment).

Three months later, in November 2022, TVNZ’s Web of Chaos — funded by NZ on Air with up to $238,575 of public money — was released. Promoted as a “deep dive into the world of disinformation… and the striking consequences for social cohesion and democracy”, it implied that Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump in 2016 were the result of internet manipulation and not a true expression of the will of voters.

Web of Chaos also painted the protesters in Wellington who were unhappy with the state’s Covid management policies as easy prey for “white supremacists” and “white nationalists”, who apparently had the ability to turn aggrieved citizens into closet revolutionaries.

Kate Hannah, from the shadowy Disinformation Project — its own funding a closely guarded secret — informed viewers that the fad for some women becoming “trad wives”, dedicated to baking and knitting, can be a front for white nationalism (cue images of girls with blonde hair running in a golden field as a sinister signal).

Allied to this is “extremely toxic masculinity”, which leads to “very fixed ideas about gender roles, race, ethnic identity, national identity, nationalism and rights to things like free speech”.

In December 2023, journalist Mihingarangi Forbes’ documentary Trick or Treaty? Indigenous rights, Referendums and the Treaty of Waitangi was shown on TVNZ as part of Mata Reports (a series which received $452,198 from NZ on Air and $452,000 from Te Māngai Pāho).

Forbes’ 25-minute exercise in agitprop focused on demonising The Atlas Network, an international hub for free-market thinktanks chaired by New Zealander Debbi Gibbs in New

York. As a result, Trick or Treaty? has the dubious distinction of using taxpayer funds to create its own wildly successful conspiracy theory in alleging the network is the puppeteer for everyone from David Seymour to the Taxpayers’ Union — despite there being no evidence other than “guilt” by loose association.

In the aftermath of Forbes’ documentary, that flimsy insinuation has been taken up enthusiastically by the left as evidence that Christopher Luxon’s coalition government is controlled by covert overseas interests.

In March 2024, news came that the NZ Film Commission had put $800,000 towards the production of a film with the working title Jacindamania — with commentators predicting it is likely to be eligible for a further $1.2 million in taxpayer money through the Screen Production Rebate scheme.

The commission was keen to let the public know Jacindamania wouldn’t be a biopic of the former Prime Minister per se: “Rather, the documentary explores the rise of violent extremism and online hate in New Zealand, following Jacinda Ardern’s leadership trajectory as an example of how these forces played out through one of the most tumultuous periods in modern times.”

It goes without saying that obscure figures on the “far-right” are undoubtedly in for another expensive, taxpayer-funded beating as the purported source of such social media “hate”. Certainly, the fact that Justin Pemberton, who directed Web of Chaos, is co-writing and directing Jacindamania does nothing to dispel those apprehensions.

Taxpayers who are helping to fund the film will have to wait until its release in August 2025 to find out exactly what their money has bought. Meanwhile, Web of Chaos is, inexplicably, having a revival on TVNZ. It was shown on 19 May in the slot vacated by the cancelled current affairs programme Sunday.

It would be fair to say it hasn’t aged well in the 18 months since it was first shown. In fact, its overblown rhetoric and style led Family First’s Bob McCoskrie to tweet: “TVNZ+ pushed that hilarious comedy ‘Web of Chaos’ again tonight. In case you missed it & for the benefit of all the trad mums who use Pinterest and braid their daughter’s blonde hair, this is dedicated to you! You are the problem! See if you can watch it without laughing!”

Last week, retired judge and media analyst David Harvey tried to fathom what might have persuaded TVNZ to recycle Web of Chaos. On his blog, “A Halfling’s View”, he noted: “Although it is nearly two years old — an aeon in internet time — TVNZ screened this programme of doubtful accuracy on Sunday 19 May in the time slot replacing ‘Sunday’. This is not the first time it has been screened.

“The question that occupied my mind was ‘why would they rescreen this show?’ I have no evidence-based answer although I have a suspicion. On 30 April 2024… the Department of Internal Affairs announced — confirmed by the Minister of Internal Affairs, Ms Brooke van Velden — that it was no longer continuing with the Safer Online Services and Media Platforms project. Is it possible that the screening of this documentary is an answer to the government’s abandonment of the censorship regime that was proposed by the DIA?”

It is clear that the free-wheeling nature of much of the internet and social media (particularly X / Twitter under Elon Musk’s ownership) is the biggest threat to the legacy media’s historical role as the gatekeepers of information and acceptable opinion. In an effort to maintain control, journalists and documentary-makers — abetted by state funding agencies — continue to pump out programmes highlighting what they see as the internet’s manipulative influence over the lumpenproletariat, whose base and gullible natures can only be held in check by strict government oversight and regulation.

Alternative viewpoints struggle to get a look-in. Not least because the state-owned broadcaster TVNZ is one of the principal gatekeepers for what projects get made and whether they will be taxpayer funded — inasmuch as successful applicants for public cash need to have an approved platform lined up for their film in advance.

An example that highlights TVNZ’s bias is its refusal to engage with the makers of River of Freedom, which is an insiders’ account of the 2022 Wellington protest. If TVNZ were truly dedicated to the balance prescribed by the Broadcasting Act 1989, it would screen the 150-minute film to provide a counter-weight to the highly critical coverage of the protest in other documentaries, including Web of Chaos.

The Act instructs broadcasters to ensure that “when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest…”

Given that an inquiry into Covid management is in train, and Web of Chaos has been rescreened this month and is available on TVNZ, River of Freedom is clearly topical. And, what’s more, this month TVNZ showed an insiders’ view of the 2004 hikoi to Parliament to oppose Helen Clark’s Foreshore and Seabed Bill, marking the 20th anniversary of the march.

Hikoi: Speaking Our Truth, which is extremely close in format and style to River of Freedom, was financed by state agency Te Māngai Pāho to the tune of $369,000. River of Freedom, in contrast, was entirely crowd-funded.

Gaylene Barnes, the film’s director, writer and producer, told The Platform the film has grossed $400,000 at the box office since its release last September, making it the third-best-performing New Zealand film for 2023, according to figures from IMDb’s Box Office Mojo. (The return to the filmmaker is between 20-30 per cent of the gross.)

Screened in 54 cinemas the length of the country for a limited season late last year — and praised by critics, including Sean Plunket — the film found a wide audience, especially in the provinces. Consequently the question arises — if Hikoi: Speaking Our Truth is screened, why not River of Freedom too?

Barnes says she received no response from Jude Callen, TVNZ’s Commissioner of Documentaries and Special Interest Programming, when she emailed her in mid-2022 to gauge the channel’s interest in her project.

My own email in mid-May to Callen asked:

“River of Freedom was a well-made film that, like Hikoi, focused on people coming from all over New Zealand to protest outside Parliament over a perceived injustice. Both films unashamedly told their story from the point of view of the protesters. Both films documented an important event that had a significant effect on the nation’s politics. Given TVNZ’s promotion and streaming of Hikoi, can you tell me:

“1. Does TVNZ intend to broadcast / stream River of Freedom?

“2. If it doesn’t, can you explain why (particularly given its similarities to Hikoi in format and approach to documenting a protest)?”

There has been no response.

Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist. This article was originally published by and is published here with kind permission.


Anonymous said...

What a weird place "Aotearoa" seems to be today........

Anonymous said...

This funding isn't surprising when you look at the political appointments on the boards of NZ on Air, , NZ on Air, Te Māngai Pāho and the Film Commission as well as Creative NZ. Te Māngai Pāho is by its nature racist so its clear where their political sympathies lie.. The chair the NZ Film Commission (funding Jacindamania) is Alistair Curruthers, who is Jacinda's personal friend. He and is partner, Peter Gordon, planned her wedding. All these bodies should be defunded. Their members are free to express their political views if they like, but why should they do so at taxpayer's expense?

TJS said...

The Film Commission has always been stacked. Can't be any surprises there.

Anonymous said...

Graham, awesome work mate. We need to have a well rounded and unbiased media. We have anything but. Keep up the good work holding these racists to account.

Martin Hanson said...

"Promoted as a 'deep dive into the world of disinformation… and the striking consequences for social cohesion and democracy' . . . .”
This cynical use of the word 'democracy' has an Owellian tone when set against Jacinda Ardern's March 19 2020 public statement to reporters:
"We will continue to be your single source of truth," and that, "Unless you hear it from us, it is not the truth."
Evidently no one asked her how her statement was compatible with democracy, the central pillar of which is freedom of speech, and in particular, freedom to express views that were contrary to what Big Sister said.