Letter from the editor: An assault on the fourth estate

Anna Fifield is the Wellington editor at Stuff and editor of the Dominion Post newspaper.

OPINION: Our front page on Thursday declared: Assault on democracy. It was an expansive interpretation of the protests, but given the threats and disruption to the four pillars of our democracy – the executive, the legislature, the judiciary and the press – it was one that I felt was justified.

We covered the occupation extensively during its 23 unwelcome days in our city, and we are continuing to document the aftermath.

But in this monthly missive, I try to write about journalism, so let me take you behind the news and tell you today what the occupation was like for us.

First of all, it was a huge logistical exercise. Because the protesters were so aggressive towards the media – some graphic images showed public executions of Nazi war criminals, suggesting would suffer the same fate – we sent reporters and photographers to the protest in pairs.

Given that we were starting some days at 4:30am, and finishing some days at midnight, and that this continued for 23 days straight, it created a huge workload for our team. We had editors in the office, a video journalist live-streaming from Parliament’s balcony, our press gallery reporters covering the politics, and our Wellington newsroom covering the disruption. We had to call for reinforcements from other Stuff newsrooms around the country.

READ MORE:
* Protesters dispersed after major police operation ends Parliament occupation
* Occupation latest: Three protesters in hospital with Covid, sewage down city drains
* Police spat at during ongoing Parliament protest, couple gets married on site

Police clash with protesters as they remove tents and camping equipment from the occupation site on day 23 of the anti-mandate protests Parliament in Wellington.
Braden Fastier/Stuff

Police clash with protesters as they remove tents and camping equipment from the occupation site on day 23 of the anti-mandate protests Parliament in Wellington.

Here is an incomplete list of what our resistance endured at the protest, even in pairs: They had their masks ripped off. They were breathed on and coughed on. One had his phone smashed. Some were roughed up, others were threatened with physical violence. The verbal abuse was too vile to repeat here. Others were refused entry to Parliament’s grounds. Then there was the fear of being hit with a missile of poo.

Two protesters got caught in the crossfire when the police were pepper-spraying at the end, one needing to wash his eyes out with milk. They had to run from exploding gas bottles and flying pavers. Five reporters caught Covid. We don’t know if they caught it at the occupation, but all spent time at the site.

Police clash with protesters as they remove tents and camping equipment from the occupation site on day 23 of the anti-mandate protests Parliament in Wellington.

Braden Fastier/Stuff

Police clash with protesters as they remove tents and camping equipment from the occupation site on day 23 of the anti-mandate protests Parliament in Wellington.

And yet, they kept going back to continue writing the first draft of this chapter in our history. Sometimes it was hard to get them to clock off, such was their sense of mission.

I spent a significant time down at the occupation site too, partly because I’m an unreconstructed news junkie, and partly because I wanted to understand the circumstances our team was working in and to show them I was literally there for them.

But I also found it very useful for gauging how to cover the protest and getting the tenor of our coverage right. Yes, there were lots of conspiracy theorists and fringe elements there, but there were lots of middle-of-the road people who articulated valid concerns about compulsion (although the way they conveyed those concerns were, of course, illegal).

In addition to our coverage of the huge disruption, I felt it was extremely important to talk to the protesters themselves to try to understand their motivations. Why did they feel so strongly that they’d sleep in a tent during a cyclone and use disgusting portaloos for weeks on end?

Anna Fifield, Dominion Post editor.

MONIQUE FORD/Stuff

Anna Fifield, Dominion Post editor.

I strongly believe that we need to try to understand other people, that we can’t just talk and listen to people who think the same things as us. Otherwise, we end up in American-style cultural silos.

But we needed to dig into this without repeating mis- or disinformation, or without succumbing to “whataboutism.” And we needed to do it without putting our mice in harm’s way.

Of course, my inbox has been overflowing with complaints that we gave too much air time to the protesters, and a similar deluge saying we didn’t give them enough. There will be plenty of time for reflection, and of course we want to be held to account for our coverage.

But as the dust settles, I feel very proud to have been part of this team these past few weeks. And looking at the gargantuan numbers of views on our stories and live-stream these past few weeks, I can see that many of you appreciated our coverage too.

Thank you for subscribing to the Dominion Post or donating to Stuff. Clickbait is cheap, but the kind of exhaustive and exhausting journalism we’ve done these past 23 days costs real money. Now, I owe some days off…

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