As our country prepared for an election, these marginal theories were generalized and amplified by sitting MP Jami-Lee Ross. Ross had fallen from grace this legislature: a high-profile implosion and resignation from the national center-right party, with allegations of intimidation and harassment as well as accusations of fraud in the High Court.
In a last desperate attempt at political relevance, Ross hitched his cart to the “plandemic” crowd. He led rallies and marches even during the lockdown, as the rest of us did everything to try and stop the spread of the virus. He has posted deceptive videos about forced vaccinations that can instill fear among those who are often vulnerable, anxious and susceptible.
The more people who buy into the lies, the more ticks there are on the ballot, and the more likely Ross is to return to parliament – though that was never really going to happen.
The messages he approved were reckless, erroneous and confusing. On a march I saw Ross driving down a main street in Auckland, protesters waving contradictory signs: one said Covid-19 was a hoax alongside another who said Covid- 19 was caused by 5G. Which one is it?
I had largely ignored Ross since he came to our office in the Parliamentary Press Gallery in July to tell us in a low voice that he was engaging in this conspiratorial movement.
On election night, I was in the studio co-hosting five hours of live coverage. We got off the air somewhere around midnight and I returned to the newsroom the next morning for our post-election special. That’s when I found out we had Ross on the show and I was interviewing him. His party won 0.9% of the vote, which is far from enough to return to parliament. The interview was legitimate, ending an extraordinary and destructive political career, but I nevertheless asked my producer to give him half the time we had allotted him.
I was asked about my strategy as I entered this interview which has since had a dizzying response – what my mentor and former office manager Gordon “Flash” McBride would call “wild” (he meant viral). There was no strategy. It was about giving this guy an exit interview and trying to figure out why he made some of the choices he made.
And that’s what we did, but not entirely as planned.
Ross came into the studio for the interview, sat down and said, “You’re going to be nice to me, aren’t you Tova?” You have to be nice to the losers. I was familiar with that titled, sickening tone of Ross.
No, I replied. I mostly tore up the prepared questions.
It was never about being nice or not nice, and I really wanted to know why Ross had aligned himself with the people who espouse the Covid conspiracies.
He admitted in the interview that it was a political ambition. He saw a growing movement online, and in my opinion, instead of using his privileged role and voice in Parliament to help these people understand the facts and the science, he chose to drive the hysteria and fear a new rift in power.
Variants of this story have taken place around the world. A global pandemic is sadly a petri dish for anxiety and misinformation, but it has also brought the world together in ways I never could have predicted in my life. This is probably why the interview resonated the way she did. We are united in the fact that we want to be safe.
I was just doing my job that morning and the interview didn’t go in a vacuum. Journalists around the world have been throwing lies about Covid-19, especially when adopted by powerful figures who attempt to legitimize lies.
They are the journalists who have inspired me my entire career – journalists who know that sometimes balanced reporting is not just about providing both sides of the story. It’s just the facts – the truth.
Tova O’Brien is political writer for Newshub