“The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power” The First Season Review

I reviewed the first four episodes of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” in September 2022.

The first series is completed and is available on Amazon Prime. In this review I shall make a number of observations about the series which could amount to “spoilers”. Readers are warned.

By the end of the first series we have seen the creation (or ruin) of Mordor by a bizarre combination of fire and water, the creation of the three Elven Rings (Vilya, Nenya and Narya) and the appearance of Sauron (who had been present for some time in the guise of a Deceiver). In addition the Stranger who fell from the sky, and who is possessed of enormous power, has decided to head east of the Greenwood in the company of Nori the proto-hobbit. The forces of Numenor lead by Tar-Miriel the Regent Queen and Elendil, prompted by Galadriel, have landed in Middle-earth, encountered and overcome the Southern band of Orcs and have installed Halbrand as the Returned King of the South. However, in the creation (or ruin) of Mordor Tar-Miriel has been blinded and the future of her rule is therefore in question.

I expressed some concern in my earlier review about the truncation of the time line. I was prepared to allow for narrative flow and the nature of adaptation in my earlier review, but the compression of events creates its peculiar difficulties with Tolkien’s chronology which demands a scope of centuries. What has happened is that everything seems to have tumbled in on top of one another without an opportunity for the  audience, or indeed the characters, to react to the impact of the various events.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that Tolkien aficionados will be aware of the content in “The Silmarillion” and “Unfinished Tales” along the “The Children of Huirin”, “Beren and Luthien” and “The Fall of Gondolin”.  Then there are the various retellings and narrative developments in the multi-volume “History of Middle-earth”(The “Fall of Numenor” which is directly relevant to the series and edited by Brian Sibley has only very recently been published).

Because of the arrangements that were made between Amazon and the Tolkien Estate only a very limited amount of material is available for use, and the show-runners have to fill in some rather large gaps – gaps for which information is available but because of licensing arrangements cannot be used.

Thus we get hints of a deeper time, a long past history, an enormous conflict between the Elves and the powers of Evil in the form of Morgoth, but as to the detail of Morgoth’s villainy, the making of the Silmarils (and what they were) by Feanor, their theft by Morgoth and the fearful acts of Feanor seeking the Silmarils driven by deep revenge there is but a hint. But these aspects are vital to an understanding of the events of the Second Age.

We receive hints of the Bliss of Valinor, a land without stain and a place of retreat for the Elves but we are not informed of the fact that while Elves have a duality of nature, the Race of Men have the Gift of Men – death – and cannot pass into Valinor – with one exception.

The glory of Valinor is hinted at when Celebrimbor is attempting to make the Three Elven Rings. He requires metal of a quality unknown in Middle-earth. Galadriel surrenders the knife given her by her brother Finrod (she did in fact have three other brothers and she was a niece of Feanor himself) which is melted down and provides the purity of material required.

At the beginning of the series Galadriel is on a quest for Sauron whom she believes survived the overthrow of Morgoth – but of that overthrow once again we get a hint. Importantly we are not told that in fact the land of Numenor was granted to the faithful Men as a reward for their part in the overthrow of Morgoth. Nor are we told of the prohibition on the Men of Numenor sailing westward to Valinor the peaks of which can be seen over the ocean.

In the First Age one man only set foot on Valinor – Earendil, bearing a Silmaril who sought the aid of the Valar in the war against Morgoth. That aid was forthcoming, but Earendil was not permitted to return to the land of the living and was places as a Star in the heavens by the Valar – The Flammifer of Westernesse.

Earendil is of critical importance in the “back story” to the Rings of Power yet because of the paucity of material in “The Lord of the Rings” that back story cannot be developed as it should be. Earendil was married to the elf-princess Elwing the White. They had two children – Elros and Elrond. After the defeat of Morgoth the children were given a choice of the race to which they wished to belong. Elros chose his “Race of Men” side and became first King of Numenor, taking the name Tar-Minyatur. Elrond chose his Elven side. Once again this is hinted at in comments by the way, but the familial connection between Elrond and the Royal House of Numenor has fallen by the wayside.

From time to time this deeper background is mentioned but only in passing. We are thrown into a sequence of events that obviously has a significant precursor, but the details of that precursor are unknown. Once again the problem lies in the fact that the show runners are limited in the material that they can use. It must be very difficult, I suppose, to have references to Earendil in LOTR and be limited to using those but knowing that there is a huge trove of information available in material elsewhere. But that material is unavailable because the rights have not been purchased.

This then demonstrates the first major difficulty that the first season and indeed the series faces – the material that they can use is very limited indeed. The hints that appear in LOTR and in the Appendices requires a large amount of imagination to fill in the gaps. I suppose a further difficulty lies in the fact that imagination cannot be let to run riot, especially when much of the material which could fill in the gaps is available elsewhere but unusable because of licensing arrangements.

One of the critical questions that the first season answered was “who was Sauron?” The show runners posed a number of tantalizing alternatives. Was he the Stranger, possessed of considerable power, who fell from the sky and was taken in by the proto-hobbits? Was he one of the curious  menacing three white witches? It turned out that in fact they were Seekers for Sauron who mistakenly identified the Stranger as Morgoth’s servant, and the Stranger eliminated them.

Was he, then, the master of the Southern Orcs – the fallen elf Adar. That was fairly easily dismissed. The final revelation that Halbrand was Sauron was a little hard to work out. Part of the problem was that Halbrand didn’t exactly have the charisma (or maybe a better term is menace) for the Dark Lord and Morgoth’s most faithful lieutenant.

But upon reflection finally identifying Halbrand as Sauron was in the nature of finally revealing a deception. That is consistent with the approach that Sauron adopted when he manifested himself as Annatar – the Bringer of Gifts. His entire approach was one of deception, even to the point of claiming to be the lost King of the Southern Lands (which later became Mordor). At one stage, while working as a smith in the forge of Celebrimbor, he makes reference to a gift – a subtle hint to his identity as Annatar.

It is a bit difficult to work out what Sauron is about. What are his objectives. That he was involved at least in the early stages of Celebrimbor’s quest to find a solution for the problems that beset the Elves in Middle-earth is a little concerning, yet he was not in any way involved in the creation of the Three Rings. And indeed the creation of the Three seems to be more a matter of accident than of part of a greater ring-making design.

Tolkien tells us that the Elves of Eregion made the Three in secret, but I always had the impression that this was contemporaneously with Sauron’s master-plan to create Rings for the peoples of Middle-earth that would be linked to the One that was forged in the fires of Mt Doom.

So far there is no sign of the Seven Rings for the Dwarves nor the Nine for Mortal Men. And indeed the last episode of the first season ends with Sauron entering the newly formed land of Mordor which was previously the South land of which he claimed to be King.

Clearly there is a lot more to come and I imagine that subsequent seasons will address the issues of the forging of the Seven, the Nine and the One. It must not be forgotten too that Sauron is humbled and taken to Numenor where he works his evil and his deception that brings about the downfall of the Land of Gift.

Clearly there is more scope for this in subsequent seasons, but one of the problems that the show runners are going to face is one of their making and that is the one to which I have made reference – that of time compression. How they will be able to fit all that is to come within their time scale and yet maintain the integrity of Tolkien’s vision will be a challenge.

The Dwarves and the proto-hobbits caused me some problems in the sense that the way that they were portrayed had elements of a caricature to them. Clearly the visual appearance of the Dwarves owed much to the way in which some of them were portrayed in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” films, particularly to the large proboscis-like noses. I thought that this was a bit overdone.

The proto-hobbits too had elements of caricature to them. We know from the Prologue to “The Lord of the Rings” that the hobbits began as a migratory people who ended up in the Shire. We know that they were based on the archetypal English yeoman based in the country rather than in a larger town or village. But the prot-hobbits were not only bucolic but downright eccentric. They seemed to bumble about in a chaotic manner with very little structure in what they did. Their attitudes were those of extreme rustic primitivism to the extent of having foliage in their hair. This may have been designed to bring a light-hearted element to the show but there is humour on one hand and downright caricature on the other. If the proto-hobbits are going to play a role – and I suspect that they are – it might be better if they “wise-up” a bit and drop the bucolic caricature.

As things stand by the end of the first season the split between the main body of the proto-hobbits and the adventurous Nori has taken place as Nori accompanies the Stranger to the East. The Dwarves maintain their tenuous relationship with the Elves – especially the friendship between Elrond and Prince Durin and the discovery of mithril (and the existence of the Balrog in the dark depths of Khazad-dum) has become the central feature in that relationship.

I wonder if the mithril has been invested with a bit too much significance in “Rings of Power”. In “The Lord of the Rings” it was a thing of wonder, often hinted at when it was discovered that Frodo was wearing a suit of mithril mail.

However, the “Rings of Power” took the significance of mithril to an entirely different level and not one that I am sure is justified. There is a suggestion that somehow mithril has within it the light of a Silmaril or perhaps even of the Two Trees of Valinor.

It is dealt with in the following way:

Elrond recounts an apocryphal tale called The Song of the Roots of Hithaeglir. This song claims the origin of mithril to be when an Elf-warrior and a Balrog fought over a certain tree in the Misty Mountains that contained the light of the last Silmaril. It was then that lightning struck the tree, sending out tendrils of ore into the roots of the mountains beneath. Gil-galad and Celebrimbor believe this tale to be true, and furthermore that the remnants of the Silmaril’s light in mithril could save the Elven race from fading and being forced to return to Valinor.

This is an interesting concept but has no substance in the sources. There is no suggestion anywhere in Tolkien’s writings that there was a tree in the Misty Mountains that contained the light of a Silmaril – nor anywhere else for that matter. The light of the Trees of Valinor was captured by Feanor in the Silmarils and that is as far as it went.

The closest one could get to any suggestion of ethereal light is that the Elves of Eregion made an alloy from mithril called ithildin (“star moon”), used to decorate gateways, portals and pathways. It was visible only by starlight or moonlight. The West Gate of Moria bore inlaid ithildin designs and runes.

The Elven Ring Nenya (The Ring of Adamant) was described as being made of mithril and set with a “white stone”, presumably a diamond (this is never stated explicitly, although the usage of the word “adamant”, an old synonym, is strongly suggestive). The ring was wielded by Galadriel in Lothlórien, and possessed radiance that matches that of the stars. Frodo Baggins was able to see it by virtue of being a Ring-bearer.

So the first season ends with a number of pieces in play. The scene has been set for further developments in following seasons. It would be idle and unprofitable to speculate on what might happen although we do know that Pharazon the Numenorean Chancellor usurps the throne of Numenor, becomes Ar-Pharazon the Golden, humbles Sauron and brings him to Numenor. He falls under Sauron’s sway and leads an expedition to Valinor, the Undying Lands, whereupon his fleet is destroyed and the Valar call upon Iluvatar to destroy Numenor which sinks beneath the waves.

Sauron in spirit form returns to Mordor and resumes residence in the Dark Tower, Barad-Dur. Seven ships, bearing the Faithful, Elendil the Tall, his son Isildur and their followers, sail to Middle-earth to establish the Kingdoms in exile. The Seven Dwarven Rings and the Nine for  Mortal Men doomed to die are yet to be crafted, as is the One.

I have focused in this review upon certain aspects of the first season. As I suggested in my earlier review of the first  four episodes there are beautiful moments in the series that capture my imagining of Tolkien’s creation. This continues throughout the first season. The visual renderings are remarkable and the wreck that leads to the formation Mt Doom of Mordor is quite spectacular. As I observed in my earlier review, much is owed to Jackson’s earlier visualization.

The rendering of Numenor – a civilization of power and magnificence – is excellent and some of the scenes in Lindon capture the Elvish interrelationship with nature. The Dwarf realm of Khazad-dum is likewise magnificently rendered and the series succeeds visually if nothing else. As earlier observed there are some casting issues that I have which grate a little. I didn’t see Celebrimbor as a somewhat effete alchemist – rather a hands-on smith and inheritor of the craft skills of Feanor. Gil-Galad remains a disappointment.

The cast and crew went back to work in early October 2022 filming this time in the UK rather than in New Zealand. Although Covid interrupted the first season filming which took 18 months to film, there can be no doubt that many of the special effects and other production values would have taken time.

The head of Amazon Studios Jennifer Salke has said they are not willing to rush and she told Variety

“We want the shortest time possible between seasons, but we want to keep the bar just as high. So it’ll take what it takes but there’s been some urgency around moving quickly, which is why these guys have been writing all through their hiatus. We’re moving fast.”

Season 2 may be out in late 2023 (one wonders if like the release of the books Amazon holds to a September release date) but early 2024 would probably be more realistic. It will be interesting to see how Season 2 develops the story.


Religious “Hate Speech” under the Human Rights Act 1993


The Minister of Justice has released the long-awaited “hate speech” proposals. The press release dated 19 November 2022 states:

“Currently, under the Human Rights Act 1993, it is illegal to publish or distribute threatening, abusive, or insulting words likely to ‘excite hostility against’ or ‘bring into contempt’ any group on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins. Those grounds will now be extended, in both the civil (section 61) and criminal (section 131) provisions, to cover religious belief.”

This article considers the policy that has been announced and is a “first impression” overview of the proposal.

Before considering whether such changes need to be made – a different consideration to whether they should be made – it is important to understand how the Human Rights Act works in practice.

Human Rights Act – Sections 61 and 131

The Act prohibits a number of discriminatory practices in relation to various activities and services.[1] It also prohibits indirect discrimination which is an effects based form of activity.[2] Victimisation or less favourable treatment based on making certain disclosures is prohibited.[3] Discrimination in advertising along with provisions dealing with sexual or racial harassment are the subject of provisions.[4]

The existing provisions relating to racial disharmony as a form of discrimination and racial harassment are contained in section 61 and 63 of the Act.[5]

There are two tests under section 61. One is an examination of the content of the communication. Is it threatening, abusive or insulting? If that has been established the next test is to consider whether it is:

  1. Likely to excite hostility against or
  2. Bring into contempt

any group of persons either in or coming to New Zealand on the ground of colour, race or ethnic or national origins.

Section 131 of the Human Rights Act 1993 creates the offence of inciting racial disharmony[6]. The unlawfulness of the communication in s.61 becomes an offence under s. 131. Pursuant to section 132 a prosecution for an offence under section 131 requires the approval of the Attorney-General.

These provisions could well apply to “dangerous speech” – a terms that I prefer to the emotionally overburdened term “hate speech”.

Is it necessary, therefore, to extend the existing categories in sections 61 and 131 to include religion.


Clearly if one were to add religion, threatening, abusive or insulting language about adherents of the Islamic faith would fall within the first limb of the section 61(1) test. But is it necessary that religion be added? And should this be simply because a religious group was targeted?

The difficulty with including threatening, abusive or insulting language against groups based upon religion means that not only would Islamaphobic “dangerous speech” be caught, but so too would the anti-Christian, anti-West, anti “Crusader” rhetoric of radical Islamic jihadi groups be caught.

Would the remarks by Winston Peters condemning the implementation of strict sharia law in Brunei that would allow the stoning of homosexuals and adulterers be considered speech that insults members of a religion?[7]

A further difficulty with religious-based speech is that often there are doctrinal differences that can lead to strong differences of opinion that are strongly voiced. Often the consequences for doctrinal heresy will be identified as having certain consequences in the afterlife.

Doctrinal disputes, often expressed in strong terms, have been characteristics of religious discourse for centuries. Indeed the history of the development of the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press was often in the context of religious debate and dissent.

It may well be that to add a category of religion or religious groups will have unintended consequences and have the effect of stifling or chilling debate about religious belief.

An example of the difficulty that may arise with restrictions on religious speech may be demonstrated by the statement “God is dead.” This relatively innocuous statement may be insulting or abusive to members of theist groups who would find a fundamental aspect of their belief system challenged.

For some groups such a statement may be an invitation to violence against the speaker.

Yet the same statement could be insulting or abusive to atheists as well simply for the reason that for God to be dead presupposes the existence of God which challenges a fundamental aspect of atheist belief.

This example illustrates the danger of placing religious discourse into the unlawful categories of discrimination.

If it were to be determined that religious groups would be added to those covered by section 61, stronger wording relating to the consequences of speech should be applicable to such groups. Instead of merely “exciting hostility against” or “bring into contempt” based upon religious differences perhaps the wording should be “advocating and encouraging physical violence against..” .

This would have the effect of being a much stronger test than exists at present under section 61 and recognizes the importance of religious speech and doctrinal dispute.

At the moment the test in the Human Rights Act is what may be called a “harmful tendency” test – an approach that is problematical in that there need be no immediacy of danger. This contrasts with the “immediacy” or “emergency” test which requires that the speech carry with it a threat of imminent danger of physical harm. This more stringent test would bring the speech within a justifiable limitation of the s. 14 NZBORA guarantee of freedom of expression.

Those who advocate a “harmful tendency” test claim that although there may be no immediacy of harm, nevertheless repetition of the message may elevate the risk. In my view it would have to be proven that mere repetition removes the speech from the viewpoint neutral harmful tendency position to that of immediacy of harm.

The UK Approach

The issue of restrictions on religious speech are the subject of a specific exception in the UK. I refer to section 29J of the Public Order Act 1986 (United Kingdom), which provides:

Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.

The Christchurch Royal Commission’s view was that such an exception would make the offence of inciting racial or religious disharmony – especially the latter – unworkable. This is correct if indeed it were deemed necessary to have religion included in the Human Rights Act categories. It seems that the Royal Commission was putting the cart before the horse.

The UK exception goes to the quality of the discourse and recognises that religious debate can become passionate and heated.

The exception does not go so far as to allow for the advocacy of violence or hostile action which which would fulfil the immediacy or emergency test. It could be argued that because the immediacy test targets consequences rather than content, an exception such as that appearing in section 28J is not required, in that section 29J merely states examples of freedom of expression which are likely to occur and have occurred over the centuries in religious debate.

However, the inclusion of such an exception would provide protection for adherents of all religious faiths who wish to engage in the robust debate that often surrounds matters of belief.


Towards the end of her press release the Minister made the following comment:

“Some of the debate on this topic over the last year been disappointing, and at times deliberately divisive and misleading, particularly in regard to the proposals that were out for consultation. This is not, and never has been, about the Government wanting to restrict free speech.”

There can be no doubt that this Government characterises dissent or a contrary view as misleading or misinformation. The Minister’s comment continues that hostility towards opposing views. To characterise debate as “disappointing” fails to recognise the importance of debate and the contending views that are present in the community.

Her last sentence is naïve in the extreme. The proposed amendment, while constituting a significant retreat from early pronouncements on the subject of “hate speech” is all about a restriction on freedom of expression – a concept that is wider than “freedom of speech”. People should not only be able to articulate a point of view. Others have a right to hear it.

Perhaps the Minister needs to be made aware of the fact that section 14 NZBORA guarantee not only protects the outward flow of communication – the act of communicating or articulating an idea – but the inward flow as well – the reception of a communication.

In my opinion the proposed change has not been justified and should not be the subject of an amendment to the Human Rights Act 1993.

[1] Human Rights Act 1993 sections 21 – 63.

[2] Ibid section 65.

[3] Ibid section 66

[4] Ibid sections 67 and 69.

[5] The provisions of section 61(1) state:

(1)           It shall be unlawful for any person—

(a)           to publish or distribute written matter which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, or to broadcast by means of radio or television or other electronic communication words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or

(b)           to use in any public place as defined in section 2(1) of the Summary Offences Act 1981, or within the hearing of persons in any such public place, or at any meeting to which the public are invited or have access, words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or

(c)           to use in any place words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting if the person using the words knew or ought to have known that the words were reasonably likely to be published in a newspaper, magazine, or periodical or broadcast by means of radio or television,—

being matter or words likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons in or who may be coming to New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons.

It should be noted that Internet based publication is encompassed by the use of the words “or other electronic communication”.

[6] The provisions of section 131 state:

  •  Every person commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months or to a fine not exceeding $7,000 who, with intent to excite hostility or ill-will against, or bring into contempt or ridicule, any group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons,—
  •  publishes or distributes written matter which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, or broadcasts by means of radio or television words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or
  •  uses in any public place (as defined in section 2(1) of the Summary Offences Act 1981), or within the hearing of persons in any such public place, or at any meeting to which the public are invited or have access, words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting,—

being matter or words likely to excite hostility or ill-will against, or bring into contempt or ridicule, any such group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons.

  •  For the purposes of this section, publishes or distributes and written matter have the meaning given to them in section 61.

[7] Derek Cheng “Winston Peters criticizes Brunei for imposing strict Sharia law” NZ Herald 31 March 2019 https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12217917



Bruce Cotterill wrote an opinion piece for the New Zealand Herald. It was published on Saturday 5 November 2022. It was about free speech and entitled “Free speech – worth speaking up for.” It presented some important and compelling arguments in support of the importance and necessity of freedom of speech.

Mr Cotterill’s article attracted some comment. Even something as fundamentally important as freedom of speech is a contentious topic. Critics of advocates of free speech use the ability to express themselves freely in opposition. If it were not for free speech they would be unable to do so. That in itself demonstrates the vital importance of freedom of expression.

One critic of Mr Cotterill’s piece took him to task for conflating freedom of speech issues and disinformation. The reasoning is clear. There is a move afoot to point out and deal with disinformation. That in itself is a freedom of speech issue. No matter how wrong headed a point of view might be, if there is no immediacy of physical harm caused by the expression of the point of view, freedom of expression allows it to be communicated.

I should observe at this stage that rather than the term “Free speech” I prefer to use “freedom of expression.” There are two reasons for this.

The first is that is the term that is used in Section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

The second is that the right as expressed in section 14 recognises that freedom of expression is a two way street. There is the right to impart information and opinions of any kind in any form – what could be called the “outward flow”. There is also the right to seek and receive information and opinions of any kind in any form – what could be called the “inward flow”.

In the discussion that follows I go another step further than Mr Cotterill and conflate what is referred to generically as “hate speech” with disinformation. Both concepts have freedom of expression implications. My reasons for conflating the concepts will become clear in what follows.

My discussion commences with a prologue, highlighting some of the remarks made by the Primes Minister of New Zealand Ms Jacinda Ardern at the United Nations General Assembly.

These remarks set the stage for the discussion that follows. The starting point for that discussion is the announcement by the Minister of Justice Ms Kiri Allan that “hate speech” legislation – legislation that has had a gestation period that would rival that of a blue whale – will be enacted by the general election in 2023.

The discussion then moves to consider two documentaries that were screened on television during the week of 31 October 2022. One is entitled “Web of Chaos”. The other was the final episode of the series “A Question of Justice” and addresses hate crimes.

I then go on to make some observations about the climate of fear that has continued to develop in New Zealand, fed not only by documentaries such as “Fire and Fury” and “Web of Chaos” but also by some disturbing and sonorous remarks by the Director of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, Ms Rebecca Kitteridge.

Taken collectively these various events and pronouncements provide a backdrop against which a discussion of hate speech legislation, mis/disinformation and the tension with the freedom of expression is going to take place.

I pose a question – taken from the opening lines of a 1967 song by Buffalo Springfield entitled “For What its Worth” – “There’s something happening here?


On 23rd September 2022 Prime Minister Ardern addressed the United Nations General Assembly. She spoke generally of the issues of the day before segueing into a discussion of the new weapons of war, referring to cyber-attacks, prolific disinformation and the manipulation of communities and societies.

The cyberattacks are easily understood. It was the second part that was concerning because the weapons to which Ms Ardern referred were words.

She quickly reassured her audience that “even those most light touch approaches to disinformation could be misinterpreted as being hostile to the values of free speech we value so highly”.

Yet within moments she retreated from that view when she posed the rhetorical question  “How do you tackle climate change, if people do not believe it exists?”

The answer becomes clear when you line that comment up against the claim made during the height of the COVID pandemic that the Government was the sole source of truth. The answer is to shut down speech that is hostile to the received wisdom of the Government.

If there is to be a move towards further restrictions of speech – and this is in the wind following the announcement during the week of 30 October that the Minister of Justice will introduce “hate speech” legislation before the next election – who is to decide what speech should be restricted? When does opinion become misinformation? What is an accurate opinion as opposed to an inaccurate one? When does mis/disinformation become “hate speech?” If the law manages to shut down one side of an argument the community is the poorer for being unable to evaluate an alternative view.

Two Documentaries

On 1 November 2022, TV1 screened the documentary “Web of Chaos”. The following day, Prime screened the fourth instalment of the series “A Question of Justice” which addressed hate crimes.

I shall start my consideration of the documentaries by explaining why I conflate disinformation and hate speech.

The predominant theme of “Web of Chaos” is that of disinformation and the way that online networks have enabled its spread. Sadly, at no time is disinformation defined. This is curious because much of the documentary contains interviews or commentary from two academics involved in The Disinformation Project. One of these academics is Ms. Kate Hannah.

Ms. Hannah describes how people are drawn into mis/disinformation networks in in different ways. She refers to the “trad wife” viewpoint. She claims that white Christian pseudo-Celtic pseudo-Nordic ideology lies behind this viewpoint. They (presumably the “white Christian pseudo-Celtic pseudo-Nordic”) use Pinterest and Instagram to draw in other women who are interested in interior design, children’s clothing, knitting, healthy food for children.

From this innocent start people are drawn in towards a set of white nationalist ideas. Fair skinned children with braids is a danger signal according to Ms Hannah. She did not explain why this was the case.

She then referred to the association of these ideas with a toxic masculinity which had

 ”…very fixed ideas about gender roles, race, ethnic identity, national identity, nationalism and rights to  things like free speech – very influenced by a totally US centric model.” (“Web of Chaos” at 21.5) 

In essence these characteristics, according to Hannah, derive from US based alt-right perspectives.

If I understand Ms Hannah’s position disinformation is associated with extremist ideologies. These ideologies are nationalistic, white supremacist and far right.

This may be viewed alongside the material presented in the documentary by Professor Lisa Ellis, Political Philosopher, Otago University. She commented on some aspects leading to the rise of the Nazi’s in 1930’s Germany. The racist hatred of Nazis is reflected in some modern extremist organisations. Ms Hannah and Professor Ellis focus on the Far Right but similar racist hatred is expressed in other ideologies represented by Al Quaeda or ISIS.

The Stuff documentary “Fire and Fury” – which I have written about here – dealt with the rise of disinformation and the way in which that led to radical and violent action and extreme expressions of hatred especially towards politicians.

The very clear message from these sources is that disinformation and racial hatred or hate speech are two sides of the same coin. According to Ms Hannah they are inextricably intertwined. One inevitably leads to another. It seems that any discussion of disinformation ultimately ends up in a consideration of hate speech or extremist speech.

In her address to opening of New Zealand’s Hui on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism – He Whenua Taurikura the Ms Ardern made a similar association between disinformation and violent extremism. I discuss this in detail below.

It is for those reasons that I conflate disinformation and hate speech as both worthy of consideration in a discussion about freedom of expression.

1 November 2022 – Web of Chaos – TV 1

This TV programme was described as “A deep dive into the world of disinformation, exploring why it’s spreading at pace throughout Aotearoa and the world, with specialists warning of striking consequences for social cohesion and democracy.”

In many respects, both in the manner of presentation and the content presented it bore a close relationship to the “Fire and Fury” documentary put out by Stuff. It starts with a recognition of the way in which online platforms can enable communities but then rapidly descends into a critique of what is described as cultish behaviour.

Kate Hannah was joined by Dr. Sanjana Hattotuwa, also of the Disinformation Project and assisted by David Farrier, described as a journalist and podcaster. Farrier tracks the development of Internet communication from the early days of discussion groups to the current world of social media platforms and algorithm driven content.

A fair section of the programme focusses upon the Wellington Protests of February – March 2022, covering the same material as “Fire and Fury” and expressing similar concerns about perceptions of violent radicalism or extremism. A concern by Dr. Hattotuwa is that the Internet provides a means of communication and connection between previously isolated radicals. He describes it as the algorithmic amplification of psychosis.

Although it is not clearly explained there is ample evidence to establish that social media platforms use algorithms in the background. These algorithms are designed to track the search or interest patterns of a user and then provide more information of a similar type. The problem is that as the user follows a particular interest, more and more information associated with that interest will be provided. This can be troublesome if the users’ interests are oriented towards violence or extremism. More problematic is the situation where a user may hover around the edges of extremist content but be served up more and more content of that nature.

Both Dr Hattotuwa and Ms Hannah immerse themselves in the vast amount of what comprises misinformation, disinformation and radical extremism online.

 Dr Hattotuwa subscribes to 130 Telegram channels and groups. He concedes he does not read everything that comes across his screen. Because of the way he organizes the information, he claims that he gets an insight into the mindset of the people who frequent the channels.

Dr Hattotuwa discussed what he calls toxic information and commentary including material directed about the Prime Minister. What was extraordinary was the suggestion that this toxic informational landscape was being used by 350,000 New Zealanders – all grooming and harvesting. Dr Hattotuwa emphasizes “It is here. It is amongst you” (“Web of Chaos” at 29.30). No evidence is offered to support either the numbers or the assertion.

Ms Hannah expressed concerns about death threats that she received and records the ritualistic washing of hands she undertakes before she examines archival material – a form of symbolic disengagement from reading unpleasant material.  She does the same investigating information on the computer. Dr. Hattotuwa describes how he has two showers a day to symbolically wash away the detritus of the online material he has been viewing. These actions on the part of two individuals who are meant to be carrying out dispassionate and objective research is interesting if only for the level of subjectivity it introduces.

Marc Daalder – reporter on Technology and the Far Right which must be a clear indicator of other than an objective perspective – suggests that although there may not be funding of extreme groups in New Zealand the Internet allows the importation and availability of this material.

Ms Hannah suggests that groups are using New Zealand as a laboratory for disinformation strategies to see if they work.

The documentary offers no solutions other than to have Professor Ellis observe that today’s Digital Natives are less likely to be taken in by mis/disinformation and Conspiracy theories. She holds out some hope for the future.

What the documentary does do is to further enhance the aura of fear that was generated by the “Fire and Fury” piece, identifying what is perceived as a problem but leaving the door open as to solutions.

The conflation of disinformation with hate speech suggests that whatever proposals there may be for restricting or limiting hate speech should be applied equally to disinformation and possibly even misinformation. This would result in a significant limitation upon the freedom of expression.

Ms Hannah and Dr Hattotuwa expressed their views in the “Fire and Fury” documentary as well as the “Web of Chaos” documentary. They are entitled to express their views. My suggestion is that those views should be approached with caution. Although they may be able to point to evidence of what they describe as mis/disinformation, the way in which they interpret that evidence gives me some cause for concern.

Certainly they are neither dispassionate nor objective about their topic. This is evidenced by the reactions that they have to the content of the material that they view. They clearly are responding subjectively to it. They make value judgements rather than empirical or descriptive ones.

One astonishing connection was made by Ms Hannah to which I have referred above. In her discussion about connection between white nationalism and the slide towards extremism she said that an identifier of the groups of which she was critical involved the “advocacy of rights to things like free speech.” (My emphasis)

I trust Ms Hannah does not stand by that generalization. The implication is clear. If one is an advocate of rights such as free speech, one is a right-wing extremist, supporting white nationalism or white supremacy.

That conclusion cannot be supported by the facts. Those who advocate liberty are not extremists. Those who advocate freedom of expression are not far-right wing. For example, an examination of the Council of the Free Speech Union reveals some commentators who occupy a position on the Left of the political spectrum.

Ms Hannah’s sweeping generalisation does neither her argument nor her credibility any good. Dr Hattotuwa’s unsupported assertion that 350,000 subscribe to the toxic informational network does little for dispassionate analysis or objectivity.

Indeed, examples such as this cause one to examine with a greater critical lens, the assertions and validity of material that emanates from the Disinformation Project.

Indeed the whole tone of the “Web of Chaos” documentary had a whiff of hysteria to it. Suggestions of a far-Right conspiracy peddling disinformation with the objective of destroying democracy echo the themes underlying “Fire and Fury”.

This was my conclusion on that documentary

What the Fire and Fury documentary seeks to do is re-channel that fear to a form of opposition to and distrust of the contrarian movement. But after viewing the documentary I was left with an uncomfortable feeling. In all the talk about the weird conspiracy theories put about by the contrarians perhaps the underlying theme of the documentary is a conspiracy theory itself and it seemed to come from Kate Hannah who is one of the heads of the Disinformation Project. She implies that the real threat to democracy comes from a few people given to euphemistic language who make no secret of their views, who are openly all over social media, making no secret of their views and who are well known to Police and the Security Services. Do we really need to fear this vocal minority.

Perhaps Fire and Fury is an example of a mainstream media-based conspiracy theory based on fear and should be treated as such. Or perhaps it is rather a tale told by an idiot, full of Sound and Fury signifying nothing.

One writer described “Fire and Fury” as an example of agitprop. I am driven to agree. I ascribe the same word to the “Web of Chaos” documentary.

2 November 2022 – A Question of Justice – Hate Crimes

The documentary programme “A Question of Justice – Hate Crimes” was the fourth in a series which examined aspects of the New Zealand justice system. Earlier episodes focused on the role of victims in the system, the over-representation of Maori in the criminal justice system and whether there should be degrees of the crime of murder.

The style of the series was to take a case or a couple of cases as exemplars of a problem and then carry out an investigation focusing on the issues raised by those cases.

The episode on hate crimes focused on the Christchurch mosque attacks and the killing of Jae Hyeon Kim by white supremacists. The programme examined the nature of hate crimes and the proposals by the Royal Commission on the mosque attacks surrounding hate speech.

The documentary used an “investigative team” approach who reported back and developed an itemized set of problems or shortcomings and then examined possible solutions. Each episode focused on a certain case or cases.

The investigators themselves acted as reporters and were clearly neutral. Occasionally questions about shortcomings in the system might arise but these were stratagems for further lines of inquiry rather than criticism or advocacy for a particular point of view or outcome.

Documentary maker Bryan Bruce who leads the series said of the style of the show:

“I try not to go into any investigation with a ‘stance’. What I try to do is formulate questions that hopefully will get to the core of an issue. Then I talk to a whole lot of people wiser than me to try and find the answer”

Speaking of the first programme in the series about victims, Bruce observed:

“If I had to pick one thing that surprised me, it would be that I had always wrongly assumed the State prosecutes an offender to get justice for the victim. In fact, the prosecutor prosecutes the offender on behalf of the Crown and no one actually represents the victim in court… and that’s something I think we need to look at.”

Bruce stated that the overall purpose of the series was to use

“case studies to examine the law by which we are all bound. Viewers, I hope, will find it engaging but the purpose in making the series was not to produce sheer entertainment.”

The tone of the series was more that of the traditional documentary. It was generally dispassionate and objective and helped to identify problems and at time suggesting possible solutions without advocating any particular outcome.

In this respect the approach to hate speech differed from that of “Wed of Chaos” or “Fire and Fury”. In many respects the “Question of Justice” episode benefitted from a more measured and less emotional approach.

Rather than use dramatic footage and video tricks, it focused upon the nature of the problem and, although not specifically identifying it as such, the way in which the Royal Commission had addressed hate speech and the various tensions between freedom of expression and speech which incited hatred and violent action towards others. In this respect one was left with a sense that reason and objectivity predominated, and that some sense had been brought into the debate.

It would have been helpful if the documentary had detailed the solutions offered by the Royal Commission. I have written on the Royal Commission proposals here.

One of the matters that the Commission’s report was to abandon the use of the word “incite”. It suggested that the term “stirring up” was a better one. It described the way in which speech could potentially be transformed into action. However, the documentary closed by focusing on the term “incite”.

One thing that the documentary did not do was attempt to define “hate” or “hate speech”. In this respect it left and interpretative door wide open. It recognized the tension between freedom of expression and harmful speech. It acknowledged the difficulty in where to draw the line. But the wider association of “hate speech” and “disinformation” that has been touted by “Fire and Fury” and “Web of Chaos” remains.

31 October – 1 November 2022 New Zealand’s Hui on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism – He Whenua Taurikura

The focus of the hui was the prevention of terrorism and violent extremism. In her opening remarks, Prime Minister Ardern referred to threats to our security. Second and third on the list of the five top threats of most concern to New Zealanders was misinformation and hacking – a reprise of the concerns that she mentioned at the United Nations speech. She went on to say

  • “Greater efforts are needed to detect dis-information campaigns and networks, and disrupt them, while calling out those that sponsor this activity. We are committed to working with communities, media, academia, civil society, the private sector – especially our social media platforms to counter the threat of disinformation, and I will talk about this and the Christchurch Call in the second part of my speech today.”

In discussing the Christchurch Call, Ms Ardern said:

“There must always be space for radical ideas; these are valued and vital in Aotearoa New Zealand as a free, open, democratic and progressive society.”

A reiteration of her acknowledgement of the importance of freedom of expression that she made at the UN

“However, when dehumanising and hateful ideas are part of ideologies that include hate and intolerance toward specific groups or communities, promoting or enabling violence, these may indicate a path toward violent extremism.”

To deal with this problem she itemized the importance of research the problems arising from the online environment upon which we are dependent and the importance of the international effort – the Christchurch Call.

Using the collective power of national governments who have joined the call the objective is to bring pressure upon technology platforms to change the online and societal landscape.

Ms Ardern then went on to talk about the development of a Strategic Framework for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism, which includes solutions and approaches developed by society for society. A prevention framework includes a fund for preventing and countering violent extremism. The fund, over three years, will provide grants to civil society and community organisations to support them to deliver initiatives for building resilience to violent extremism and radicalisation.

Finally she stressed the importance of talking about national security, and in this respect the hui was addressed by SIS Director Ms Rebecca Kitteridge.

Ms Kitteridge made the following statement:

“Recognising a potential warning sign and then alerting NZSIS or Police could be the vital piece in the puzzle that ultimately saves lives.”

To that end the SIS has published a guide called “Know the Signs” to help identify terrorists. The Guide is directed towards violent extremism rather than non-violent forms of extremism. Ms Kitteridge suggests that if a person sees something that is “off” or that worries or concerns, the suggestion is to consult the guide and try and work out if the person is on the road to perpetrating an attack.

The guide lists 50 signs from the very obvious (like writing messages on a weapon) to a person who is developing an “us versus them” world view. The SIS is monitoring some 40 – 50 potential terrorists but now a new suspicious class has emerged – those driven by politics. Ms Kitteridge suggests that this could be motivated by the measures that the Government took over COVID or other policies that are interpreted as infringing on rights – what Ms Kitteridge describes as a hot mess of ideologies and beliefs fuelled by conspiracy theories.

It is clear that the publication of the guide means that the SIS recognizes that it cannot do their work alone and that they need the help of the public.

In the introduction to the Guide Ms Kitteridge states:

“I am asking all New Zealanders to look out for concerning behaviours or activities that could be easily observed, and to report them. You may be uniquely placed to see the signs, and to help NZSIS to understand the true threat an individual poses.”

Paul Spoonley obviously buys into the SIS proposal but sees it as a first step. He sees a problem in upskilling people to understand what it is that they are seeing.

So citizens are being encouraged to monitor friends, family, neighbours and those around them, and must be watchful for the “signs”. They must be upskilled to recognize the “signs”. This air of suspicion is grounded upon fear. This has echoes of the “Red Scare” in the USA between 1917 and 1920. The Red Scare was the promotion of a widespread fear of a potential rise of communism, anarchism or other leftist ideologies by a society or state.

There was a second Red Scare in the USA from 1947 – 1957 associated with the rise of McCarthyism and the fear of Soviet espionage in US Government agencies and the “witch-hunts” that followed. Fear and suspicion characterized both of these periods. History is repeating itself but on these shores.

The Fear Factor

When the COVID pandemic hit, the Government was able to obtain compliance with a draconian suspension of our rights and liberties. It did this within a context of a climate of fear. The fear was that if the restrictions were not put in place people would contract COVID and die.

The fear factor was a part of the Government strategy through to the vaccination programme, the mandates that were imposed and through until the so-called “traffic-light” system.

It became apparent, after the numbers began to subside, that the fears of death had been overstated. The “fear factor” was received with skepticism on the part of the public which was prepared to assume risk and take their own measures to protect their health and well being.

Now the fear factor has shifted. The shift has been a gradual one. Instead of the fear of disease and death, what is being advanced is a fear of attacks upon democracy and our way of life – the scare tactics that were applied in the US with the fear of the Communist menace and infiltration.

This narrative began during the pandemic and was highlighted during the vaccine mandates. Those who resisted the mandates – the anti-vaxxers – were viewed as a contrarian threat to the Government line that emanated from “the podium of truth.”

This has morphed into a fear of the erosion of democracy arising from disinformation. The likelihood of terrorism in our own backyard. The need for vigilance. An insidious vaguely identified threat to our way of life.

This fear is magnified by messaging from our politicians. It is suggested that the election next year will be a different one as politicians – at least from the Government – are afraid of walking the streets and canvassing for votes as they once did. An air of hostility is abroad – or at least that is the narrative.

The cultivation of this atmosphere of fear enables the Government to justify erosions of liberty. One example of this will be to target “hate speech” and its close relative, disinformation. A fearful public will be more willing to accept interference with the freedom of expression if it may be seen to address a problem that will supposedly lessen or reduce the fear.

There is a wider issue arising from the climate of fear. I have already addressed it in some detail in an earlier post entitled “Fear Itself”. In that post I conclude with a consideration of the vested interest of mainstream media in promoting the “narrative of truth”. I said there:

Finally it is of interest to observe how vexed the mainstream news media get with the issue of mis/disinformation. Because the warnings emanating from the Disinformation Project, the Chief Censor’s Office and the University of Auckland Centre for Informed Futures, the news media are quick to fan the flames of fear and perhaps overdramatise the significance of the message. But perhaps there is an unstated interest that the news media might have in campaigning against mis/disinformation. In the past they have been the organs of reliable information and their editing and checking systems ensure this.

The Disinformation Project study indicates that on 10 February 2022 misinformation (as they define it) overtook NZ Media for the first time. Perhaps mainstream media has some territory to protect in the contest for the information audience and in fact what they are doing is campaigning strongly against the purveyors of mis/disinformation not to alert the public or perform some altruistic public interest goal but to do whatever they can to protect their own turf, their position as the purveyors of “truth” (despite significant column inches dedicated to “opinion”) and, not least, their advertising revenues and income streams.

I also made some observations on the fear factor engendered by the agitprop “Fire and Fury” documentary. In that piece I said:

It is a matter of comment in mainstream media that some of the leading lights of Voices for Democracy and other contrarian groups are putting themselves forward for election in the upcoming local body elections. Some of them have done so before. None of them have so far been elected. Yet there is concern about contrarians exercising their democratic right to stand for election. As I understand it the availability of democratic process does not depend on the quality of your beliefs, although those beliefs may cause rejection by the electorate.

So where does this leave us. Certainly during the early days of the Covid-19 Pandemic the Government was able to prey on public fears of the outbreak of plague and imminent death to justify lockdowns and to enable the acceptance of discriminatory treatment of citizens based on their vaccination status. The initial response was unplanned but necessary. But we are past that now

What the Fire and Fury documentary seeks to do is re-channel that fear to a form of opposition to and distrust of the contrarian movement. But after viewing the documentary I was left with an uncomfortable feeling. In all the talk about the weird conspiracy theories put about by the contrarians perhaps the underlying theme of the documentary is a conspiracy theory itself and it seemed to come from Kate Hannah who is one of the heads of the Disinformation Project. She implies that the real threat to democracy comes from a few people given to euphemistic language who make no secret of their views, who are openly all over social media, making no secret of their views and who are well known to Police and the Security Services. Do we really need to fear this vocal minority?

Perhaps “Fire and Fury” is an example of a mainstream media-based conspiracy theory based on fear and should be treated as such. Or perhaps it is rather a tale told by an idiot, full of Sound and Fury signifying nothing.

Conclusion – What it Is is Becoming Clear

The debate about so-called “hate” or “dangerous speech” must take place in a calm and objective environment. I realise that this is a sentiment based more on hope than reality, for the subject is an emotive one.

But the debate must not take place against a backdrop of fear which may mean that the solutions proposed are more extreme than the problem itself.

The growing panic on the part of some of misinformation and disinformation feeds into the wider landscape of concerns about “messaging” and, as I have argued, seems to have fed into the “hate speech” milieu with calls for regulation.

Comments like “disinformation corrodes the foundation of liberal democracy” – made by Ms Ardern – add to the scaremongering, softening up the populace so that they become pliable and amenable to greater restrictions on the freedom of expression and ultimately their liberty. It won’t just be about “hate speech.” The net will become incrementally and subtly wider to catch other forms of dissident and contrarian opinion.

Indeed, as Thomas Jefferson said “eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty” (1817) but perhaps not the form of vigilance suggested by Ms. Kitteridge.   

We must be vigilant to ensure our liberty, and its foundation stone freedom of expression, is not further eroded.



The title of this post is taken from the first line of a song recorded by Buffalo Springfield in 1966 entitled “For What its Worth”. The lyrics follow:

There’s something happening here

But what it is ain’t exactly clear

There’s a man with a gun over there

Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop

Children, what’s that sound?

Everybody look, what’s going down?

There’s battle lines being drawn

Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong

Young people speaking their minds

Getting so much resistance from behind

It’s time we stop

Hey, what’s that sound?

Everybody look, what’s going down?

What a field day for the heat

A thousand people in the street

Singing songs and they carrying signs

Mostly say, “Hooray for our side”

It’s time we stop

Hey, what’s that sound?

Everybody look, what’s going down?

Paranoia strikes deep

Into your life it will creep

It starts when you’re always afraid

Step out of line, the men come and take you away

We better stop

Hey, what’s that sound?

Everybody look, what’s going down?