‘When Did Death Threats Become Okay?’ – How Are You Today, Paula Penfold… On The Rise In Hostility Towards Journalists & Public Figures

In our story series ‘How Are You Today?’, we have a meandering, mental-health focused chat with some of our most well-known New Zealanders. Check out previous chats with people like Hayley Holt, Roseanne Liang and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Today, we chat to Paula Penfold.

A veteran investigative journalist, Paula Penfold is one of the most respected names in news thanks to her dedication to long-form journalism and the pursuit of justice for those she’s interviewed. As part of the award-winning Stuff Circuit team, she’s helped bring to light stories about the persecution of Uyghurs in China, the deadly legacy of the NZ defence force in Afghanistan and more. Their latest documentary, Disordered, is an unflinching look at the thousands of Kiwis who are affected by Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) who are being let down or ignored by the system.

How are you today, Paula?
I feel under-prepared, even though I suppose I don’t have to prepare for this! I feel like, well, I hate saying I’m busy because people use it as such a badge of honour and it shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t be busy – and I wish I was less busy – but it’s been one of those weeks, so I feel a bit all over the shop today, if I’m honest.

You’re in good company there, because I just finished watching your latest documentary, Disordered, about 10 minutes ago and was weeping profusely. In that documentary, you’re asking a lot of people very difficult questions about either their drinking during pregnancy, or the crimes that have been committed by them as a result of living with FASD. And I wondered why is it so important that journalists are a judgement-free zone when it comes to these kinds of stories?
You have to be, don’t you? Because why else would they tell you those really deeply, I don’t know, on some level shameful things. But they trust you with that very deeply personal information because those people understand that they have a really important contribution to that conversation, because they know it better than anybody. The non-judgemental approach is because, genuinely I’m not judgemental about it.

So much of your work over the years has involved such full-on interviews; what have you learned about keeping your emotions in check when you’re interviewing someone, or is that no longer something you try and do?
I don’t anymore [laughs]. I probably used to, when I started; I thought you’re supposed to be the ‘impartial observer’ but we’re human beings first, before we’re journalists, and when you’re sitting not too far from someone who is in tears, telling you their life story, or who’s angry because of something that’s happened to them, you’d have to be a bit robotic to not have some level of emotional reaction. And if you didn’t, they would probably shut down. Why would they want to have a conversation with you – and it is a conversation, first. And they deserve the respect of being engaged with on a personal level, rather than just a journalistic level.

How do you manage that impact on your own mental health? 
I’ve been a journalist for a while now and I remember, as a very young reporter in Christchurch, and I was sent out to a crash between a train and a concrete truck, which was the first horrific fatal scene I’d been to. And I was working for RNZ at the time and I was live on air with Kim Hill, and she asked a really lovely question along those lines, ‘How are you?’ and I hadn’t thought of that.

‘We pretended to be fine for a long time… and I don’t think that we have to pretend that we’re fine any more.’

A lot of it comes from downloading with friends and colleagues, and doing the things that I’ve learned in relatively recent years really help, like meditation, mindfulness and exercise and sleep, and not drink as much as I used to.

For so many years, journalists were expected to be hard-ass and impenetrable. The way that you coped was to go to the pub and smoke cigarettes with your mates, and if there was a perceived weakness, you wouldn’t get the great assignments. And so, we pretended to be fine for a long time… and I don’t think that we have to pretend that we’re fine any more, which is great.

Paula Penfold and her Stuff circuit team
Stuff circuit team (left to right): Paula Penfold, Phil Johnston, Louisa Cleave and Toby Longbottom. Main feature photo credit: Marissa Findlay.

A few years ago, Stuff Circuit ran a story about abortions in New Zealand and you included your own story of getting an abortion in your early 20s. How did it feel, sharing a personal story in that context?
It’s a really hard decision to make because as journalists, we try not to centre ourselves; it’s not about us. But I thought that the issue was really important and with every investigation, we try to find ‘a thing’ that might give it a little bit of cut-through, to make it slightly different. I spoke to my colleagues about whether [sharing my story] was a good or a terrible idea… but they liked it and were incredibly supportive.

I’ve never had a response like that to a story and I think that’s because you put something of yourself into it.

I’ve never had a response like that to a story and I think that’s because you put something of yourself into it. We did that story in 2019, so, a while ago, and I had an Instagram message two weeks ago from a woman who was in a clinic, waiting for her abortion and she’d been online, looking for reassurance. And she’d found my story.

I felt so happy that she knew she could contact me – I have no qualifications, obviously, to be able to counsel her or advise her, but she knew that I’d been through it and I think she just wanted to speak to someone who had been through it and maybe get some reassurance that she would be okay. I felt so pleased that this journalism could, this many years down the track, still be useful to someone who was dealing with something so hard.

When you’re a prominent news person in this country, you can end up in the public eye from time to time. [Paula was married to journalist Mike McRoberts for more than 20 years]. How have you handled that side of the job over the years?
Yeah… [laughs]. Sometimes it’s a bit shit. Like when your marriage breaks up and you happen to be married to someone with a high profile. Those things are not pleasant. I’m quite a shy and private person, I don’t like to put myself out there much – I like to for things like this because it gives a voice to the people whose stories we tell. But about myself? It’s not something I would seek out.

‘Sometimes it’s a bit shit. Like when your marriage breaks up and you happen to be married to someone with a high profile.’

When the publicity happens to you when you haven’t sought it, it’s uncomfortable. And it can be unpleasant. And there are people who hate journalists. When I say I don’t like publicity, I did write a column earlier this year about my sister going through cancer treatment and what it was like to see people not caring about people who are immunocompromised, going through a pandemic.

The reaction to that was mostly supportive – but the people who were not supportive were just incredibly aggressive and angry. If you interpret their desire to have you placed on the Nuremberg lists as being threatening, there were multiple examples of that.

The environment in terms of hostility towards journalists… I’ve never seen anything like this before. They literally think we should be hanged

The environment in terms of hostility towards journalists… I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s just so intense and visceral and violent. They literally think we should be hanged. There is a lot of mending that we should do at a community and societal level to fix this.

Some of the language coming out of that protest was truly unbelievable. You mentioned the Nuremberg lists – the use of that as a term, the posters of it, the threats… it was staggering to see. Even if it’s a small percentage of our population, it’s unbelievable.
It’s shocking, isn’t it? I find it really shocking. We can see the mechanisms through which it’s happened but we’re at a bit of a loss as to what to do about it. To use the language of death threats towards journalists and politicians and scientists and health workers. When did that become okay?

The role of disinformation is absolutely fascinating to me in terms of the roots of those beliefs and how people have bene brainwashed into thinking that we are the enemy. I saw some people being dismissive of journalists and the threat towards them in those protests. But those people weren’t there. That threat was real and palpable.

The straight line from ‘I disagree with you’ to ‘I think you should die’ is a pretty terrifying one.
Right? Do they mean it? Are these words that just tumble out? Maybe they are for some people, maybe they haven’t realised that it’s such a threatening thing to say, such an abhorrent thing to say. But others absolutely mean it.

When you see some of the telegram chat rooms and various other forums, when you see the way they write and the way they talk when they don’t think they’re being monitored. They absolutely think people should die for their role in the response to this pandemic. And I find it so unfathomable – and dangerous. Because obviously most of them wouldn’t carry it through, but we’ve seen what happens when people go rogue and we shouldn’t be dismissive of the people who are saying these things. Because they mean them.

We ran a story as part of our burnout special where we covered the fact that people who love their jobs are more likely to burn out – your job requires a huge amount of time and emotion and energy, plus you really care about it. How do you not burn out?
I think I have burnt out at times, to be honest, and probably didn’t realise when I was in it. I can’t even fathom how the people at the real frontlines don’t burn out. That’s real burnout. What happens to us is that sometimes you forget to stop working on it because you love it so much; then you spend too much time doing it and that comes at the cost of something else – but that’s nowhere near the level of people’s real burnout.

I find the job so fulfilling that any risk of burnout is more than made up for by the fact that I get so much satisfaction out of it.

Is there anything else you want to add?
I would like to thank all the people who do trust us to tell their stories. Because – and it’s a word we’ve used a couple of times today – it is a privilege that they do trust us. And I’d like to publicly acknowledge them, because putting themselves on the stage and under the spotlight doesn’t happen to many people in their lives. And it brings with it a whole set of stressors and challenges and emotions. So, I’d like to acknowledge the people who are willing to tell their stories because it’s so fundamentally important to us, as journalists, that they do. We couldn’t do this job without them.

To watch Disordered, the latest Stuff Circuit documentary, visit here. For more information on Stuff Circuit and their numerous investigations, visit here.

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