National MP ad on What’s On Invers, the ‘anti-vax’ website blacklisted by RNZ

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High-profile adverts for National MP Penny Simmonds appear on What’s On Invers, a self-proclaimed news website which lost a content-sharing deal with RNZ over its stance on Covid-19 vaccines. Reports by Stewart Sowman-Lund.

The National MP for Invercargill continues to run prominent adverts on a local independent news website accused of sharing Covid-19 and vaccine misinformation. This is despite the What’s On Invers website being forced to end its content-sharing deal with national broadcaster RNZ following “concern” about its views on the pandemic.

What’s On Invers is a Southland-based Facebook page and self-proclaimed medium launched almost 10 years ago and now followed by almost 40,000 people. In recent years it has expanded to include an associated community directory and news website of the same name.

Founded by Mike Sanford, an unsuccessful candidate for the license trust in the recent local election, What’s On Invers claims to have a larger readership than the region’s main media outlets, such as the Southland Times.

But concerns were raised at The Spinoff earlier this year on content described by critics as “unethical” and “anti-vax” shared by the website. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, articles shared by What’s On Invers appeared to cast doubt on the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine and regularly sympathized with conspiracy theory groups like Voices for Freedom.

In several articles published by What’s On Invers, advertisements for local Simmonds MPs can be found at the top or in the body of the text. While many articles featuring ads for Simmonds are innocuous, some blur the line between news and misinformation. The Spinoff found an ad above an article about a large Voices for Freedom rally in 2021 that described a government-led “us and them mentality” around vaccines. Another advert for Simmonds appeared in an article that quoted an anti-warrant doctor promote ivermectin as “one of the safest drugs in the world”. And one also appeared on an article quoting a protest group comparing Covid-19 to the flu. At the time of publication, adverts for Simmonds still appeared on the site in a rotation alongside promotions from several local businesses.

Some examples of articles displaying Penny Simmonds advertisements

In addition to advertising, Simmonds used What’s On Invers to publish opinion columns in her capacity as a local MP. The most recent of these was shared by the platform in September this year – months after What’s On Invers began promoting fringe views on the pandemic. The topics covered in his columns seem generally consistent with National Party talking points: the cost of living crisis, the polytechnic mergers, and the centralization of the health care system. Simmonds sent press releases to the media on similar topics.

When approached by The Spinoff, Simmonds chose not to answer questions regarding her relationship with What’s On Invers. “No comment at this time,” she said. Follow-up emails to Simmonds and his press secretary went unanswered, as did requests for comment to the office of National Party leader Christopher Luxon.

OWhile the views promoted by What’s On Invers may not have been enough to deter Simmonds from advertising, they were enough to see a content-sharing deal with RNZ come to an end over a year ago.

The spin-off may reveal that RNZ cut ties with What’s On Invers specifically over its Covid-19 coverage. Until October last year, What’s On Invers was one of around 60 outlets that had formal republication agreements with the public broadcaster. This meant that he was able to use RNZ-produced content on his website.

However, emails sent to The Spinoff under the Official Information Act reveal the specific reason why RNZ decided to terminate this agreement.

RNZ was contacted in October last year by a reader concerned about “the anti-vax [and] anti-mask misinformation” promulgated by What’s On Invers. The reader wondered if the content could “endanger the health and safety of uninformed readers” and asked if RNZ was aware that its content was being republished “by arrangement” on the website.

This email reached RNZ’s chief information officer, Richard Sutherland, who suggested an immediate end to the republication agreement. “I’m voting for us to withdraw their agreement,” he wrote. “We don’t want to be associated with that kind of bs, do we? Megan Whelan, RNZ’s head of digital content, agreed. “I agree.”

Whelan then contacted What’s On Invers, demanding that the outlet stop publishing any RNZ content. “The attention of Radio New Zealand has been drawn to certain … recent activities on your site, more specifically the nature of your coverage of matters relating to Covid-19,” the October 2021 email stated. “It is recognized that you you are fully entitled to your views on these issues. However, our concern extends to the Non-association [sic] terms of our license agreement and that RNZ content relating to Covid issues could be associated with the position supported by your coverage from various other sources.

The email continued: “Although there is no lasting formal agreement in place, RNZ wishes to terminate the content sharing agreement with What’s On Invers.”

A copy of an email provided under the OIA

Previous reports from The Spinoff revealed that What’s On Invers continued to repost RNZ content after the deal ended, saying it still had permission. RNZ was unaware of this until The Spinoff reported and a spokesperson confirmed the broadcaster would be contacting the site administrator. At the time, the spokesperson did not reveal why exactly RNZ chose to terminate the content sharing agreement.

This was not the first time RNZ had raised concerns with What’s On Invers over the use of reposted content. Other emails seen by The Spinoff show that in 2020 What’s On Invers was ordered to edit an “unprofessional” headline it had used on RNZ content about the local acquisition of media company Stuff for $1. What’s On Invers called Stuff “Stuff’d” in the title, a pejorative title sometimes used by mainstream media critics.

“There may be an attempt to argue that a title is written separately from a story and should be viewed from that perspective,” an RNZ rep told What’s On Invers at the time. “We do not agree with this and know that many readers will see headlines and related stories as coming from the same source.”

Sanford, in response, told RNZ: “It won’t happen again.”

It appears What’s On Invers hasn’t reposted any RNZ content since The Spinoff’s original report in October this year, but articles published after the content-sharing agreement supposedly ended the previous year remain viewable on the site.

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