The Tale of Peter Mortlock and Sue Grey
What does the megachurch leader have in common with a lawyer called Sue Grey?
In September last year, I wrote a piece about the red-pilling of Billy TK Jnr. Watching his Facebook posts, you could see his descent into QAnon as clear as day — and to be honest, it was pretty terrifying.
He went from this on March 17, 2020:
To this on April 11, 2020:
In less than a month, this man went down a very dark rabbit hole — informed by Facebook algorithms, bad news sources and a growing network of similarly minded people telling him he was correct. He went on to form a failed political party whose rallies saw a wide array of literal QAnon posters (I covered that here) and on August 18, 2021, Billy TK Jnr was arrested.
What that process of watching Billy TK’s behaviour online clearly showed is how much one can be a victim of bad information.
As you know, I’ve become somewhat fascinated by Peter Mortlock of City Impact Church recently. New Zealand is like a petri dish of the wider world, and watching a New Zealand megachurch has helped me grasp American megachurches even better.
As I wrote a few weeks back, Mortlock has been working a lot of Fox News clips into his sermons. That’s clearly informing his conspiratorial worldview, but I’ve been endlessly curious what else he’s been consuming. And yesterday, I got my answer.
I’ve been keeping an eye on his private Instagram page (he’s blocked me, but that’s hardly a barrier). Here he is:
Mortz has increasingly been posting clips from his political sermons and political rambles recorded from his home. But yesterday he went a step further, posting this screenshot from an anti-vax protest:
It shows a man with a microphone — who I assume is a host or reporter — standing in front of a protestor. The sign the protestor is holding reads: “IF FULLY VACCINATED CAN GET IT AND SPREAD IT, WHY AREN’T THEY LOSING JOBS TOO?”
Now just a quick fact check: Yes, vaccinated people can still catch and spread Covid. The facts that the sign left out (and the facts Peter Mortlock ignored, too) are big ones:
YOU ARE MUCH LESS LIKELY TO CATCH COVID AND SPREAD COVID IF YOU ARE VACCINATED. AND IF YOU DO CATCH IT, YOU ARE MUCH LESS LIKELY TO GET SERIOUSLY ILL.
Sorry for yelling. If you want more on the science, read about this from a biomedical scientist.
At first, my brain assumed this was taken at an anti-vax protest in New Zealand. But then I noticed the reporter’s mic had a flag on it I didn’t recognise. It wasn’t Stuff or The Herald or OneNews or Newshub. And then I saw dust on the screengrab, and realised it wasn’t a screengrab. In classic old-man fashion, it was a photo of a screen. And then my eyes drifted down to the bottom right of the dusty screen, and I saw two clipped words: REBEL NEWS.
And it hit me: Peter Mortlock is watching Rebel News. If Fox News is little stream of racist, conspiratorial news, then Rebel News is Niagara Fucking Falls.
Rebel News is a far-right news network based in Canada. What do I mean by far-right? Well, the founder of the far-right, neo-fascist “Proud Boys” has been a contributor.
In addition to this, following the 2017 terrorist attack in a Quebec City mosque which left six dead, Rebel News actively promoted a conspiracy theory that the shooting was carried out by Muslims. It was not — it was carried out by a 31-year-old whose friends say had far-right, white nationalist, and anti-Muslim views.
In 2007, Rebel News’ co-founder quit over the network’s alleged ties to right-wing groups. Later, a Rebel News correspondent made comments defending a Holocaust denier.
Oh — and the man holding the microphone from Rebel News? His name is Avi Yemini, who was convicted for violently assaulting his wife.
And here we have — in New Zealand — a megachurch pastor posting screenshots from Rebel News to his followers. His flock.
I wasn’t planning to write more about City Impact Church — at some point writing about White Evangelicals becomes boring and, frankly, depressing. But a curiosity about all this drags me back in. And what I’m curious about is what the rest of his church makes of this. I assume there are church members and even members of the leadership team (it has other pastors in other cities) that find it slightly unusual that they’re suddenly watching Fox News clips during a sermon. Even the style of Fox News is so jarring to New Zealand eyes and years: The bright colours, the loud voices — it freaks us out. Maybe they’re reading this, and they are finding it pretty weird too.
I know to many members, Peter Mortlock is a man ordained by God to tell them the truth. But also — there has to be a dissonance creeping in with some members. I think back to Billy TK Jnr, and the fact his red-pilling happened while he was isolated at home during New Zealand’s first big Covid-19 lockdown. He’d been cut off from society somewhat, and was left in an echo chamber of Facebook and conspiracy websites. It sent him loopy.
Over a year later, Peter Mortlock finds himself in lockdown too. He hasn’t been able to give sermons in person, broadcasting his torrents of misinformation online instead. Like Billy TK Jnr, I imagine Mortlock is much more isolated than he’s used to, and it appears he’s now engaging with alt-right “news” networks like Rebel News.
And then posting their messaging to his followers.
I couldn’t sleep last night, and so I wrote this to City Impact Church:
Date: Oct 21, 2021 at 12:40 AM
I am not sure who reads this, but I've been writing about City Impact Church for a while now, specifically Pastor Peter Mortlock’s messaging around vaccines.
I noticed something tonight on his personal Instagram page - a screengrab he'd taken from a news report he was watching from a place called Rebel News.
Rebel News is a far right news network in Canada. This is a step on from Fox News - you can read about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebel_News
It’s violently anti-Muslim, and it's correspondents have defended Holocaust deniers. To put it bluntly: It's incredibly racist and deeply awful.
I guess my point is that in tracking Peter's trajectory recently, even I found this alarming.
I have no idea where you sit in the organisation, but I'd be really curious where you stand on this. I know you have to listen to your God ordained leader, but I’d argue God has also given you reading this a really good brain, and he’d want you to use it.
And to briefly counter City Impact’s messaging around vaccines: If you are vaccinated it’s still possible to catch and transmit Covid - but you are far less likely to do so.
Who will get the email? From what I’ve heard from ex-City Impact members, an intern will get it. They won’t reply with anything a supervising pastor hasn’t okayed. There are power structures at work here, and Peter Mortlock — the man who’s now posting content from Rebel News — is Top Dog.
White Evangelical Racism
I’ve been reading a book by Anthea Butler, a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania. Her book is called White Evangelical Racism, and I started reading it after writing Fear of a Changing World. A kind Webworm reader recommended it to me, after I started getting abuse from various (white) people from criticising largely white megachurches.
There’s a passage in the introduction that I keep coming back to:
“In the summer of 2019 in Mississippi, a couple was turned down when trying to rent Boone’s Camp Event Hall for their wedding reception. Why? The couple, a Black man and white woman, was told by the event hall owner, “First of all, we don’t do gay weddings or mixed race… because of our Christian race, I mean, our Christian belief.”
The hall owner’s slip of the tongue was telling in its equation of Christianity with whiteness. For evangelicals, “Christian Race,” America, and belief are synonymous.
Christianity is whiteness as well as belief. It is this conflation that causes evangelicals to ignore their racism. They truly believe that their Christianity is a race, and this comprises an all-encompassing identity.
This is why when some evangelicals say they don’t see colour, they really mean it. They just see whiteness. No colour but the dominant one.
For many white evangelicals reading my words, this will be a hard truth to swallow. After all, you may have been taught that evangelicals were abolitionists, supported the poor, did mission work around the globe, and made a better world for everyone. And clearly, many did.
But many also supported slavery, split churches, believed African Americans were inferior to whites, supported Jim Crow, and avidly opposed civil rights, busing, and interracial marriage. Many harassed gays, called AIDS a curse from God, and vilified Muslims after 9/11.
So when evangelical writers claim that they do not understand the overwhelming nature and sometimes downright scurrilous Republican candidates and politicos, they fail to reckon with evangelical history.”
And I can’t help but think, while the New Zealand media (myself included) bangs on about Billy TK Jnr and Brian Tamaki — what about all the white people?
Meet Sue Grey, the New Zealand conspiracy theorist you’ve never heard of
What about all the white people?
What about Sue Grey?
Sue Grey is a white lawyer in New Zealand who is largely ignored in favour of fringe conspiracy theorists like Billy TK Jnr and Brian Tamaki, who get blanket news coverage. There is the occasional peep, but she’s buried — her name is rarely in the headline.
To be fair, Sue did turn up in the media just yesterday (although again, not in the headline). She’s representing four airport security officers who are challenging the Government’s “no jab, no job” policy in court:
Coronavirus: Airport security staff challenge Government's 'no jab, no job' policy in court
Their lawyer, Sue Grey, went to the Wellington High Court to challenge the legality of the order and ended up debating what COVID-19 actually was.
“We’ve got people that test positive that don’t have symptoms. It seems to be an art more than a science, perhaps you could say it like that,” Grey says.
“Sure, but I think I can safely assume COVID exists, can't I?” Justice Francis Cooke responds.
Why is Sue Grey sceptical about the existence of Covid-19? Well, the lawyer is one of New Zealand’s biggest conspiracy theorists. You’d be forgiven for not knowing who she is, because again — she’s largely ignored by the press. So let’s go into some context of Sue Grey.
For one thing, she likes to interact a lot with former Kyle Chapman, former leader of the NZ National Front, a white nationalist political party. Here is Sue, and here is Kyle:
That photo was taken at an at anti-vax event in New Zealand. Because yes, Sue Grey is anti-vax.
Let’s go deeper into what Sue Grey has been getting up to online on Facebook, when she’s not being a lawyer in court. When a young kiwi woman died — for reasons that had nothing to do with being vaccinated — Sue posted: “Confirmed: First NZ schoolgirl Vax death.”
This is not only incorrect, it’s deeply traumatising for the young woman’s family. New Zealand is small. We love Facebook. This “news” spread. Yes, the girl’s family would have read this theory, or a variation on it.
And this type of post isn’t an anomaly for Sue. When a Picton schoolteacher passed away, Sue was there: “I’ve heard a Picton school teacher died 48 hours after getting the vax.”
After being told the teacher’s death had nothing to do with the vaccine, of course Sue refused to remove her posts:
This stuff is pretty sickening to read. There’s a reason Mark Zuckerberg is looking to rename Facebook, and it’s not just to acknowledge their metaverse obsession. He knows Facebook is toxic as all hell, and he wants to create the illusion of change. But it won’t change. Sue Grey is there, and she’s free to post whatever she wants.
When a young New Zealand dentist died — Sue Grey was there:
That post, naming the dead man, lead to the dental practice’s Facebook page receiving a torrent of abuse. These are all real New Zealand people who have passed away. A schoolgirl, a dentist and teacher. All three of those people have loved ones, friends, pets. And a New Zealand lawyer is spreading blatant disinformation on Facebook.
So yes: Sue Grey has been in the media, but in fleeting mentions. There is no context to who she is or what she believes.
I don’t meant to bring race into this again, but I do. Because for months and months an outlier like Billy TK Jnr was given media attention from every angle: He was on radio, in print and on TV. There was a short documentary about him. I wrote about Billy TK Jnr extensively myself. I was part of that.
But Billy was an outlier, a loser, a lost cause. A non-white blues guitarist the media became obsessed with.
And all that time — a white, qualified, middle class lawyer called Sue Grey did her thing. She’s not some freak show holding up a QAnon sign. She’s acting in the Wellington High Court. She holds real power, and real influence. She is staunchly anti-vax and regularly spreads misinformation to the public.
And yet — like Peter Mortlock — crickets.
Why do you think that is?
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You say you don't mean to bring race into this - but you do . . . and you should. Because Aotearoa is still, deeply, to its bones, a racist colonial settler state. I hate that as much as you do, I want to change it, and we have to fight our battles on our own fronts to start making changes.
For you, that probably looks a lot like what you're doing right now for the moment - shining a light on dark places where white people try to scuttle away from cleansing sunshine. It may change and evolve over time but acknowledging that you're part of this system, as I am, and that we have the responsibility to move for change, is our first baby steps.
I want to scream from the rooftops, fight on the steps of parliament, for tino rangtiratanga, for land back, for all sorts of revolutionary things - but we start with small steps because we step against a strong tide.
In the end, we don't get to call ourselves allies, we don't get to claim anything - we just platform the voices of the marginalised if we have a platform, we fight each little fight (especially among other pakeha people), we try to do our best and do our own learning rather than asking emotional labour of Māori and other Indigenous people. We try and make a difference in our own ways, and we claim no pride or glory in it, because it's only justice at its barest of bones level. We must be humble enough to always learn, always accept correction with grace and think on why we have been corrected, learn and grow from it.
*steps off soapbox*
I’ve had quite a few people approach me about the horrific abuse they’re getting from anti vaxxers who have decided their loved ones died from the vaccine. But many are too scared to speak out because they’re afraid they’ll get even more harassment and abuse. I can’t imagine losing someone you love then having some anti vaxxer random message you 50 times in an hour calling you a murderer for vaccinating. While you’re grieving! And this is what they’re doing. It’s horrendous. I’m still hoping eventually I can write something about it but basically every person who has come to me has shown me where the first accusation that it was a “vaccine death“ came from and it’s almost always Sue Grey.