Thou Shalt Not Blog
Webworm answers a very long list of questions from a megachurch about ethics, standards, accountability, impartiality, bias, prejudice, intolerance and bigotry.
Recently Webworm tried to engage with a megachurch about various accusations against them. Webworm contributor Hayden Donnell had reached out to Life church. He and I were co-writing this piece — ‘Holy Hell’ — and we needed comment.
Hayden and I worked on the Arise series last year. Some pieces he edited, some pieces he was a co-writer, sometimes he did both. Wading into hundreds of stories from former pentecostal church members, I needed help.
This particular story concerned a series of accusations about Life, the church founded by Paul and Maree de Jong in 1991. Paul de Jong came out of Hillsong — he had been a pastor on Frank Houston’s staff in the 80s.
Life responded to Hayden with a fairly vague statement an hour before our stated deadline (we asked the questions Friday, and set a deadline of 5pm Monday).
In their reply, Life’s Corporate Communications Manager Phil Irons also included concerns about Webworm, in a series of long-winded questions.
I answered those questions, and I wanted to share my reply here as well. I like to think it adds a level of transparency to what I’m doing here at Webworm.
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A Q&A Between Life Church and Webworm
Firstly, can we ask if you’re engaging us in your capacity as an independent blogger for the Webworm blog or one of the New Zealand media outlets you represent including Radio New Zealand and The Spinoff, or both, or all three?
In Hayden’s email, he began with “Kia ora, I’m working on a story for Webworm about the treatment of former and current staff, interns and congregation members at Life.”
I think he made it clear he was engaging in his capacity as “an independent blogger for the Webworm blog”.
We note your subject line says “media” enquiry but then you go on to say you are working as a blogger. Our understanding is that as a blogger you are not accountable to any code of ethics or journalistic standards, nor accountable to New Zealand media law.
This is not the first time Webworm has run up against this statement.
Paul Shakes (Board Chair of Bethlehem College, a Christian school in Tauranga) took a similar line of thought as a reason not to provide comment to Webworm, stating at the time:
We’re only engaging directly with NZ journalists, as they are responsible to a code of ethics and NZ media law.
I assume you are referring to the New Zealand Media Council and their “statement of principles”. You are correct in that Webworm is not a member. Members tend to be larger media organisations — newspapers, radio stations and so on.
But I’d also like to note (as founder and editor of Webworm) that I’ve been working as a journalist for almost two decades now, first as a journalist at TV3 New Zealand, before working increasingly in documentary since 2016 (where I am also not governed by the New Zealand Media Council). I am currently based in the United States.
I did not fling my journalistic standard and ethics out the window when I left TV3 in 2016 — if anything, being independent makes it even more important to abide by this stuff, as it’s my reputation on the line!
We would like you to clarify what standards, code(s) of ethics and law you are operating under in these enquiries before we consider if and how to respond.
The same standard and codes I’ve been operating with since 2005. I still abide by the principles of journalism I was taught back when I did my Bachelor of Communications majoring in journalism back in 2002. Also — though I hesitate to say this — the law does apply to bloggers.
I’m sure as a journalist for Radio NZ and The Spinoff - both reputable media organisations working under NZ media law, codes of ethics and the media council - you’ll understand our apprehension at your approach as a blogger rather than as a journalist. There would be no process for us to appeal to a governing body to seek a retraction or correction. We would need to know we will be treated fairly and impartially, without bias or prejudice and that you will be subject to accountability in some way, as we (and we are sure you) rightly expect us to be.
You will be treated fairly and impartially, as you would be with any “reputable media organisation.”
But that doesn’t mean I switch my brain off when I start writing the article, or cast stones at the victims who have come forward to talk to me.
While some in the media think neutrality is never making a judgement about anything, I prefer the idea that it’s weighing all the facts at hand, assessing who’s credible, and giving my readers the most accurate account I can. And getting as close to the truth as I can.
If you are approaching us solely as a blogger, will you guarantee us you are approaching us with an open mind, with impartiality and without bias and prejudice?
Yes, Hayden was approaching you “solely as a blogger” — but I would like to clarify that Webworm is a newsletter that is powered by Substack — a burgeoning platform for journalism that you should possibly be more aware of.
Substack is populated by a variety of journalists (some who I admire, some who I don’t), as well as writers like Salman Rushdie, Chuck Palahniuk and Patti Smith (isn’t ‘Because The Night’ a great fucking song!)
As editor of Webworm, I do try to approach everything with an open mind — as I do in all my projects (Tickled, Dark Tourist, Mister Organ etc). That includes trying to be impartial, and without bias and prejudice.
That however doesn’t mean Webworm doesn’t approach things with naivety, and without being informed. We do not exist in a vacuum of information. As I stated earlier, I try to weigh all the facts at hand, assess who’s credible, and give readers the most accurate account I can.
As you will be aware, Hayden Donnell and I worked on the Arise series last year, which was then also reported by all of New Zealand’s major media (who, for your information, are all members of the New Zealand Media Council).
During that time we heard from hundreds of current and former members of other large pentecostal churches, including Life.
These stories were difficult to hear, and work through. Selfishly, I wish I’d never heard them. And it goes without saying that those people wish they’d never lived them.
I can’t deny that listening to victims’ stories informed what I thought about Life church.
Will you also guarantee equal time and space for our point of view, and equality in the amount of time you’ll spend reviewing and considering it?
As you will see from the piece we published, we included a great deal of your response in our story. I also published the entirety of your point of view — literally every word — in a separate Webworm post.
I’d like to note no other media organisation would have been likely to do this — they simply don’t have the room. Webworm does.
Can you please also disclose how many of Webworm’s financial backers are linked to groups with religious intolerance and bigotry, and also please fully disclose any conflicts of interest around this?
As I said earlier, I think it’s probably important you become more aware of Substack, and the forms of journalism that exist outside of areas like “radio”, “TV”, “radio” and “blogs”.
I don’t have any in-depth information on Webworm’s “financial backers”, but can tell you that about 9 - 10% of Webworm subscribers choose to pay for it. I make it clear that no-one should subscribe if it in any way causes them financial hardship.
From observing discussion in the Webworm community. I would say that about 55% of readership comes from within New Zealand, and 45% spread across other countries including America, Japan, Iceland and the UK. I note a variety of genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, locations and ages. I have readers who are teens, and some in their 80s.
For your interest, I will share several comments left by several “financial backers” that you might find interesting:
I also came here to comment that I’m a Christian and financial backer of Webworm. I think you’ll find there’s a lot of us!
I would like to think as an Anglican priest I’m not a religious bigot.
There were also a few people that did state they were definitely religious bigots — but I suspect this was done with tongue firmly in cheek.
My other option would be for me to send out a questionnaire for people to fill out before signing up for a subscription where they can affirm that they are/are not intolerant or a religious bigot.
One last point: What makes this model of journalism so powerful is that it is directly made possible thanks to readers. Webworm does not have advertisers, and does not answer to any particular owner, brand or company.
In my mind this independence creates the least conflicts of interest I’ve ever experienced in my entire career, which is freeing and incredibly powerful for journalism.
Having paying members means that my public interest work (like my work on megachurches) is also kept free for all — without paywalls.
We know only too well how real the threat is of intolerance and hatred towards minority religious communities in Aotearoa and so we would appreciate full disclosure around this.
I discussed this with my co-writer Hayden, and we both think it’s pretty amazing to see a large, rich, predominantly white Evangelical church take on the label of “religious minority”.
Churches have always seen themselves as part of an oppressed subculture — but with faith on the decline I guess we’ll be seeing more of them adopting the language of actual minorities, even if they’re part of the most privileged groups in every significant respect.
I also hope you have time to read Elisabeth’s story in our piece — which features Life’s earlier take on minority groups with leaders in black face, and a ‘Mexican border crossing night’.
We also have concerns around how healthy and safe it is for grievances to be publicly litigated in this way, because it could be actively harmful for some, especially those vulnerable to experiencing mental health challenges. Have you read and understood the NZ Mental Health Foundation media guidelines for reporting?
Can you assure us you will abide by these when publishing stories that involve or have an impact on mental health?
I’d also like to note that victims approached me, in my capacity as Webworm editor, because they wanted to. In general, some did not want to approach Life at all, because that was the source of their trauma, stress and anxiety.
Others spoke of making various approaches but being unsuccessful, or in some cases being essentially shunned for doing so.
Thirdly, would you please encourage people with negative experiences to make a complaint via the feedback and complaints page on our website?
While I published your statement above (that you have a feedback and complaints section) in my capacity as editor at Webworm I removed the link. I am hesitant about sending victims directly back to the place that allegedly victimised them.
We take these matters very seriously and are committed to addressing them with the care and weight they deserve through our robust complaints process.
I am glad you take these matters very seriously, and I look forward to hearing more about what you are going to be doing to make sure things reported by Webworm don’t happen again.
Considering I am carefully addressing all your questions very specifically, I look forward to hearing more about how you will address your culture, processes and treatment of current interns, staff and church members.
We are most concerned that people who may have shared stories some time ago with this blog have not been able to resolve them because they haven’t engaged with our process.
I see this as victim blaming. You are implying it’s their fault things are not resolved. It is not their fault.
This may be difficult to wrap your head around, but part of the reason people shared their stories with this “blog” is because they did not want to approach Life. I hope you can understand why someone who has had a traumatic time would not want to go back to the place or the people or institution that provided that trauma.
Webworm has had multiple people tell us they felt gaslit, intimidated, and sternly counselled to believe it was their fault, and often that it was their own duty to forgive.
I’d also like to note a clear way to “engage” with you only appeared on your website sometime in March or April of 2022, after Webworm had started its reporting on Arise.
This was far too late for many who had already been harmed.
Finally, can we ask when you’re planning to publish?
This is probably obvious now, but we planned to publish the day after the deadline Hayden gave you (deadline Monday, publication Tuesday).
And, if you are writing for a blog and not a deadline driven media organisation, we’re curious as to why you had such an urgent deadline for our response (two working days) when you have been sitting on these stories for many, many months according to your blog.
I think this possibly has a lot to do with your perception of the media.
Webworm may not be driven in the same way as the 6pm TV news, but I have a publication schedule for my readers that needs to be met.
Webworm is like a full-time job for me — I am not rolling out of bed wondering, “Gosh do I publish today? Nah, I’ll just jump in my giant pool”. This is a job. And I take it seriously.
Is there a reason for the urgency and will we be given an equal amount of time to respond once we have all the information we need to respond to?
Your church is a large, well resourced organisation.
You were approached on Friday, and had a large part of Friday, the entirety of the weekend, and then Monday to respond in any way you felt appropriate (which you did, an hour before deadline).
Generally in journalism when approaching a large organisation, you want to give them a reasonable amount of time, but not an endless amount of time. The easiest way to think about it is I want you to have enough time to read and address the key questions — but not enough time to run too many PR lines.
I want honesty.
Another aspect, and speaking in more general terms, I also don’t want any large organisation to have the time to try and access victims or sources before I publish.
We’d also welcome seeing what you plan to publish so we can consider responding more fully to what you are planning on publishing.
As I was taught way back in journalism school — you don’t show a story to anyone in advance. Certainly not an organisation at the centre of the story. No journalist would. That would be a fucking insane thing to do.
I hope this answers your questions.
That is what I wrote. And sent to Life church just now.
Going on what has come before, I don’t particularly expect Life to read it and suddenly snap into taking accountability or rethinking the way they do things. Of course I’m happy to be proven wrong.
As I said, at the very least I hope it provides a level of transparency to what I’m doing here at Webworm, and how I think about things.
Since writing ‘Holy Hell’, Michael Frost (who we interviewed for that piece) has recorded a new episode of In The Shift. He was a leader at Life for some time, so this hits close to him for him — and explains why the episode is called ‘Mega-close to Home’. He reflects a little more on Life’s response to Webworm, and why it was the way it was.
In closing, I note RNZ has also reported on MBIEs current investigation into Arise, following Webworm reporting this last month. To reiterate: The fact the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is looking into intern treatment at Arise is huge. These churches are built on the metaphorical breaking backs of interns. Of free labour.
Without that labour, they’re dead in the water.
An MBIE spokesperson said the infringement notice was issued to Arise for failing to keep proper wages, time, holiday, and leave records.
“The issuing of the infringement notice automatically triggered inclusion of Arise Church as an employer on Immigration New Zealand’s stand-down list.”
Large pentecostal churches like Life, Arise, City Impact and other Hillsong clones should be worried. And they should be desperately seeking to change, rather than writing a series of idiotic, gaslighting questions to Webworm.
And to clarify something I said earlier: No, I don’t have a giant pool. That was a wee joke. I don’t even have a tiny pool.