After two hosts on talkback radio station Magic Talk were dropped for controversial comments, a third has referred listeners to the website of an anti-vaccine and anti-mask group, Marc Daalder reports

Magic Talk radio host Peter Williams told listeners to check out the website of an anti-vaccine and anti-mask group, saying they are “asking questions similar to mine here yesterday, except they appear to know far more about the science”.

The group, Voices for Freedom, is running a petition against “rushed, experimental Covid-19 vaccines”, falsely claims “the real science doesn’t back up mask wearing” and touts a treatment for Covid-19 called ivermectin, even though the drug’s own manufacturers have insisted there is “no scientific basis for a potential therapeutic effect against Covid-19 from pre-clinical studies”.

Williams’ comments come after two other hosts were dropped from the station for controversial comments. In late January, former Auckland mayor John Banks was taken off air after agreeing with a caller who compared Māori culture to the stone age while filling in for Williams. On Wednesday, host MediaWorks announced that host Sean Plunket would not be returning to the station either.

Plunket has a history of offensive comments. Last year, he was censured by the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) and Magic Talk was made to pay $3,000 for an interview over iwi roadblocks which contained a “high level of vitriol”. Three years earlier, Plunket had to step down from his own role at the BSA after tweeting, “Anyone else feeling for Harvey Weinstein?”

Both hosts were taken off the air after advertisers like Vodafone, Kiwibank and TradeMe pulled out. Cricket New Zealand reviewed its arrangements with Magic Talk but ultimately chose to stay on.

“We don’t endorse, or wish to comment any further on, Peter Williams’ views outside cricket,” a spokesperson for Cricket NZ told Newsroom.

‘Join the conversation’

Williams gave the shout-out to Voices for Freedom on Wednesday morning, after receiving a letter from the group raising concerns about the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The day before, he had dedicated his three-hour morning slot to discussing the vaccine.

“There was a letter from a group that I hadn’t heard of before called Voices for Freedom. I don’t know who they are or what particular area of expertise or experience they have,” he said on Wednesday.

“They referred me to their website. And again, that’s asking questions similar to mine here yesterday, except they appear to know far more about the science, especially about something known as molecular mimicry. Anyway, if you want to find out more, they’re at voicesforfreedom.”

On Facebook, the group celebrated what they termed a shout-out.

“He gave Voices for Freedom a shout-out and directed people to our website – something we are very grateful for,” they wrote. “Thank you, Peter. Kiwis need people like you championing these important topics.”

Voices for Freedom is led by Advance New Zealand board member Claire Deeks, who spoke at the anti-lockdown rally in Auckland in September. Then, she acknowledged, “I’m not a doctor, I’m not an epidemiologist, I’m not a scientist” and encouraged people to “question the mask wearing, question the social distancing, question the lockdowns”.

A spokesperson for MediaWorks didn’t express concern over Williams’ comments about Voices for Freedom.

“On Magic Talk we encourage listeners to ‘join the conversation’ which can range from the news/political stories of the day, world events and the issues that are affecting Kiwis,” the spokesperson said.

“The show on Tuesday did cover discussions around Covid-19 vaccination. As mentioned on air yesterday morning, Peter hadn’t heard of the group before. He did not intend his comments to be a ‘shout-out’ to this particular group – he was purely sharing listener feedback. Peter would like to be clear he is not anti-vaccination.”

Williams also told Newsroom he wasn’t against vaccines, before saying that the Voices for Freedom group was doing the same thing he did on his vaccine broadcast.

“You say they’re an anti-vaccine group, all they did was pretty much the same as I did on my radio show the other morning, was ask questions about it. I had some information from the British government about their adverse reactions to the first 46 days of the vaccine rollout in the UK and there were the best part of 50,000 separate reports,” he said.

According to The BMJ, the peer-reviewed medical journal of the British Medical Association, the vast majority of these 50,000 reports were for mild side effects: “a sore arm was the most common, and others included headache, tiredness, and a mild flu-like illness”.

Out of 7.15 million first doses of the Pfizer vaccine administered in the UK, just 101 anaphylactic reactions were reported.

“People are entitled to ask questions, are they not? Nobody is saying this is good or bad. Nobody knows what this vaccine can or can’t do because we’re still in a trial period,” Williams said.

This is untrue. The Pfizer vaccine, the only one approved for use in New Zealand so far, completed its trials in December.

‘Are you working for the Ministry of Health?’

Williams said he viewed the issue as one of free speech and accused Newsroom of attempting to censor him and working for the Government.

“What are you guys trying to do? Are you trying to basically shut down discussion? Are you working for the Ministry of Health?” he asked.

“We’re a radio station that’s based on opinion, based on discussion. What’s the problem? It’s what the media’s about, isn’t it? About putting various thoughts into the world and everybody gets their chance to have a say. There’s no such thing as a wrong opinion, is there? There might be wrong facts but there’s not wrong opinions.”

Williams also said he wasn’t concerned about referring people to an organisation that agitated against people receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, since he was doing the same thing.

“It’s just all part of the debate. My own personal view is that I’m far from an anti-vaxxer, but like many people in this country – many listeners I had the other morning by the sounds of the calls – people are not exactly going to be rushing in line to get vaccinated,” he said.

When told that Voices for Freedom would encourage people not to be in that proverbial line, he responded, “Well, I was pretty much doing the same thing myself on the radio show”.

He also wasn’t fazed by Voices for Freedom’s endorsement of unproven Covid-19 treatments or opposition to masks. 

“I’ve talked about ivermectin before as well. Have you not seen the latest, neutral stance on ivermectin by the NIH?” he said, referring to a drug used to treat head lice whose manufacturer has said is not suitable for use against Covid-19.

The National Institutes of Health in the United States “has determined that currently there are insufficient data to recommend either for or against the use of ivermectin for the treatment of Covid-19”.

However, the manufacturer of ivermectin has warned there is “no scientific basis for a potential therapeutic effect against Covid-19 from pre-clinical studies; no meaningful evidence for clinical activity or clinical efficacy in patients with Covid-19 disease, and; a concerning lack of safety data in the majority of studies”.

Despite saying he knew nothing about Voices for Freedom, Williams insisted they didn’t spread misinformation.

“There’s no misinformation being peddled at all, as far as I can see, by these people. All they’re doing is asking questions,” he said. When told that they falsely claim there is no evidence base for the use of masks, he responded, “They’re not the only ones saying that as well, as you’ll well appreciate.”

The World Health Organisation, the Ministry of Health, Public Health England and the Centres for Disease Control in the United States all back the use of face masks to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

Leave a comment