Monica Smit ABC interview: inaccurate, harmful, offensive say Audience and Consumer Affairs

Following a complaint to the ABC in the wake of a 12 August interview with the founder of Reignite Democracy Australia, Monica Smit, Audience and Consumer Affairs concluded that it was a “serious editorial misjudgement”.

They found that ABC Far North Drive breached the ABC’s editorial standards for accuracy, harm and offence. A correction has been published and, after the finding is reported to the ABC board, it will be published under upheld complaints.

A post here on 18 August, examined in depth a series of bogus claims made by Smit (pictured), and touched on the importance of editorial accuracy. On 13 August I’d submitted a complaint to the ABC summarising the most significant points made in that post.

As mentioned in the post under Editorial Standards?, after the interview, presenter Adam Stephens did clearly outline his reasons for having Smit on. He thought it is interesting people hold such views and that, as evidenced by RDA pamphlet drops, some residents around Cairns had been swayed by Smit.

He also added:

Whether you wanted to hear from Monica or not there are people that are listening to her message, and sometimes it’s… I think worthwhile in actually learning about the motivations of some of these groups in our community, and some of the people that feel strongly enough to actually join groups like this and distribute their information.

This sounds reasonable, but the problem is that Smit is a skilled manipulator. She is well versed in faux justifications for anti-vaccine, anti-mask and anti-lockdown claims. The RDA site leaves no doubt that they present harmful and divisive claims backed up by legal loopholes and the misrepresentation of studies. At the time, Smit had already incited a number of illegal protests. It was clear she had no regard for community safety. It is a factor that ABC management should have proactively made clear to programme producers across the country.

In an ideal world, disinformation would be refuted on the spot. In reality, because Smit (and others like her) cover such a range of topics, and use obscure details, this is impossible. The answer is to never provide air time. A decade ago, anti-vaccination activist Meryl Dorey was given ABC air time to discuss an immunisation incentive. She used both opportunities to spread disinformation. Complaints were upheld and Dorey hasn’t been on the ABC since. Let’s hope a similar fate awaits Smit.

The correction published by the ABC is as follows:

ABC Far North: On 12 August, ABC Local Radio Far North Drive interviewed a member of anti-lockdown and COVID-19 conspiracy group Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA). The program failed to explain that the interviewee had no medical or pandemic expertise; and that the group is anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination and encourages illegal lockdown protests. This context was material to the audience’s understanding of the issues to hand. During the interview it was stated that mask wearing is dangerous; this is inaccurate. The interviewee made repeated erroneous claims about important public health matters which were not adequately contextualised or corrected by the presenter. The program failed to take the opportunity after the interview to directly correct and debunk the claims made.

ABC’s editorial standards are covered in the Code of Practice. Ultimately, Audience and Consumer Affairs found that the interview breached the ABC standards for accuracy 2.1 and 2.2, and for harm and offence 7.1 and 7.6. The full email response from Audience and Consumer Affairs is below (with permission of ABC).

Dear Mr Gallagher

Thank you for your email regarding the 12 August edition of ABC Far North’s Drive with Adam Stephen, which featured an interview with Monica Smit of Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA). I apologise for the delay in responding.

Your complaint has been considered by Audience and Consumer Affairs, a unit which is separate to and independent of content making areas within the ABC. Our role is to review and, where appropriate, investigate complaints alleging that ABC content has breached the ABC’s editorial standards, which are explained in our Code of Practice. We have carefully considered your complaint, sought information from ABC Regional management and assessed the content against the ABC’s editorial standards for accuracy and harm and offence

Drive has explained that local Cairns businesses had received flyers from RDA, and that they broadcast an interview with a business owner who expressed his frustration with the “irresponsible” behaviour of this group which would “put everyone else in danger”. Following this, the editorial decision was made to interview Monica Smit from RDA.

Audience and Consumer Affairs have concluded that within the context presented, this interview was a serious editorial misjudgement. Our findings are set out below against the relevant editorial standards.

Accuracy

2.1 Make reasonable efforts to ensure that material facts are accurate and presented in context.

2.2 Do not present factual content in a way that will materially mislead the audience. In some cases, this may require appropriate labels or other explanatory information.

As you explain, at no point was it made clear that Monica Smit and RDA have no medical or pandemic expertise, nor are they advised by medical experts. It was not made clear that their flyer and website provides no reputable or evidence-based information. Further, it was not explained that RDA is an anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination activist group which attends, supports and encourages illegal lockdown protests and other activities. This context was material to the audience’s understanding of the issues to hand and in particular to the credibility of the claims made by Monica Smit.

As you point out, Monica Smit made numerous inaccurate and unsupported statements in this interview which were not corrected or adequately challenged by the presenter. The claims made by Monica Smit regarding mask wearing and lockdowns were both alarming and erroneous. The interviewee was allowed to make repeated inaccurate claims about important public health matters which were not adequately contextualised or corrected. Further, the program failed to take the opportunity after the interview to directly correct and debunk the claims made.

Audience and Consumer Affairs have concluded that Drive breached the ABC’s editorial standards for accuracy 2.1 and 2.2.

Harm and offence

7.1 Content that is likely to cause harm or offence must be justified by the editorial context.

7.6 Where there is editorial justification for content which may lead to dangerous imitation or exacerbate serious threats to individual or public health, safety or welfare, take appropriate steps to mitigate those risks, particularly by taking care with how content is expressed or presented.

Audience and Consumer Affairs observe that reliance by listeners on the information provided by Monica Smit during this interview about public health orders was likely to cause harm. This includes the inaccurate information about mask wearing, lock downs and comments made by the interviewee on how to breach / avoid health orders.

The likely harm was not justified by the editorial context. Issues around groups like RDA are newsworthy to a degree, usually because of the threat or harm they present to the wider community and their illegal activities. An interview with a fringe activist with no medical expertise talking about public health matters requires very solid context and rigorous debunking; that did not happen on this occasion.  

The material propagated by Monica Smit in this interview put RDA followers and the people around them at risk, and the editorial context did not justify the likely harm. The program did not take adequate care with how this content was expressed or presented, particularly in relation to accuracy. 

Audience and Consumer Affairs have concluded that Drive breached the ABC’s editorial standards for harm and offence 7.1 and 7.6.

ABC Regional apologise for this serious lapse in editorial standards. This matter has been discussed with the program team and a correction published here. In keeping with Audience and Consumer Affairs’ usual processes, this finding will be reported to the ABC Board and a summary published here

Thank you again for bringing your concerns to the attention of the ABC. Once again I apologise for the delay in responding. Should you be dissatisfied with this response, you may be able to pursue your complaint with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (www.acma.gov.au).

Yours sincerely
(redacted)
Investigations Manager
Audience and Consumer Affairs


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Monica Smit: COVID-19 charlatan given ABC air time

It seems longer, but it has been only two and a half months, since we dropped in on Monica Smit and her self-appointed government-in-waiting, absurdly named Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA).

The occasion was their attendance during COVID-19 lockdown at a meal held at Moda Kitchen and Bar in Seddon, in breach of the Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008. It was all a bit of a chuckle, given that the group effectively outed themselves and the restaurant by boasting about it on social media. The amusement was short lived for Moda however. On 6 August they announced their imminent closure on Instagram and Facebook. Their last meal was 14 August, just 11 weeks after hosting RDA. A representative told Star Weekly that the closure was unrelated to that event.

The representative claimed that mask-wearing mandates and lockdowns had not effected the business, insisting, “To be honest, we’ve never been so busy”. Although the attitude of the establishment to public health regulations was echoed in the observation:

Running a business is hard work and with or without the unlawful restrictions we were ready for a change.

Speaking of unlawful, it should be noted that Moda Kitchen and Bar had made the RDA business listing. The listing provides details of businesses, prepared to exploit loopholes in public health regulations that keep us safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most specifically, this relates to mask-wearing and QR code check-in. There are exemptions to the requirement to wear a face mask. These include breathing difficulties, facial skins problems, intellectual disability, mental illness and having experienced trauma. The Privacy Act 1998, The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and The Equal Opportunity Act ensure that no-one, should they not be wearing a mask, can be asked to provide evidence of such a disability unless their prior consent has been given.

It is thus quite easy for the dishonest to venture out without a mask. This is something we’ve seen as mask-less RDA disciples with phone cameras taunt police. The business listing idea is fluffed up through RDA concern that businesses might not be aware of the risks of discriminating. When it comes to QR code compliance, a business may simply trust patrons to do the right thing. Or perhaps trust them to do what Monica advises; choose to check in with pen and paper and be trusted to leave genuine details. If you happen to be a business that regard essential public health initiatives as “unlawful restrictions”, as Moda did, your RDA business listing is this.

RDA business listing – Moda Kitchen and Bar

ABC Radio Nth QLD

Monica Smit offers unregulated “advice” about public health and wellbeing mandates. On 12 August 2021, Monica was interviewed by Adam Stephens during the Drive programme on ABC North Queensland. The reason for this was RDA “You Can Say No” pamphlet-dropping in Cairns. Dave, a small business owner, was interviewed prior to Smit. He wasn’t impressed and wasn’t fooled.

The flyer tactic backfired, as the only change in his behaviour was to place a sign outside his shop, reinforcing that no mask or no QR code check-in, meant no entry. That Drive programme is archived and Dave and Adam begin their chat at the 45:00 min mark. Next comes Monica Smit, introduced by Adam as Monica Schmitt. Text messages, read out after a news break, were unanimously negative. If you’d prefer the highlights package, grab this mp3 here or listen below.

  • Cairns resident objects to RDA flyers, Monica Smit (4min), Adam reads text messages (9:40)

RDA recently made the Daily Telegraph’s top ten list of COVID misinformation spreaders in Australia. You may thus wonder why the ABC would give them air time. I would rush to add that the Daily Telegraph (DT) is not equivalent to the US based Centre for Countering Digital Hate. The latter spent significant time and resources, collating information on those they ultimately termed the disinformation dozen. Nonetheless, the central thesis remains intact. Despite clearly fallacious claims that place the community at risk, well-financed groups and individuals manipulate Facebook to their advantage. The DT reported that RDA subscribe to the belief no COVID-19 vaccine has been properly tested, and in fact weaken the immune system.

They also allow their name to back the conspiracy theorist standard that the vaccines are “manufactured by people who openly want population control”. Professor Mary-Louise McLaws specialises in infection prevention and control. She rightly observed those claims were “completely fallacious” and “wickedly inaccurate”. In a welcome development since the DT piece on 6 August, RDA had their page, and shortly after their backup page, unpublished from Facebook. That came on the heels of their aggressive campaign to boycott SPC, after the fruit packing giant mandated COVID-19 vaccination for employees. The boycott campaign resulted in product tampering and threats that presently continue.

Editorial standards?

Adam Stephens did give his reasons for interviewing Smit. He observed that it’s interesting that there are people that hold this view. That there are people in regional QLD who are active members of RDA, as evidenced by pamphlet distribution in Cairns. He continued;

Whether you wanted to hear from Monica or not there are people that are listening to her message, and sometimes it’s… I think worthwhile in actually learning about the motivations of some of these groups in our community, and some of the people that feel strongly enough to actually join groups like this and distribute their information.

I’m aware that listeners took the trouble to contact the ABC to voice concern. Before we examine Monica Smit’s claims, let’s consider the following. Smit was not introduced with sufficient context to advise listeners that they may be misled. It was not stressed that Monica Smit and RDA are not medical or pandemic specialists or that they are not advised by medical experts. It was not explained that their website provides no reputable or evidence-based information. Indeed, it was not stressed that the group has no relevant qualifications specific to the management of COVID-19, or any illness, at all. Finally, there was no public health representative on hand to address the claims made by Smit.

One might then ask, were ABC standards for editorial accuracy satisfactorily met? Granted, a context of sorts was laid down during Stephens’ chat with business owner Dave. Whether this was enough to reinforce that Smit and RDA act in dissonance to both government guidelines and evidence-based health policy, is not merely unclear, but unlikely. Monica Smit brings a firm, if utterly misguided, confidence to her stints behind any microphone. It came to the fore as she insisted that masks were not only useless and causing harm but there is, “so much science out there” to support this.

“Because it’s the truth”

When asked why she is informing people that they don’t have to follow mask mandates or QR code check-ins if they choose, Smit replied, “Well because it’s the truth”. With QR codes she advises to manually sign-in or shop somewhere else.

In effect this would mean finding a shop that has adopted Smit’s loophole advice. As we’ve come to expect from RDA on evading mask wearing, she mentions PTSD, anxiety, depression – the “huge list of exemptions”.

She blames, “the coercion and the scare tactics of the police and the government”, for forcing those with legitimate reasons for exemption, into wearing masks. At no time did Smit offer a legitimate reason as to why Australians without a health condition can refuse mask wearing. Unless of course, you are willing to feign one (I’m not suggesting she advised this). She followed on by claiming long term mask wearing is “really dangerous”.

That word brings to mind the long debunked claim that oxygen is restricted and CO2 intake rises to poisonous levels. Smit gushes that “People have, you know, passed out at work”. A fan of Tucker Carlsen, Smit is likely influenced by the research letter pushed by him about six weeks ago, and now retracted from JAMA Pediatrics. Smit goes one better, claiming there is, “[A] lot of science to say that they cause cognitive issues with teenage children as well, and they’re wearing them eight hours a day”.

Smit might get that notion from an isolated German survey, looking at “complaints from adolescents and children caused by wearing a mask”. This is not “a lot of science”, and comes with an editorial note stressing the absence of a causal link. There is also the genuine concern related to the importance of non verbal facial cues, to children who are learning. These are minimised by face masks. Particularly in the classroom. As fate would have it, or rather, as science would have it, this has been studied pre-pandemic and during the pandemic. CNN published a handy summary here. If you land on the conservative City Journal, you will find arguably emotive material to support Smit’s contention.

Adam Stephens questioned Smit on whether she really did have substantial supporting science, given the evidence-based source material that advises government policy. Smit was glad he asked because in March and April of last year the media, “were saying that a healthy person wearing a mask is an absolute waste of a mask”. She wondered “why the narrative has changed”. In fact that was because of a WHO-funded systematic review and meta-analysis, published in June of 2020 in The Lancet. More so this was clearly conveyed in “the narrative” presented by the media. Consider this non-ambiguous heading in The Guardian: Victorians may be now be told to wear face masks to halt COVID-19 – what’s changed? Then Smit confidently offered another disingenuous and factually wrong line.

The ‘Brett Sutton’ lie

Smit claimed:

I know that Brett Sutton, he’s the Victorian CHO (Chief Health Officer) here, he actually did a full study paper on how useless masks are to stop the spread of disease. So basically the narrative has just changed but the science has not changed and that is that masks are dangerous.

A “full study paper”? Sounds impressive. Also, I happen to agree with Monica here. The science has not changed. Nor has the old tactic of cherry picking and manipulating facts to support disinformation. What we find on checking Sutton’s authorship of research, is a 2001 literature review in Anaesthesia and Intensive Care, that he co-authored. At the time Sutton was based at North West Regional Hospital in Burnie, Tasmania. Both he and his co-author worked in the Department of Anaesthesia. The title of the literature review was Do Anaesthetists Need to Wear Surgical Masks in the Operating Theatre? A Literature Review with Evidence-Based Recommendations.

The review text could not be more clear. It was undertaken due to the absence of published data on the unmasking of the anaesthetist alone. In the modern operating theatre, exactly how this would impact post operative wound infection, if at all, needed elucidation. It was noted that surgical masks offer incomplete protection from bacteria and viruses. More so, plastic face shields provide better protection from infection for the anaesthetist. Three compelling studies, led the authors to conclude in part;

These studies provide sound scientifically-based evidence that, in the setting of a modern operating theatre with laminar flow/steriflow systems, surgical masks should no longer be considered mandatory for anaesthetists and non-scrub staff during most surgical procedures.

There is a reason for the extra detail on this review. This claim about Brett Sutton’s past authorship is not just misinformation, already tossed about like a Frisbee at a church picnic. This is hot-off-the-tongue disinformation. A nice fresh lie still in its packaging, delivered over the airwaves for the gullible to snatch up, unwrap and distribute. It has the added connotation that Victoria’s CHO is not only aware that masks are ineffective, but had produced “a full study paper” to this effect. Listeners may wrongly assume this is both recent, and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Smit studiously avoids admitting the paper is nineteen years old, and that it examines only anaesthetists and non-scrub staff, in operating theatres. Whilst cherry picking, she missed the one that suggested plastic face shields offer better protection.

In July 2020 Brett Sutton presented advice on wearing face masks, in areas experiencing stage three restrictions. At the same time the reasons for the mandating of mask wearing were being thoroughly discussed in mainstream media. It was impossible to miss. To suggest there was just a sudden change in “narrative” is wrong. Adam Stephen put it to Smit that her advice could place people at risk of COVID-19.

Deep breath

Without drawing breath, she responds;

Well I just totally disagree with that because, um, you know I think the government is putting people at risk of serious problems ah, with lockdowns and things like that so, it’s proven around the world that lockdowns don’t work. Australia has the worst lockdowns actually, I think, in the world. We’re being laughed at overseas because of how harsh our lockdowns are. Some, some, some countries have hundreds of thousands of cases daily and they’re still living about their lives, and we get one case and we close borders.

So ah, I would say the government is being a lot more dangerous than we are, and we’re actually empowering people to have critical thinking, which the government doesn’t want. They don’t… the government’s not giving people all the information. And that’s… and we get censored. I just got taken off Facebook. I had sixty six thousand followers and I get censored because my science is apparently not true, but I can back it up. But a lot of the science that’s said on mainstream media can’t be backed up but there’s no censorship for them so it’s really difficult.

It has not been “proven around the world” that lockdowns are ineffective. They remain one of the most effective non-pharmaceutical interventions. Healthy discussion continues about how this effects economies and communities. What is doubly strange about Smit’s approach here is that if masks are as useless as she claims, there is one clear alternative. The very lockdowns she also insists are useless. I doubt she is aware of this. Her approach is to attack all options, and encourage us to abandon them. She has no alternative to offer Victoria.

Stephens raises the question of people who accept the claims on the You Can Say No flyer, being fined. Smit comes back with a prompt that all the resources are on the website, and that;

If you get the flyer you really need to take that extra step to actually do the research because if, you know… know the law and you know your rights, then actually that fine is null and void and it’s actually um… it won’t mean anything.

Adam lets Monica know they’ll leave it there. Smit responds with an eager “No worries!”. Those familiar with Monica Smit might have noticed the big grin-tone in her final words. She had reason to feel smug, as Australians have every right to expect better from our national broadcaster. Smit usually only gets this much air time on Sky News. The reaction on Telegram, the favoured social media platform of COVID conspiracy theorists, was predictable. Discussion was kicked off thirty minutes later by RDA on their Telegram channel, with an announcement headed by a customised graphic.

Telegram

The first post I wrote on Monica Smit and RDA, opened with Monica Smit loves being the centre of attention. That entire topic requires a post on its own. Suffice it to say however, that certain personalities only take. They surround themselves with givers, and ruthlessly ban, delete and expunge those who challenge their bogus view of reality. The result is the unfettered pseudo-worship you see in the small sample above.

Note the suggestion from one, to “destroy those imbeciles”, in reference to Dave the shop keeper. It’s further worth noting RDA didn’t provide Adam Stephens’ interview with Dave, or the dissenting text messages. All that was known is that a shop owner was “appalled” by the flyer. Sophie, who unwittingly outed herself as a Cairns local, and likely a distributer of the flyers, decided that was enough for the destruction of “those imbeciles”.

Still no evidence

The bulk of RDA members on social media, continue to behave as if enjoying a sustained muck up day. This, however, gives an inaccurate view of the groups resources. Their recent advertising truck, growing range of merchandise, and increasingly slick video production suggests donations remain healthy. This has enabled the group to curate their campaign of alienation through misinformation. Their message is for those who prefer to be told what to think, rather than make their own conclusions. Yet this group is convinced they have discovered a unique truth that “sheeple” cannot see.

Although Smit talks of access to science that confirms the RDA position, there is none on their site. The well examined Danish study on mask wearing and transmission of SARS-CoV-2, can be accessed in favourable format. Rather than finding masks do not prevent transmission, the study failed to find, “at least a 50% protection against a SARS-CoV-2 infection given by mask wearing”, as it was designed to do. Fact Check also addressed this nine months ago. In targeting COVID-19 vaccine safety and efficacy, RDA direct readers to the tired example of the estimated study completion date, for the AstraZeneca vaccine. The actual study completion date was 5 March 2021.

Other material is presented in misleading context. Despite Smit’s claim of enabling critical thinking, visitors to the site are shown bias. There are no opportunities to compare contentious information in a critical fashion. The elephant in the room here is that all reputable evidence is against the position held by RDA. The use of “critical thinking” as a buzz term, has become almost commonplace in conspiracy theory circles. It is seemingly confused with contrariness. This is underscored by the fact that constant cries of suppressed freedom, and the exploitation of loopholes, is possible only because of our democratic rights and the legislation that protects them.

Conclusion

There’s little point rambling on much more dear reader. I’m certain the RDA site would be worthy of content analysis. A work similar to the excellent approach employed by Thomas Aechtner, in assessing the Australian Vaccination-risks Network, would be welcome.

Monica Smit is more than just dishonest. In taking advantage of a global pandemic to raise her profile and profits she has proven to be a malignant influencer. What has been demonstrated above, is that everything Monica Smit said during the interview with Adam Stephens, is demonstrably false. More to the point it has long been clear what she stands for.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation needs to be out in front of such people.


References

ABC North QLD Drive – Thursday 12 August 2021

The Lancet VOLUME 395, ISSUE 10242, P1973-1987, JUNE 27, 2020. Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis.

Anaesthesia and Intensive Care 2001; 29: 331-338: Do Anaesthetists Need to Wear Surgical Masks in the Operating Theatre? A Literature Review with Evidence-Based Recommendations. M.W.Skinner, B.A. Sutton.

Mask Mythbusters: Common questions about kids and masks

Corona children studies “Co-Ki”: First results of a Germany-wide registry on mouth and nose covering (mask) in children – DOI: 10.21203/rs.3.rs-124394/v3

The impact of face masks on children-A mini review: PMID: 33533522 PMCID: PMC8014099 DOI: 10.1111/apa.15784

BMJ Rapid Response – Conclusions from the Danish study

Danish study doesn’t prove face masks don’t work

Why nobody will ever agree on whether COVID lockdowns were worth it – The Conversation

Reignite Democracy Australia – You Can Say No

Reignite Democracy Australia – Informed Consent

Reignite Democracy Australia – Face mask Exemptions

Updated: 19 August 2021

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