Kellie-Jay Keen is a five-foot-one, British middle-aged mother of four children who happens to believe that the word “woman” should be reserved for those who are biologically female. As many Quillette readers and podcast listeners will already know, she headlined a March 25th women’s rights event in Auckland called Let Women Speak, which was shut down by protester violence. Keen has been under fire for years from trans-rights activists (who believe that men can become women, and vice versa, by acts of self-declaration). And many such activists in New Zealand were quick to smear Keen as a fascist, on the basis that a small group of apparent Nazis had showed up in the vicinity of one of her recent events in Australia. Yet Keen had been invited to New Zealand by a collective that included a Māori women’s group (Mana Wāhine Kōrero). One might think that even Keen’s most ardent critics would acknowledge that Indigenous organizations are not generally in the business of hosting white supremacists. As we shall see, however, the campaign against Keen has hardly been marked by fairness or intellectual honesty. And sadly, much of the misinformation has been promoted not just by activists, but also by mainstream media sources right here in New Zealand.
Indeed, the casual reader of New Zealand media coverage could be forgiven for believing that Keen is truly a white supremacist who has actively allied herself with Nazis. The country’s most popular news website, Stuff, published an “explainer” on Keen indicating that her recent visit to Melbourne had been “controversial—culminating in members of the far-right giving Nazi salutes in the streets of Melbourne.” Later on, the same article informed readers that Keen had been “supported by masked men giving Nazi salutes.” The effect was to suggest that these odious third parties were somehow affiliated with Keen, or even that they were part of her entourage—when, in fact, they comprised a completely unrelated protest group that had shown up in the midst of a chaotic scene in downtown Melbourne involving as many as half a dozen separate protests. (The article also quotes New Zealand Immigration Minister Michael Wood to the effect that Keen is “inflammatory, vile and incorrect.”)
The state-subsidizedSpinoff site published a similar article, also presented in the guise of a neutral just-the-facts guide to Keen’s visit (title: “What you need to know about the anti-trans campaigner heading to New Zealand”). Under a Spinoff logo that had been festooned with the trans flag, a reporter claimed that in Melbourne, “supporters of [Keen] marched alongside neo-Nazis who were seen performing Nazi salutes.” The article also quoted the Rainbow Greens (a New Zealand group advocating on behalf of “Gay, Lesbian, Bi & Pansexual, Trans, Intersex and Nonbinary people, and rainbow inclusive mental health services for all”) to the effect that Keen has “links to far-right extremist groups.” In part because of this coverage, young New Zealand activists took to the streets imagining that they were going to confront Nazis—instead of a group of women who, like Keen herself, simply want biological men out of women’s prisons, bathrooms, and sports leagues.
Most infamously, New Zealand’s Newshub TV and digital media service showed a blurred and misleading clip of Keen allegedly performing a “white power” sign. In the original (unblurred) video, on the other hand, Keen is seen adjusting the zip of her top. (Kiwiblog has also pointed out that former centre-left Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been caught flashing the same alleged “white power” symbol. Ardern, most observers can agree, is not a Nazi.)
None of these news items mentioned that Keen has explicitly condemned the sort of vile extremism that critics casually attribute to her, and that Keen has publicly stated that “white supremacy and the racism that fuels it has no place in a civilised society.” None mentioned that Keen has worked with any number of people, in many countries, of every imaginable skin colour—none of whom apparently believe she is a white supremacist. All of the reports were conspicuously vague about exactly what Keen’s supposedly “hateful” views were. None provided links to interviews with Keen, so that readers and viewers could judge her views for themselves.
The Spinoff’sclaim that Keen’s supporters marched “alongside” fascists performing Nazi salutes in Melbourne is particularly misleading. The truth, as Spiked has reported, is that the black-clad men in question, “who had no identifying insignia, were led by police to the steps of Melbourne’s Parliament House, where they proceeded to give a Nazi salute. These fascists had nothing to do with Keen’s rally.” As Victoria Police subsequently confirmed, “the neo-Nazis were one of six groups to be holding protests at the same time as Keen’s.” According to a police statement, officers “were required to form many lines between the different groups to protect the safety of all involved, stop breaches of the peace and prevent any physical violence.” This is what led to the neo-Nazis being led into proximity with Keen’s group, despite the two having nothing to do with one another.
The misinformation campaign against Keen has affected not just Keen herself, but those who’ve worked with her; and even those who simply came out in Auckland to express support, several of whom were reportedlyassaulted. In Australia, Moira Deeming, a Liberal MP for the Australian state of Victoria, faced expulsion from her party for attending the Melbourne Let Women Speak event. (After a tense showdown with her party leader, this was reduced to a nine-month suspension.) In making the case against Deeming, the leader of the Victorian Liberal Party referred repeatedly to the presence of Nazis at the Melbourne event, suggesting (falsely) that Keen and Deeming had anything to do with them.
Many progressive outlets cheered the fact that Keen had to abandon her Auckland speaking event, presenting the mob action as a case of social justice in action. But while the media and the mobs line up squarely behind the principle that trans rights must trump women’s rights in all spheres, several of Keen’s positions are actually quite popular among everyday New Zealanders. Her advocacy of single-sex spaces for women, and her opposition to forcing women to compete against males in sports are hardly fringe opinions. She also opposes youth gender transition—which is controversial among medical professionals, yet widespread in New Zealand. Many Kiwis would be interested to hear what she has to say on these topics, but didn’t get the chance.
I’m a Latin American immigrant and a visible ethnic minority. I’ve encountered occasional discrimination in New Zealand—even if I’ve found most New Zealanders to be accepting and welcoming. I’d obviously be deeply concerned if Keen were using women’s rights as a cloak for white supremacy. That’s why I decided to look into the accusations against her myself. (I am not associated with Keen and did not organise or even attend her New Zealand event. Everything I am writing here is based on publicly available information.) While I did turn up evidence that she has said thoughtless things in the past—a habit that isn’t always useful when discussing sensitive issues—I found no evidence to back up reporters’ and politicians’ reckless suggestions that she’s made common cause with white supremacists, Nazis, or other right-wing extremists.
Stuff, for instance, wrote that Keen“has appeared in videos with far-right YouTube personality Jean-François Gariépy, as well as posting a selfie with Norwegian neo-Nazi Hans Jørgen Lysglimt Johansen.” But as Deeming has noted:
The allegation about Ms Keen posting a photograph with Hans Jørgen Lysglimt Johansen on the Internet is false … Ms Keen did not share a platform with Johansen as the article claims. She spoke at the Mot Dog left wing conference, but Johansen did not speak at the conference and was merely an attendee … It is immediately obvious from the evidence [cited by Deeming’s critics] that Ms Keen did not post this photograph—it is clearly Mr Johansen who posted the photo on his own Twitter account after seeing Keen give a talk at the Mot Dag conference. As reported by [third party media], Ms Keen did not know who Johansen was when the photograph was taken.
In other words, Keen was guilty only of having her photo taken with a stranger. This is something that many public figures do every day (including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who in 2017 was tricked into signing a Nazi flag offered up to him by a man with whom he was being photographed). Yet Stuff cited this as evidence suggesting that Keen is a Nazi sympathizer.
As for the claim that Keen was interviewed by Gariépy, a French Canadian white nationalist, this is absolutely true. But as was reported four years ago, Keen (also known as Posie Parker), hadn’t heard of Gariépy at the time she agreed to appear on his show, and had simply said yes to a media request put forward by the man’s assistant. When she learned about who he was, she could not have been more forthright about her abhorrence of anything connected to white supremacy or racism.
Was Keen’s decision to accept an interview with Gariépy an error in judgment? Of course. By her own account, she gave his channel only the most cursory inspection before conducting the interview. But this is not evidence that she personally holds white supremacist views.
Stuff’s allegations about Keen touch on the issue of race, as well: “But it’s not just the trans community in her sights, she has also taken aim at migrant communities in the UK, where—in now-deleted social media posts—she called [the West Yorkshire city of] Bradford an ‘awful place for women’ because of its high population of ‘Pakistani Muslims.’”
Notice the highly selective (six words in total) quotation of Keen’s words. The quoted sentence refers to tweets Keen made several years ago, criticising the British police’s failure to investigate the grooming gangs that preyed on young girls in several English towns. This was a genuine scandal. And few now dispute that this policing failure was connected to the city’s demographics. Helen Joyce, a former editor for the Economist, has written:
As for Pakistani Muslim grooming gangs, it is now unarguable that they operated in many English towns for many years with near impunity—and that was in part because of the perpetrators’ ethnicity and religion. Police and social services looked the other way as underage girls were groomed, raped, and prostituted in part because they feared being called racist, and in part because they regarded the victims—disproportionately working-class white girls, many living in care or in households where the father was absent—as dispensable. And most journalists looked the other way for similar reasons … It’s impossible to overstate how much harm was done by this selective blindness: how it harmed race relations; how it damaged trust in the police, social services and the media; how it sowed suspicion of left-wing institutions among centrists and right-leaning voters; how it turbo-charged ethno-nationalist groups. I think many more British people would now think [Keen’s] tweets perfectly defensible, indeed necessary, than would have before the revelation of that widespread institutional failure.
This is a complex and sensitive subject. In my view, Keen was extremely thoughtless in how she phrased her tweets, some of which are depicted in the image below. But the Stuff article omits the full context surrounding them, which would help readers understand why a women’s rights activist would be utterly incensed by the fact that British authorities had failed to protect girls and women due to sensitivities directly connected to race and religion. In truth, Keen stood against the sexual abuse of young girls, at a time when few were brave enough to do so. And one might think that this counts for more than bad phrasing in a few tweets.
I won’t address all of the smears used to attack Keen (some of which are analysed in recent pieces by Deeming and Helen Joyce), though I will include a few words about what I think is the silliest line of attack. Several years ago, following criticism of Keen’s tweets by a left-wing activist who called her a “Nazi Barbie,” Keen responded by changing her profile picture to a Barbie doll in a Nazi uniform. Arguably, this joke was offensive and in poor taste. It was certainly unwise in the circumstances. However, it was clearly intended as humour—and it was clearly directed at a critic who had already decided to use a Nazi meme as a sort of debating-hall tactic. Presenting this incident as evidence that Keen is actually a Nazi is absurd. And yet, this was one of the claims included in the “evidence” marshalled against both Keen and Deeming.
A recent Auckland University of Technology study found that in 2022, “New Zealanders’ trust in news and news brands continued to fall at an alarming level.” One reason for this may simply be that news on certain topics is no longer trustworthy. Reinforcing the approved narrative has become more important than factual accuracy. And part of that narrative is the highly dubious belief that men truly do instantly become women‚ and thereby gain access to all of women’s protected spaces, by simply asserting their status as such.
By enlisting their journalists as foot soldiers on this side of the culture war, media outlets are losing credibility with middle New Zealand. This damages their ability to reach a broad audience with important information about topics such as vaccination and climate change—topics on which the “orthodox” position truly does have the science behind it. The solution is to permit a wider range of voices to be heard, and to not contaminate ostensibly neutral reporting with obvious propaganda.
Stuff and the Spinoff might argue that their claims about Keen were worded in such a way that they were not flat out lies. But of course, applying this low standard is hardly a defence. It’s rare for even fringe media outlets to tell outright, verifiable lies. Instead, they mislead by juxtaposing two facts so as to suggest a (non-existent) connection between them, while omitting other facts that serve to explain the import of the included information. The coverage of Keen offers a case study in how these tricks are played. The writers and editors who were responsible for publishing these articles knew full well what (false) meanings would be gleaned by most of their readers.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Keen was the target of deliberate misinformation because of her outspoken views on women’s rights. It’s a tried-and-true technique among gender activists: Step out of line, and we will destroy your reputation. But there’s also evidence that these tactics aren’t as effective as they once were. Many New Zealanders have noticed the disconnect between local media reporting and video footage of Let Women Speak, and are pushing back at the media narrative. It’s notable that Victorian Liberal leader John Pesutto got a very rough ride when he tried to demonize Deeming, despite the fact that he had much of the media running interference for him.
In the short run, the mob got what it wanted: Keen was prevented from speaking in Auckland. But in the long run, video footage of bullies shouting down and assaulting women’s rights activists will make Keen’s point better than any speech she might have delivered. Perhaps the next time she comes to New Zealand, more people will come out to hear what she has to say, especially now that they’ve learned that they can’t depend on much of the media to accurately describe the woman and her message.