Stuff Circuit exposes wartime cover-ups with documentary series

By Paula Penfold and Eugene Bingham

Stuff Circuit

Auckland, New Zealand

At Stuff Circuit, our thing is investigative journalism and we never shy away from complex topics. But ​The Valley​ was so difficult at times, we almost could have walked away. Almost.

The Valley investigates New Zealand’s 10-year deployment to the war in Afghanistan, revealing cover-ups, secrets, omissions, and lies. At its core is a six-part online documentary video that answered important questions: What were our soldiers really doing in Afghanistan? Why weren’t we told?

Normally with an investigation you’d expect some challenges: legal risk, unhelpful officials, grieving families. But this had all of those and many more: soldiers with PTSD; reporting and filming in one of the most dangerous countries in the world; a defence force, the NZDF, whose obstructiveness was like nothing we’d seen before.

We had started with a first, tentative story in 2015 about a gunfight — the Battle of Baghak — in which two New Zealand soldiers died, along with four Afghan soldiers, our allies. Many more were wounded. It was the biggest firefight for New Zealand regular forces since Vietnam.

Stuff Circuit journalists spent tense time in Afghanistan to produce the high-quality, six-part video series.
Stuff Circuit journalists spent tense time in Afghanistan to produce the high-quality, six-part video series.

But it became clear that story only scratched the surface: one ex-soldier messaged anonymously, “That could have been a lot better.” Harsh, we thought, but he was right. And the information subsequently given to us by him and several other crucial sources formed the basis of what would become the biggest investigation of our careers.

The Valley exposed that, while our soldiers had been sent to Afghanistan in a non-combat role, they made decisions that led them into that deadly firefight. They were collecting biometric data that was passed onto the CIA but the public didn’t know, nor did even the defence minister at the time. Our special forces were celebrated as heroes over another deadly firefight, which we revealed they had actually provoked.

It was “mission creep” and we thought New Zealanders deserved to know the reality — a reality the defense force and the government had refused to acknowledge.

A goal of the project was to share stories from soldiers whose voices had not been heard before.
A goal of the project was to share stories from soldiers whose voices had not been heard before.

All of it would have been difficult enough as a straight print piece, but we are a video-led investigative unit. We wanted our audience to see for themselves the actual footage, filmed by New Zealand soldiers, of what happened that day of the Battle of Baghak. We wanted to give them the opportunity to look into the eyes of the Afghan soldiers who nobody — not even military investigators — had spoken to until we did, and to witness the anger on the faces of former soldiers describing how predictable it was that things went wrong.

We had to convince our bosses at Stuff that we could film in Afghanistan without getting ourselves killed. They agreed, but it was our most stressful assignment ever. Even the logistics of traveling between interviews required meticulous planning. We were on edge every moment.

There was another big problem. The fact it was a 10-year deployment meant there was a whole backstory for which we weren’t present, but which was a vital part of the narrative. Stuff’s mandate for our Circuit team to produce high-production values, innovative, video-led storytelling required us to think creatively and boldly about how this investigation should look. So we built and filmed models: the scenes of the battles, our Parliament buildings, the Twin Towers.

Bit by bit we were able to piece together the course of events and the questionable decisions that were the untold story of New Zealand’s war in Afghanistan, and ask: Was it worth it?

It’s satisfying, then, that after all its obstructiveness, the NZDF has now launched an investigation into some of the major allegations we published. Finally, maybe, we will get some answers.

About Paula Penfold and Eugene Bingham

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