“Content may offend”

 

     + Mosque attack anniversary   + Radio cricket  + Mystery Mason

TUESDAY COMMENTARY

The memory remains raw, visceral and agonising.

We need little reminding that the first anniversary of the Christchurch mosque attacks is three weeks away.

On March 15 our collective sorrow and outrage will be reinforced by an overwhelming level of media commemoration.

New Zealand journalists must tread a fine line in determining how they should mark the murder of 51 worshippers and the wounding of 49 others at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre.

New Zealanders will expect to remember those victims and their families, along with the first responders and medical staff. They will want to recall – proudly, perhaps – the nation’s response to the terror attack. They will expect to acknowledge that the alleged gunman was captured and faces trial in June. Above all, they will want to know about the processes of healing that the Muslim community and the country have managed to achieve in the past 12 months.

The public will not expect mainstream media to feed the demand for attention that the arrested man so obviously seeks. While traditional news organisations and digital news start-ups will not be able to accede to the Prime Minister’s desire for the public to keep the accused nameless, they must not give him oxygen.

Nor will audiences want media to re-traumatise by recounting (in vivid detail) the minute-by-minute unfolding of events. Nor indulge in ‘grief porn’ or the exploitation of the agony endured by survivors, their families, and the families and friends of the dead. It is all too easy for innocent victims to become the focus of (usually badly written) attempts to extract every last vestige of emotion – for no other reason than to increase the audience.

Doubtless there will be miscalculations but, in the main, New Zealand media are likely to pitch their commemoration in ways that reflect their approach in the immediate aftermath of the attacks: victim-focussed, empathetic, and mindful of the harm that can be caused by lurid and insensitive news coverage.

The New Zealand media’s creation of a protocol for coverage of the trial of Brenton Tarrant suggests they are also acutely aware of the possibility they could be used as vehicles for white supremacist propaganda and self-aggrandisement.  The protocol benefitted from Norwegian media’s experience during Anders Behring Breivik’s trial for terrorist attacks in Olso and Utøya in 2011. Editors there had to contend with Breivik’s attempts to grandstand, including his use of the Nazi salute.

Norwegian coverage of the first anniversary of those attacks was restrained. Breivik’s trial was underway at the time. There is a lesson to be drawn from  that. However, a more telling lesson can be drawn from the fourth anniversary when the July 22 Centre was opened. The government-sponsored exhibition was said to “bring people back to the events of that day” and displayed photographs and objects, including the remains of the car bomb that killed eight of Breivik’s 77 victims and his fake police ID card and insignia. It caused outrage and claims that it could become a ‘hall of fame’ for the attacker. Subsequently, a memorial to the victims was erected. The lesson is that commemoration should not give prominence to the alleged perpetrator.

I believe New Zealand media have received and understood that message. However, there is considerably greater doubt over whether the message has passed beyond our territorial limits.

I co-authored (with Australian ethicist Dr Denis Muller) a paper entitled “The Proximity Filter”. It was published last month in Kotuitui: The New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences and is a study of trans-Tasman media coverage in the immediate aftermath of the mosque attacks. It serves as a warning that the first anniversary could see lurid recollections in the Australian media.

We found the editorial focus in each country exhibited the effect of proximity. New Zealand media identified the victims as part of their own community and provided empathetic coverage focussed on them. The events of 15 March were seen as “foreign” by Australian journalists who used perceived distance as justification for extremely graphic content and a strong emphasis on the Australian-born alleged gunman and his white supremacist views.

The paper also found the transnational availability of Australian content online and its re-distribution on social media exposed New Zealand audiences to material judged unacceptable by this country’s journalists and news executives.[Full access to the paper available here]

If Australian media are true to form, the alleged gunman will be centre stage in the first anniversary commemoration across the ditch. The sub judice rule covering his impending trial counts for little beyond New Zealand jurisdiction and there is likely to be a graphic re-telling of events. The victims and their families doubtless will figure in Australian coverage: I fear they will be exploited for every emotional drop that can be wrung from their sad stories.

Simply not cricket

It was a Mexican standoff that became a circular firing squad.

Cricket New Zealand and Radio Sport’s owner NZME failed to reach agreement on a new contract and the prospect is that next year the public will have no radio cricket commentary.

NZME revealed its Radio Sport cricket commentaries are broadcast at a loss. Its monetary offer was therefore low-balled and it wanted a five-year innings to make the deal worthwhile. Cricket New Zealand felt that, in the same way that the game has changed, audience needs had evolved and there were richer pickings online.

Radio Sport is ranked 14th out of the country’s 22 commercial networks. It has a cumulative weekly audience of about 161,000, more than a third of whom are aged between 55 and 74. They do not count much to advertisers and, it seems, those who have passed their septuagenarian midpoint do not count at all (in ratings surveys at least).

So, in the greater scheme of commercial broadcasting, the loss of cricket commentary should not cause more than a ripple on the radio waves. That is, until one considers what radio brings to the game.

We see spectators at a cricket oval with the wire from transistor earpieces hanging under their sunhats. We know people who watch coverage at home with the television sound off and the radio commentary in its place. We sit in the park or at the beach listening to the cricket and feeling we are there.

Radio cricket commentary is aural imagery – word pictures that add a unique layer to play.

And, in this country, we are blessed with some of its masters in commentators like Jeremy Coney, Bryan Waddle and, before them, Iain Gallaway. Radio commentators have been creating those aural images for almost a century in this country. In the 1920s sports editor Alan Allardyce overcame the short-lived Radio Broadcasting Company’s reluctance and introduced cricket to the station’s fledgling sports line-up. He recalled in Patrick Day’s book The Radio Years: “They couldn’t imagine how you could make cricket interesting.” That is precisely what our cricket commentators have been doing since 1927. And they have been augmented during international tours by the best in the world.

The danger now is that Cricket New Zealand will come to an arrangement with its new television partner Spark Sport to repurpose the television commentary for audio streaming on Spark digital services.

Television commentators speak to the pictures that are being simultaneously transmitted. They do not attempt to tell viewers what they can see for themselves. Nor should they.

However, remove the video and you take away the very dimension that radio commentators expertly construct.

Replace radio commentary with that digital audio stream of Spark Sport television match calling and you substitute cost-free broadcasting with cellular data caps and battery drain on notoriously ‘hungry’ smartphones. I am as likely to sit listening to a whole day of image-dependent cricket on my iPhone as I am opening for England.

Someone must get Radio Sport’s owner and Cricket New Zealand back to the negotiating table.

Mystery inside an enigma

I thought I knew Murray Mason as well as most people who had worked with him. I now know I knew him not at all.

He died last August, a 79-year-old former journalist with a drinking problem. There are a few of them around and his death could have merited no more than the paragraph some journalists receive on their passing, if it is acknowledged at all.

However, Mason was found face down in a shallow creek in the Auckland Domain and the circumstances of his death were only the beginning of a mystery that writer Steve Braunias attempted to unravel.

Braunias found his estranged family, found others he had let down, and found those whose superficial acquaintance – often at the end of the bar in the Albion Hotel – was as much as Mason was prepared to give.

Thanks to Steve Braunias – one of the most talented writers in New Zealand journalism today –  I have many more details of the events in Mason’s life and if anyone could have found the man, it was Braunias. Yet he failed.

I hesitate to use that word because to say that he failed does a disservice to the diligence of his search and the craftsmanship of his writing over three pages in last Saturday’s Weekend Herald. Ultimately Braunias was unable to tell us who Mason really was, but the search ended with a startling discovery: He wasn’t Murray Mason. He was, in fact, Murray Edward Wyatt.

It is deeply frustrating to journalists that there are some people in this world who, like Churchill’s Russia, remain a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Murray Mason (Wyatt) was one of them.

Gavin Ellis

 

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