Last week the Broadcasting Standards Authority released guidance to broadcasters which, I sincerely hope, gathers digital dust in an unopened computer folder.
The world will be a better place if no New Zealand broadcaster has to ever access the file to ensure local coverage is in line with the detailed guidelines it contains.
The guidelines are not faulty. Nor is the BSA operating outside its remit. The reason I hope they are never needed is because they cover acts of terrorism and violent extremism.
Following the Christchurch mosque attacks last March, the BSA began an assessment of coverage of such incidents.
First, it adjudicated on several complaints about coverage of the shootings. It did not uphold complaints against Television New Zealand over a very brief clip from the gunman’s webcam nor the use of victims’ unpixellated images. However, it did uphold – in very strong terms – a complaint about SkyTV’s explicit Australian-originated coverage.
Then it held workshops to consider whether specific standards were needed. Standards are both prescriptive and binding. They would have had the undesirable effect of telling journalists how to do their jobs. Quite rightly, this was resisted by broadcasters.
The BSA then embarked on research and a series of discussions with interested parties to draw up the guidelines that it released last week. They are just that – guidance – and, although they inform BSA interpretation of standards, they cannot be cited as grounds for complaint. Only breaches of specified standards constitute grounds for formal complaint.
Nevertheless, broadcasters pay attention to the guidelines attached to each of the standards set out in the BSA Codebook and it was therefore important that the authority struck the right balance in its Guidance Note: Reporting on Terrorism, Violent Extremism and Crisis Events. To a large degree it has succeeded in achieving a balance, no doubt after hefty debate with the broadcasters. I make that comment with two caveats. First, the inclusion of “and Crisis Events” during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown may send an erroneous message that the guidance note also covers present circumstances. It is plain from the content that it does not. Secondly, although the genesis of the guidance note was the situation that confronted frontline journalists and news executives as the events of March 11 unfolded, nothing in it limits the scope to locally generated coverage of events in this country. It would be unfortunate if the note is used to bolster complaints about coverage of events in other countries by the BBC, CNN, or the American and Australian networks accessed by our broadcasters. Live coverage of terrorist attacks such as 9/11 or the Paris attacks of November 2015 are effectively beyond the control of our broadcasters. And the audience’s proximity to the events plays a crucial role in determining the impact of coverage. The guidance note would be improved by a specific limitation to local events, perhaps with a rider that where possible the underlying principles should also be applied to foreign event coverage.
In its own words, the BSA says the purpose of the note is to achieve the following:
- Striking a balance between the duty to inform and the need to avoid being used as a vehicle for hateful, ultraviolent propaganda.
- Avoiding content that may promote, amplify and glorify the attacker/terrorist and their method, message and actions
- Being mindful of content that may incite or encourage violence, or promote serious anti-social and illegal behaviour, in the form of terrorist activity
- Exercising care and discretion in carefully balancing the obligation to report accurate and timely information to the public.
Few would take issue with those wishes and it is obvious that it draws heavily on actual experience during the Christchurch attacks. It mirrors what I found while researching a paper with Dr Denis Muller of Melbourne University on news coverage on each side of the Tasman [Access the article here]. Our paper, The Proximity Filter, found that, in this country at least, those aims were largely achieved in the mosque attack coverage. The same could not be said of many of our Australian media cousins, including Sky News which was rebroadcast here. Hence, the note includes a warning to monitor and, if necessary, block some coverage emanating from foreign broadcasters. As stated earlier, this requires a tighter definition: Coverage of events in New Zealand.
The guidance note addresses coverage from three perspectives: Harm, privacy and propaganda. The latter is my shorthand for preventing an extremist from using egregious acts as platforms to propagate warped ideas. Anarchist assassins in the 19th century called it Propaganda of the Deed.
Much of the note is in the form of questions journalists should ask themselves and a large number are the very ones journalists told me they considered in the aftermath of the mosque shootings.
Here are three examples of the questions it contains:
- Will repetition, intensity and/or the disturbing nature of clips go beyond what is necessary to keep viewers informed?
- Are the violent images gratuitous or sensationalised?
- Does the footage have the potential to further the attacker’s propaganda purpose, promote and/or glorify the attacker’s actions, or invite and encourage violence?
The guidance note is a sensible document on several planes. The first is that the three areas of concern – harm, privacy, and propaganda – are well-founded. The second is the way in which it is couched in questions that journalists should ask themselves (individually and collectively) before putting coverage to air in the heat of an unfolding story. But it is the third quality gives the document its sense of reality. It says that coverage is a matter of proportionality: Weighing harm, privacy, and the attacker’s aims against the duty to inform the public. It is, the BSA says, a matter of balance. And so it most assuredly is.
Why did the authority release the note now?
A more comprehensive guidance note would have been produced after the trial of the Christchurch gunman. However, Brenton Harrison Tarrant decided last month to plead guilty to 51 charges of murder, the attempted murder of another 40 people, and one terrorism charge. A trial that would have challenged the editorial judgement of every news outlet in the country (and inform BSA guidance on that aspect of terrorism coverage) did not eventuate. There was no reason to further delay the note’s release, even if its arrival was lost in the immediacy of another crisis. It won’t be lost on the nation’s broadcasters who will lodge it in a folder that Hope will keep closed but Reality will remember where to find it.
Last month The Week Junior launched an American edition. Its British edition has been running for almost five years. It is a newsweekly for children aged 8 to 14.
The first 32-page issue in the United States was published as that country (with the possible exception of its leader) began to understand the impact of Covid-19. Rather than scare children with stories of how the virus attacked populations and killed the vulnerable, the front page carried a large heart and the words “Acts of kindness: People are uniting to combat Coronavirus and care for one another”.
The story about Covid-19 ran on page 2 before the magazine embarked just as its adult stablemate The Week does – on a liquorish all-sorts coverage of what was happening in the world and interesting things children might like to know.
The cover story of issue 2 highlighted creative ways people are connecting during the crisis and the third issue celebrated the heroes on the Covid-19 frontline. This week’s issue gave children a front-page break from the virus to highlight a 50-year-old story that was probably fresh news to them – the rescue of Apollo 13.
The Week Junior is one of a number of news publications catering to young people. France has the daily L’Actu, while Young World is published weekly with the Hindu in India. Australia’s ABC News has on online service for children called BTN (Behind The News) and our neighbour also boasted a newspaper for children, Crinkling News, but it folded in 2017 after two years of publication.
As a child I was an avid reader of Junior Digest, a news magazine for children that was published from the end of the Second World War to the 1960s. One of its regulars, Inky Thumb, may have propelled me into journalism.
But how well served for news are New Zealand children today? The digital platform for children heihei.nz has Kea Kids News but the majority of media for children is a form of diversion.
The most significant part of the New Zealand magazine industry has crashed and burned so now is not the time to be embarking on new ventures. A New Zealand edition of The Week Junior is a forlorn hope.
However, while they have a captive audience, our newspapers are well placed to devote some of their space (even a couple of columns) to a daily news digest written for children. It would give them a sense of being part of society in unprecedented times but can be presented in ways that so not alarm or depress.
Who knows, those children may pick up the newspaper habit. It’s more likely, I admit, that they will read it online.
Good news after bad
Michele Hewitson and husband Greg Dixon, who alternated to produce the Good Life column in the New Zealand Listener before the magazine was abruptly shut down by Bauer Media, have decided to continue their tales of the townies’ transition to a rural existence. Their enchanting and sometimes shambolic life on 12 acres in the Wairarapa is now chronicled on their new new site lushplaces.co.nz
To Charlotte Grimshaw, whose Easter essay in the Sunday Star Times was an uplifting account of the life and death of her mother-in-law Audrey Grimshaw, who died at the age of 90 socially distanced from her children in the Covid-19 lockdown. [Charlotte’s essay is here]