There is something alarmingly wrong in a democracy when police physically attack journalists and its politicians normalise verbal abuse of the media. But, if we are not worried because it’s happening half a world away, we should be.
We need to worry because there is a far-reaching corrosive effect in what is happening in the United States and shown daily on the news feeds and social media accessed by many in this country.
The agreement that allows newsgatherers to bear witness on the public’s behalf is a fragile thing with strictly limited legal force. It is an understanding between media and the public but the average person on New Zealand streets has little comprehension of either its purpose or importance.
Last Friday the Committee to Protect Journalists and the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker said they were currently investigating at least 280 reports of anti-press violence reported since May 26. The majority of those reports involve police officers acting against journalists, who describe being shot with rubber bullets or other projectiles, sprayed or gassed with chemical irritants, or smacked, shoved, or pushed to the ground. One photographer permanently lost the sight in one eye after she was hit by a rubber bullet.
In the midst of those attacks, Donald Trump tweeted: “The Lamestream Media is doing everything within their power to foment hatred and anarchy. As long as everybody understands what they are doing, that they are FAKE NEWS and truly bad people with a sick agenda, we can easily work through them to GREATNESS!” The subtext of his tweet was that these ‘truly bad people’ deserved the treatment being meted out to them.
Why should this mean anything to Kiwis at the bottom of the world who are basking in the glow of a probable victory against Covid-19 by the Team of Five Million? It’s happening in a country so divided that it may no longer be able to call itself the United States. It’s a consequence of something we cannot imagine a New Zealand police officer committing. Many more protestors than journalists were subjected to ‘rough justice’. And it was inflamed by a president with no conception of constitutional boundaries.
All true, but there are effects that transcend both those factors and the rational response that will condemn both the police actions and the presidential rhetoric. For many the rational response will extend to questioning our own attitudes to race in this country. Those things are positive, but we are emotional as well as rational beings. The images, the sounds, and the rhetoric can push our emotional triggers and the events of the past fortnight did that in abundance.
Attacks on journalists – supported by political abuse that began almost as soon as Donald Trump took his seat in the Oval Office, but which is by no means limited to the president – help to undermine the relationship that reporters have with the public. Our society gives journalists informal license to be in certain places and to question people because they serve the public’s right to be informed and because they can bear witness. If that license is called into question – and the attacks in the US might suggest to some New Zealanders that it does so – the status of journalists is diminished. In the sub-consciousness of some people, a drop of acid will fall on the protective shield that the public routinely allows reporters and news crews to go about their business.
Corrosion is a gradual process, and this acid drop alone won’t eat right through the shield. However, the shield is already pitted by low levels of trust in media and by the growth in low value content. Further corrosion will occur. In the forthcoming election, for example, watch for an increase in candidates’ Trump-like use of the term ‘fake news’, attempts to undermine the credibility of those who test the credibility of candidates, questioning the right of journalists to even ask too-close-for-comfort questions, and exclusion from events.
At some point in the future this country will be faced by an issue as divisive as the 1981 Springbok rugby tour. Then it was the protagonists on both sides of the issue who heaped scorn, abuse and angry shoving on the reporters, photographers and television news crews covering the tour. In one incident a photographer was attacked and cans thrown at media. There were many examples of media being verbally abused. That’s not a pleasant experience. As a young reporter I was subjected to a tirade from a very large oaf who fancied himself as a standover man. I can’t remember a word of what he said – tirades usually have that effect – but I do remember the quiet menace to the tone of the photographer (who was a bit of standover man) who expertly came to my defence.
I have few fears that the New Zealand Police will declare open season on journalists. They will have learned an important lesson from events in the US and not least from the close-to-home assault by Washington police on a Channel Seven news crew that led to outrage in Australia. And they already have the harsh lesson of the Springbok Tour’s Police Red Squad whose aggressive tactics and an assault on three protesters (in clown outfits) led to public condemnation.
When we are again faced by schism or incitement it will likely be the protagonists who will target the media. Division produces the sort of passion that pushes reason aside and hunts for targets. My fear is that the events of the past fortnight will escalate verbal abuse and measured shoving to more serious physical assault.
Thoughtless people will always be susceptible to emotional manipulation and malcontents will seek easy targets, but the vast majority of the public can be persuaded that attacks on journalists are not only wrong but ultimately counterproductive.
It is time to give the public the lesson in civics they probably never received at school.
- They need to be told why it is important for journalists to have the means to report events, particularly those in which the rights of individuals and the power of the state collide.
- They need to be told why the context and analysis that a news organisation brings to that coverage cannot be replaced by random social media postings from bystanders’ mobile phones (valuable though some may be).
- They need to be told why journalists with the backing of news organisations are able to hold power to account when the voices of individuals are lost amid background noise
- They need to know the journalists who stay in the thick of the action do so not for the excitement of it all but because they serve the public’s right to be informed.
The people who need to deliver that lesson are the news organisations and the journalists themselves. And they need to do it while the memory of those 280 episodes of anti-media violence are fresh in people’s minds.