Mosque killer dilemma: To name or not

The Christchurch mosque terrorist has a name which will live in infamy, and present the New Zealand news media with an enormous dilemma.

It is increasingly evident that the killer of 51 innocent people (and the wounding of 40 more) is determined to keep that name in front of the public. The best means of doing so from his isolation cell in the Prisoners of Extreme Risk Unit at Auckland Prison is through the courts. That automatically draws in news media that have an obligation to cover his interactions with the justice system.

Last week the only man in New Zealand ever sentenced to life imprisonment without parole used his right to judicial review. He applied to have his designation as a “terrorist entity” removed and changes made to his strict prison conditions.

An announcement by the Justice Ministry that his request would be heard in the High Court at Auckland on Thursday was duly reported and it was apparent some were news media were struggling with the dilemma they have faced since 15 March 2019: Should they give him the publicity he so desperately craves? In particular, should his name be published?

Stuff’s website and its print titles chose not to name him when his application was revealed. Most failed to even register the events that followed and a decision to adjourn as he was not ready to proceed.

Other media, however, did name and picture him. Broadcasters did not hesitate to do so. The New Zealand Herald story about his court application carried his name in six consecutive paragraphs. Its follow-up story putting the proceedings on hold named him seven times.

Who was right?

It depends how you approach the question.

If a matter is before the courts, it does not behove news media to arbitrarily suppress the name of one of the parties. That is the prerogative of the court and, in the absence of a suppression order by statute (as is the case with minors and victims of sexual assault) or by the judge, parties should be named.

The gunman’s application did not, however, proceed to a formal hearing. The matter was dealt with in chambers and Justice Venning issued a statement saying the application would not proceed because the applicant (who was representing himself) did not feel he had access to the necessary documents. Nevertheless, the judge’s statement did name him.

From that angle, therefore, publication of his name was not only justified but arguably was required. The requirements of open justice, however, do not extend to publishing or broadcasting images and video.

Viewed from another angle, however, it is obvious that the Christchurch attacker is using the playbook written by another white supremacist killer, a Norwegian who carried out a deadly bombing followed by a shooting rampage at a youth camp. His social media postings before the attacks cited the Norwegian and, since the attacks, he has used many of the tactics employed by him to maintain his public profile. The Norwegian, who is serving preventive detention for the slaying of 77 people in 2011, has used complaint and court processes to keep his name before the public over the past decade.

A court application over his prison conditions was partly upheld by a Norwegian district court, lost on appeal and was then taken to the Norwegian Supreme Court which refused to hear the matter. He then took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming his treatment in prison was a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights which prohibits “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. The European court rejected his case.

The Christchurch gunman used internal Corrections Department processes to complain about conditions such as his access to news and mail before his latest tactic of judicial review. Stuff’s coverage of that move claimed he, also, was seeking a review on human rights grounds.

Both killers share a psychological need found in many serial killers, mass shooters and celebrity assassins. They are nobodies who want to become household names.

It’s nothing new. In 1898, Italian anarchist and abandoned orphan Luigi Lucheni reportedly told a fellow lodger: “I would like to kill someone, but it would have to be some well-known person, so that it was all over the papers!” He got his wish when he fatally stabbed Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

American criminologist Adam Lankford has studied what he terms ‘fame-seeking rampage shooters’ drawn from what has been described as the ‘Look at me generation’. They explicitly admit their desire to be famous and have directly reached out to media organisations to get it. Their desire to be famous has been a clear incentive to make their attacks as deadly as possible (the Norwegian is seen as a record-holder) and Lankford also predicts that they will find new ways to get attention. It seems to me that the post-arrest activities of both the Oslo attacker and the Christchurch killer suggest innovation extends into their incarceration.

This quest for attention has given rise in the United States to movements such as “No Notoriety” and “Don’t Name Them” which encourage news organisations to avoid giving rampage shooters the attention and fame they often seek.

Lankford and fellow criminologist Eric Madfis have suggested media change their approach to coverage of mass shootings because existing approaches have deadly consequences. They believe present coverage gives the shooters what they want, increases competition to maximise victim fatalities, and leads to contagion and copycat effects.

They have proposed four guidelines for coverage:

  • Don’t name the perpetrator.
  • Don’t use photos or likenesses of the perpetrator.
  • Stop using the names, photos, or likenesses of past perpetrators.
  • Report everything else about these crimes in as much detail as desired.

They cite precedents for this approach in Canada and Finland, the former because the shooter was a juvenile and the latter where many outlets simply refused to name the perpetrator.

I followed those guidelines in this column to demonstrate how they can be implemented without materially undermining the narrative. Stuff followed them in its coverage of the application for judicial review. There was clear merit in Stuff taking this approach. It denied the gunman what he sought without denying the public information about the court application. You might say it was a win-win.

However, it required the Stuff editors to suppress detail that the court itself did not see fit to conceal. In his statement to media after a hearing in chambers last week Justice Venning did name the offender and rightly so. The public should know the names of people on whom the court is sitting in judgement or who are seeking the court’s power to right a perceived wrong. It does not, however, necessitate use of his image. That is purely an editorial judgement call: If we name him, should we also show our audience what he looks like?

So there is the dilemma. There are good reasons not to name the convicted terrorist and equally valid reasons to name him in court proceedings.

Perhaps it was a matter of degree last week: A single mention without an image would satisfy the need for open justice, while six references in successive paragraphs – plus still images and video archive footage – would be a fame-seeking rampage shooter’s dream come true.





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