Tragic improvements to terrorism protocols

It is a tragic fact that new media protocols for dealing with acts of terrorism in New Zealand have benefitted from experience.

The protocols were negotiated by the Media Freedom Committee and officials led by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. They are an updated version of protocols first negotiated in 2004 and implemented the following year.

The updated version is clearly informed by the events in Christchurch in 2019. The preamble begins by saying that the mosque attacks “removed any doubt that New Zealand’s remoteness provided us with immunity from terrorism”.

That is hardly surprising, of course, but perceptions of terrorism have long been coloured by its most recent manifestations.

In the 1960s our fear was aircraft hijacking by the likes of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Then hostage-taking took a new turn and we were traumatised in 1972 by images of Black September and their Munich Olympics victims, followed by dramatic pictures of Britain’s SAS rescuing hostages from the Iranian Embassy in Princes Gate in 1980. Over the next 20 years we saw the rise of a plethora of terrorist groups – with attacks across Europe, Asia, Africa and South America – and the spectre of home-grown lone wolves in the shape of Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing

The defining moment that coloured our thinking when I chaired the Media freedom Committee that negotiated the first protocols was 9/11 and along with intelligence agencies, politicians, and the public, media saw terrorism largely in terms of Islamic extremism. However, I clearly recall that, even then, we knew distance was scant protection from the scourge of terrorism.

That realisation became all the starker in 2014 when customers and staff in the Lindt Café in Sydney’s Martin Place were taken hostage by a lone gunman. However, our collective perception of an Islamic threat was reinforced by the fact that the terrorist, Man Haron Monis, claimed affiliation with Islamic State, which had supplanted Al Qaida as the epitome of savagery. It would take the actions of another lone gunman (and self-proclaimed White Supremacist) at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre to disabuse us of that perception.

There is clear evidence that both the Lindt Café siege and the Christchurch attacks have provided lessons that have not only updated but improved the agreement between media and the state on how journalists and officials will interact when (unfortunately more likely than ‘if’) another act of terrorism occurs.

During the events in Martin Place, Monis used social media and coerced hostages to call Sydney radio stations and journalists to spread his message. He demanded the ABC broadcast that the siege was an ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) incident. The ABC and other stations did not follow this request and cooperated with the instructions of NSW Police. The 2GB radio station received calls from people claiming to be hostages. The calls were not put to air and media who were directly contacted by Monis (or through the hostages) went immediately to police before responding to the request. Negotiators and government media advisors were sent to radio studios and newsrooms to assist the media.

That experience is now reflected in the NZ protocols, which states: “Authorities will be notified by any media organisation that is contacted by a terrorist or terrorist organisation.” It further agrees that “Media recognises the importance of alerting authorities to terrorism or national security information it receives prior to publication if it may assist in the successful resolution of an event, or prevent loss of life, or serious injury.”

During the Lindt Café siege – a 16-hour standoff that began shortly before 10am – television networks carried live coverage but were generally careful in what they put to air. However, there were mistakes. A camera shot into the interior of an outside broadcast van showed multiple screens on which police and military activity could be clearly seen. The NZ protocols now recognise that perpetrators may be monitoring media to gain information about tactical responses.

Before the Christchurch gunman began his attack, he sent copies of his ‘manifesto’ to media organisations (and to the Prime Minister). Its contents were an insight into his deadly intent. While the time between receipt of the material and the start of his attack was too short to allow it to be acted upon, the new protocols note “the importance of alerting authorities to terrorism or national security information it receives prior to publication if it may assist in the successful resolution of an event, or prevent loss of life or serious injury.”

The gunman’s livestream video of the Christchurch attacks is now banned in New Zealand but when it was first seen by media organisations, a number fleetingly used either still images or a short video clip of the moments before he entered the mosque. His primary weapon was covered in White Supremacist messages and symbols. The judge forbad images that identified him when he made his first court appearance after arrest and New Zealand media pixilated his face. However, a supremacist hand sign were clearly visible. The protocols now state: “The risk of furthering terrorist aims and aiding their promotion by the publication of terrorist symbols, signs and propaganda is recognised by the media, who will exercise appropriate editorial judgement regarding such material.”

New Zealand media have been at pains to avoid giving oxygen to the Christchurch terrorist. Their counterparts in other countries, however, have shown no such restraint. An Australian colleague, Dr Denis Muller, and I set out these differences in a paper titled The Proximity Filter: The effect of distance on media coverage of the Christchurch mosque attacks []. The protocols recognise the difference: “It is understood that New Zealand media will have a heightened awareness of responsibilities to New Zealand audiences and communities compared to overseas media. At times reporting by overseas media may differ in judgement and approach to that of New Zealand media.”

Two elements have not changed since the first protocols were negotiated 17 years ago: The need for senior officials to open a dialogue with media as soon as practicable during a terrorist incident, and recognition of the fact that, with the exception of a few tightly proscribed provisions of the Emergency Powers Act, editorial control remains with news media editors.

The new protocols are an improvement. The circumstances that led to that improvement caused immense suffering, and left a scar on New Zealand’s heart.

RNZ’s Ring of Fire

Last week I wrote that a total audience increase was good news for the New Zealand radio industry. Two days after that commentary appeared, the good news stopped for Radio New Zealand.

Like the lyrics of a Johnny Cash song, it fell into a burning ring of fire. It went down, down, down and the flames went higher, and it burned, burned, burned.

The latest GfK audience ratings for RNZ show that its total seven-day audience (National plus Concert) is down almost 20,000 on the first survey of 2021. RNZ National is down more that 7000 listeners a week and Concert has shed double that number. Meanwhile the total radio market grew by more than 31,000 and RNZ got virtually none of it.

RNZ National has shed listeners and audience share in every timeslot except Kathryn Ryan’s Nine to Noon which gained an extra 5000 listeners, although it, too, is down on last year. The largest loser is Morning Report, which dropped more than 21,000 people aged 10-plus. Its audience share dropped from 15.4 per cent to 14 per cent.

Commenting on the latest survey, Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy noted that RNZ National had dropped almost 100,000 listeners across a week from 10 months ago at the height of the Covid crisis and pre-election period and asked “what could have caused listeners to switch off one of the country’s journalistic powerhouses?” Murphy’s attempt to answer that question canvasses issues such as programme hosts, perceived left-wing bias, doom-and-gloom focus, and a pre-occupation with te reo Māori.

It may be a combination of some or all those things but the fact that the losses occurred almost across the board suggests that the senior management of RNZ should look at its own strategies and decisions before seeking someone further down the ranks to blame. A fundamental question it might ask itself is this: Does it provide for the audience it has (or had), or for an audience it thinks it might like to have? The difference is far from subtle.


I thought Ecuadorian road cyclist Richard Carapaz had done very well with one gold medal at the end of a gruelling 234 km bike ride. On the strength of this headline he certainly deserves a bouquet as well.






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