Terrorism, the media, and an awful dilemma

While you read this, I will be enjoying my first holiday since Covid hit our shores. So I have cheated…just a little. In place of the Tuesday Commentary, here is a speech I gave last week to combined North Shore Rotary clubs.

No matter where you were, the horrendous attacks on innocent worshippers at two Christchurch mosques in March 2019 made the front page of newspapers and led television and radio bulletins.

Those acts and others like them have affected our journalism but, before I get into the detail of those events, I want to talk about motivation, and the awful dilemma that terrorism presents for journalists.

Horrifying though it may sound, the victims of acts of terrorism such as that carried out in Christchurch are no more than a means to an end. They are the currency used to pay for the world’s attention.

As mass circulation newspapers grew in the 19th century, the anarchist movement identified a violent means of getting their message to those masses. Death and destruction became what French journalist Paul Brousse in 1877 called Propaganda par le fait – propaganda by the deed. Even the pacifist anarchist Peter Kropotkin recognised that a violent act was more effective than a thousand copies of his pamphlets.

If propaganda-by-the-deed drew the attention of people like Kropotkin – he was a Russian prince exiled in England – it threw the radical fringe of the movement into paroxysms of delight. People like German-born editor Johann Most saw the attention-getting potential of public violence and set about providing the necessary advice. He is said to have inspired more than one deadly act of terrorism with his pamphlet Science of Revolutionary Warfare: A Handbook of Instructions for the Use and Manufacture of Nitroglycerine, Dynamite, Gun Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Arson, Poisons, etc.

Headlines were what these terrorists sought. Often the perpetrator was a nobody, an insignificant person whose desire for publicity had more to do with self-aggrandisement than the promotion of a political ideology. Indeed, the terrorists often had only scant knowledge of the movement in whose name they attacked.

Take Luigi Lucheni. After he assassinated the Empress of Austria in 1898, Lucheni was reported as having said: “I would like to kill someone, but it would have to be someone important, so that it gets in the papers! Labelled an anarchist, his name spread far and wide…even to the pages of my old paper, the New Zealand Herald.

I see parallels between the Italian misfit and the Christchurch terrorist. I believe both exhibit what is known as the Dark Triad, which links the personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy to violent behaviours. The Christchurch attacker had the same craving for fame, or infamy. His actions – wholesale slaughter live-streamed on social media – had two aims: worldwide publicity, and the production of material that his fellow white supremacists could propagate through encrypted social media platforms.

These people present the media with an awful dilemma. Journalists cannot ignore the events despite publicity achieving the terrorist’s objective. So it is not a question of whether to cover these events, but how the events are covered. There media confront the dilemma of recounting what had happened while subverting the perpetrator’s bid for the limelight.

And there ARE different ways to report the events.

The early research that I conducted with friend and colleague Dr Denis Muller of Melbourne University – we worked together as young journalists in the early 1970s – examined coverage of the Christchurch attacks by media in New Zealand and overseas. We found marked differences. The closer to the scene of the event, the more likely it was that coverage would be empathetically focused on the victims, with great care taken in how the scenes were described.

The further away, the more likely it was that the focus would be on the perpetrator, and the description of content more graphic and potentially traumatizing. Mr Murdoch’s Sydney Daily Telegraph showed the shooter’s livestream moments before the figure in the background of the image was shot. We called this marked difference in approach The Proximity Filter.

We found the proximity filter in coverage of terrorism in other countries, too.

For example, while the aircraft crashing into the second tower became the stock image of 9/11 for media outside America, within the United States – amid an upswelling of patriotism – it was more likely to be a picture of three dust-covered firemen securing an intact Stars and Stripes to a post protruding from the rubble. It became the Heroes 2001 postage stamp.

In Australia, the Joint Commonwealth-New South Wales Review of the Martin Place Siege in 2014 found the local media coverage was “measured and responsible”. As you can see, it was as victim-focussed as was the New Zealand coverage of Christchurch. The perpetrator of the café siege tried to contact local radio stations and forced hostages to do likewise. Broadcasters followed police advice and kept them off air. Talkback hosts closed down any attempts by callers to inflame the situation.

In a situation like the Christchurch shootings, reporters are filing minute by minute and often are in the thick of it. Videographer George Heard was at the mosque within 12 minutes of the shooting and was, in fact, inside the police cordon before it was set up. These journalists are confronted by horrifying scenes. Many of them watched the shooters’ livestream, which has since been banned by the New Zealand censor.

On the day, only a very short segment from the beginning – before this frame – was shown on television and it was broadcast only once before editors took it down. I have seen some of the live-stream. It is traumatizing.

Every newsroom in this country brought in trauma counsellors and offered ongoing counselling for staff affected by that day’s events. They are still available. Of course, that was only the beginning of the story. Brenton Tarrant had been arrested and a trial was yet to come.

And there was an aspect of the Proximity Filter – or the lack of it – that concerned justice officials planning for that trial.

British tourist Grace Millane was murdered in Auckland in 2018. Throughout the subsequent arrest and trial, the name of the man accused of her killing was suppressed. What could not be revealed was that that he was also facing other (unrelated) charges and fair trial rights prevented him being named before those charges were heard.

New Zealand media followed suppression orders to the letter but overseas publications such as London’s Evening Standard (safely outside New Zealand judicial jurisdiction) ignored the judge’s ruling. The name of the accused was then freely exchanged on social media.  There were very real fears foreign media would ignore rulings in the Tarrant case.

When Tarrant first appeared in court, the judge ordered that published or broadcast images of him must be pixilated. All New Zealand media complied with that order but an unpixellated image was sent overseas, accompanied by a precis of the judge’s order regarding pixelation. Nonetheless, some chose to ignore the ruling and published the unpixellated version. The failure to accept orders of the New Zealand court was not lost on justice officials.

Officials were also concerned that Tarrant may try to emulate the court performances of Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who appears to have been something of a role model for the Christchurch shooter. Breivik used the court as a soapbox for his white supremacist views. There were worries that Tarrant may try to do something similar. Images of Breivik giving fascist salutes were widely published, and he attempted to use the trial to push his idiosyncratic white supremacist views. However, the academic consensus is that he failed for a number of reasons, including the ability of the Norwegian people to read coverage of the proceedings that explained how justice was being done. His attempts to use the court as a platform were also subverted by his counsel’s attempt to argue an insanity plea.

Nonetheless, how Tarrant would conduct himself in the New Zealand court remained a matter for conjecture, fuelled in part by suggestions he made a white supremacist gesture during his initial court appearance. The government brought a number of Norwegian officials to this country to discuss the way the Breivik case and his imprisonment had been handled.

Remember, at this point Tarrant had pleaded not guilty and there was the prospect of a lengthy trial. Planning for that trial began almost immediately after his initial appearance. Only later did he change his plea, removing the need for a trial and limiting proceedings to a sentencing hearing.

Meanwhile, the media were also planning how they would handle the case. When my colleague and I conducted our initial research, it became obvious that no New Zealand news organisation wanted to give the accused any oxygen. The then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had publicly stated she would not even use his name. That wasn’t an option open to news organisations because his name had not been suppressed by the court, but they did have real reservations about coverage that could play into the hands of white supremacists.

There is a body known as the Media Freedom Committee, which represents all mainstream press, broadcasting and online media outlets in New Zealand.

When I chaired the committee almost two decades ago, we developed a set of protocols with police and security services for engagement between senior media executives and government agencies in the event of terrorist and national security events. It was in force when the Christchurch attacks took place and committed both sides to enter into and maintain high level dialogue at the earliest opportunity through to the resolution of the event.

It set out protocols for dealing with various aspects of a terrorist event, including efforts by terrorists to contact media (which Tarrant attempted in the lead-up to the attacks). It recognised that editorial control stayed in the hands of editors.  When that protocol was agreed, we had no inkling of live-streamed video. Thankfully, apart from that fleeting use of a short segment of the Christchurch shooter’s live stream, New Zealand media refrained from showing it, or repeating the content of a manifesto sent to them before the shooting began. Nonetheless, the protocol has now been updated to include provisions relating to live-streaming via the Internet.

Two months after the attacks, the five core media organisations represented on the Media Freedom Committee decided to limit their reporting of the impending trial to prevent dissemination of the perpetrator’s white supremacist beliefs and the re-traumatising of victims and their families. Court officials were shown the guidelines and made one suggestion – that only senior reporters would cover the proceedings –  before they were made public. That suggestion was incorporated.

So, we had a collective voice representing the New Zealand media. Another body, however, brought the media and judiciary together.

The Media and the Courts Committee is a rare beast. There are only a handful of examples of it in the western world. It is a body that brings together judges, court officials and senior representatives of major media organisations in. an informal atmosphere to discuss matters of mutual concern.

The New Zealand Media and Courts Committee was one of the first to be established. It was formed in 2001. It works largely in the background as a forum in which the judiciary and the media can raise issues and work collaboratively to improve coverage of the courts. One of the products of that dialogue is a guide for media on reporting courts and tribunals. When Tarrant first appeared in court, media representatives – some of them representing overseas organisations — were each given a copy of that guide. Overseas journalists were continually made aware of an online link to it throughout the subsequent hearings.

The committee was a vital liaison point during planning for the Tarrant hearing and remains a vital forum should the country again be confronted by a defendant facing terrorism and mass murder charges.

Its current chair, High Court judge Simon Moore is well versed in media and court coverage. He presided over the Grace Millane trial and was able to bring that experience to bear on how to manage foreign coverage of the Tarrant sentencing.

Before the sentencing, media were required to register. This registration process was a masterstroke because it bound overseas media – who had previously acted with impunity outside New Zealand jurisdiction – to a form of contract. If they didn’t want to sign it, they did not get access to the court. There were a few in that category…and they ended up taking coverage from news agencies who HAD signed up to it.

There were other restrictions. Video coverage of proceedings was carefully controlled with set angles and no closeups (later amended at the request of victims). There was a live feed from the courtroom to media and to the families of victims who could not attend court. It was watermarked to prevent it being used for broadcasts or on news websites. Broadcasters were provided with a package of coverage prepared by TVNZ. Still pictures were provided by the New Zealand Herald. Both organisations, of course, were registered and undertook to provide the pool coverage.

The watermark was not the only way in which online use of the video was controlled. If anyone put clips on social media, the source was traceable through unique identifiers in the video data that could be accessed by our security services. Anyone who misappropriated content could be cut from the feed. In the event, everyone complied.

The other significant restriction was on WHEN media could report. It has become commonplace for reporters covering court to update websites using Twitter or a Twitter-like service that linked to a news site. That was prohibited in the Tarrant sentencing and publication and broadcast was limited to two windows – the lunch adjournment and the evening adjournment. There was NO live news coverage. That meant that, should the proceedings be disrupted or misused, as Breivik did in Norway, or if the judge suppressed parts of a victim impact statement, there was time to do so before it was broadcast literally to the world.

In fact, the courtroom was orderly, even when victims and family members vented their anger at the defendant who, day by day, seemed to be a more diminished figure.

The result of planning and cooperation was coverage which, across the board, highlighted the impact on the victims and their families while giving no oxygen to the white supremacist views that had fueled the massacre.

Even the bottom-feeders among the British tabloid press were kept within the rules that had been laid down by the trial judge from a foundation of cooperation between the judiciary and the press. Media also had the benefit of insights from a specialist Muslim advisory group set up for the planning process.

There have been lessons. My colleague Denis Muller and I set them out over four issues of the New Zealand Law Journal last year. We concluded that protocols which result from trust-based institutional cooperation can ensure that the way in terrorism and its aftermath are portrayed can deny oxygen to the perpetrator and avoid ignorant retraumatizing of victims.

The lessons are useful because, sadly, terrorism is an ongoing risk.

Eighteen months ago, there was another terror attack, this time at LynnMall in Auckland. The perpetrator, killed by police at the scene after stabbing five people, was Muslim but that fact was kept in perspective by New Zealand media. Islamophobia had diminished in this country after Christchurch but the LynnMall incident led, according to the Muslim community, to some resurgence.

The inflammatory headlines such as “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”, that have characterised coverage of terrorism in some British newspapers, illustrate how easy it is to promote anti-Islamic feeling. Whipping up hatred is the antithesis of what I think journalism should stand for. I would like to think the headline in New Zealand over the Sun’s story would have been “80% of Brit Muslims oppose jihadis”

It is clear to me that the media have a vital role to play in opposing extremism wherever it may be found but also in promoting toleration of others’ legitimate beliefs.

Sometimes that opposition to extremism means publishing nothing. Let me give you two examples.

Some years ago, there was a fabricated threat – it had no basis in fact – that could have sent our financial markets into free-fall if it had been made public. That was the aim of its creator. In consultation with government agencies, no New Zealand media ran the story.

On another occasion, while I was editor of the New Zealand Herald, I received a substance in the mail accompanied by a threat. Police established the threat was not credible. Had we run a story, there could have been widespread public panic. We suppressed the story. In both cases, public safety transcended the right to know.

But you can see that terrorism is not only a man with an assault rifle. And, increasingly, it in in a virtual world.

One of the greatest challenges facing the media – and our security services – is the proliferation online of material that could incite acts of violence like that in Christchurch.

In 2021 our department of Internal Affairs funded a study into online extremism. Last year the US State Department funded a worldwide study of the same thing.

The New Zealand study found 315 extremist accounts, channels or pages from New Zealand, responsible for more than 600,000 posts. Those posts prompted some kind of response or reaction from the public over 8 million times.

The US study identified over 2500 unique users located in New Zealand who engaged in racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism discussion. Sixty per cent had online connections with groups in the United States.

Last week the acting director-general of the Security Intelligence Service told a parliamentary committee that the SIS see violent abuse – both inflammatory and threatening – in online spaces every day. His counterpart at the Government Communications Security Bureau told the committee that last year counter-terrorism surveillance had thwarted a number of plots on New Zealand soil. One involved an individual making bomb threats. Another involved increasingly concerning behaviour by a New Zealand-based follower of white-identity violent extremism. While, the third involved an individual making threats to use firearms and explosives at a public event. He, too, was identified by GCSB as a white-identity violent extremist.

How does this involve the media? In the last part of this talk I’d like to explore the question of how mainstream media can help to counter disinformation and extreme views.

Extremism may be buried on fringe social media platforms like 4-Chan, Gab or Telegram – that was the environment in which Tarrant performed – or it can hide in plain sight.

The occupation of Parliament Grounds in February last year may have been prompted by deeply held convictions about Covid vaccination, but seeded in that protest were groups and individuals with very different agendas. The MAGA sign was supported by Trump flags, vehicles sported the Q-Anon symbol that led the storming of US Capitol, the mock violence on the left was accompanied by unvarnished threats to rape female journalists and lynch politicians. And seeded throughout the protest signs were direct attacks on the mainstream news media.

This amalgam of the disaffected, conspiracy theorists and extremists already had an online presence.

To the average eye they may look like news websites and some of them, like Daily Telegraph NZ (which has no connection to the newspapers in London and Sydney that bear the name), have a veneer that looks like an alternative to the Herald or Stuff. But, alongside a legitimate news story such as ‘Man sought following an aggravated robbery in Riccarton’,  the audience is taken down rabbit holes of various shapes and sizes and treated to wild conspiracy theories and an “alternative” view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine … courtesy of the Russian state-owned and controlled agency Sputnik News.

Or Counterspin, which brands itself as an alternative to mainstream media. It covered the Parliament occupation at length and was the source of Marama Davidson’s unfortunate White CIS Male interview at the Posie Parker debacle. It will also link you to a host of kindred sites, including Daily Telegraph NZ and one which seems to run by a Christian conspiracy theorist awaiting the Second Coming.

Unfortunately, some people see these as legitimate news sites … and they gain viewers. But how can the legitimate mainstream media counter them?

American law professor Cass Sunstein has a rather dystopic view of our ability to counter falsehoods. In an essay On Rumors he says: “Even in the age of the Internet, the marketplace of ideas can fail to produce truth; social mechanisms ensure that any marketplace will lead many people to accept destructive falsehoods. In extreme cases, such falsehoods can create contempt, fear, hatred and even violence.”

However, he goes on to say that some sort of chilling effect on rumours is required. And he thinks that it may be by people being alerted to the cascading effect of rumours and the corrosive effect of falsehoods. I think it is here that legitimate media have a vital role to play.

Once Alice is down the rabbit hole it is extremely difficult to extract her and disabuse her of what she had been told in wonderland. The function of mainstream media must be to prevent her following the rabbit in the first place. That is best done by not only challenging falsehood with fact – Stuff’s Whole Truth campaign is part of that – but also by digging into these alternative sites, discovering who is funding them, and what their affiliations might be. This has been referred to as pre-emptive debunking, or prebunking.

And they must help audiences become more critical and analytical. They must show those audiences the difference between legitimate news media and outlets that have hidden agendas. They must earn the trust of their audiences. And the only way they will do that is by practicing the best tenets of journalism. What does that mean? Let me explain by reading what I told my students in the last class I taught at Auckland University. The course was “Journalism in Practice”. This is what I told them before I left the lecture theatre.

You are the last class I will teach. It’s been a privilege.

Some of you will become journalists and for you it will be a challenging career in a period of immense change and responsibility as journalists. I don’t under-estimate those challenges. Journalism, itself, is in this age of uncertainty.

All of you, as citizens, have a responsibility to ensure the survival of professional journalism.

We live in an age where the things that divide us have become more important than the things that bind us as a society. Those divisions are becoming more pronounced and have created discord, inequalities and disproportionate levels of power. It will be the role of the journalist to bring some balance to the discourse that pulls us apart and to ensure that power – whether it’s disproportionate or ruling in our name – is held to account.

To do so journalism must be principled and trusted. Those of you who become journalists MUST remain true to those principles. Those of you who don’t become journalists must hold journalists to account, but also fight for their continuing right to act on your behalf.

At which point I retired to fill my mug with coffee and ruminate on subjects like democracy, the media, and much else. On that mug is written “I love the smell of newsprint in the morning”.

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