The events in Christchurch on 15 March 2019 are still vivid in all our minds so I do not need to revisit each stage the attack. Suffice to say that there was a remarkably short space of time between police receiving reports of gunfire to the arrest of the gunman: A mere 21 minutes. Of course, at that stage, police did not know he was acting alone, and the emergency extended well beyond that 21- minute timeframe.
As he walked to the mosque the shooter activated a live-stream video. It has become the subject of public outrage because social media did not prevent it going viral. Facebook said fewer than 200 people saw the Christchurch massacre while it was being streamed live on the site. They admitted the video was viewed about 4,000 times before the original post was removed. Facebook went on to say it stopped 1.5 million derivative videos in the first 24 hours after the attack, 1.2 million of which were blocked before being uploaded to the site. That means 300,000 videos were able to slip past its filtering system. It went viral on other social media too.
Before he started his attack, the gunman spread his ‘manifesto’ through social media. It was sent through multiple tracks to ensure wide distribution and was also sent to the New Zealand prime minister’s general email address. The ‘manifesto’ has since been classified as an objectionable document by the chief censor – an effective ban in further distribution within New Zealand.
The video live-streamed by the gunman is 17 minutes long. The chief censor has classified it as objectionable (an effective ban). I have seen the video and I can tell you it is horrifying. I can also tell you that it bears a disturbing similarity to first person shooter video games in which you see the scene through the gunman’s eyes. One of the questions to be asked must be the future of such video games.
The Police themselves posted their first message on social media only eight minutes after arriving on site. One of the first journalists to arrive at the Dean Avenue mosque was George Heard, a videographer and photographer who has worked for Stuff’s digital services and its Christchurch newspaper, The Press, for three years. He later recounted his experience.
He parked his vehicle about 400m from the mosque and ran towards it. He described the scene as “chaos”. Police were pointing their weapons at people telling them to come out with their hands in the air. No-one at that stage knew who was a terrorist and who was not.
He said he was told by police to hide behind a tree. From that vantage point he was looking straight down into the mosque through the front door.
He saw two bodies and a pool of blood coming out of the door. A shotgun was on the tiles. On the street there was a body on the centre island and a body in the gutter. Other bodies were in the driveways. A boy was slumped against the wall with his father. Both appeared dead.
A police officer yelled at him about taking pictures.
“I said, ‘this is history’ and he stormed off. Ten minutes later the officer returned and apologised.”
This is one of the images he posted on Twitter:
Heard said that while events were unfolding he was not thinking too much about what was happening. It’s quite foreign to us all. How was he to deal with it? Should he be concerned for his own safety. Those questions seem to have come later.
He said: “I still don’t believe it’s real. Even going to the funerals. I’m thinking, ‘did that really happen’. There was nothing I could do to help. I was helpless when people were dying. It’s a strange feeling. I had two guys crying on my shoulder. They hugged me. I was shaking from the adrenalin and started smoking. This guy covered in blood comes and asks for a cigarette. I only had one left and I said, ‘take it, take it’. They all shared this one cigarette.”
George Heard, along with many other front-line journalists on that day, has been required by his newspaper to undergo trauma counselling. All mainstream media companies immediately set up counselling services for their staff. Counselling notwithstanding, he will carry those images in his head for the rest of his life. George is 21 years old.
Unfortunately, it’s part of being a journalist. I can recall the scene of a particularly gruesome murder of half a century ago as if it was yesterday.
Other journalists arrived on the scene. Twitter became the most immediate way in which they could update the fast-moving story. The updates were sometimes less than a minute apart. This is a remarkably swift way of getting a story to the public. These tweets are published direct from a reporter’s smartphone to the website or mobile app. What it lacks is a coherent overview of what is going on. It is almost a stream of consciousness. Analysis came later.
These frontline journalists needed to be careful, in this instant environment, not to spread unsubstantiated rumour. For that reason, apart from eye-witness accounts, they relied heavily on emergency services for information.
Broadcasters broke into their normal programming and immediately dispatched heavy-hitters like One News’ John Campbell and Newshub’s Patrick Gower to the scene. Radio talk programmes ditched their scheduled programmes and, in the initial minutes, painted a confused picture until their own reporters were on the scene.
The Prime Minister and the Police Commissioner Mike Bush did a remarkable job in keeping journalists – and the pubic – informed as information came to hand. I have contributed to an annual workshop on terrorism incidents attended by police and security intelligence personnel. As an exercise in crisis communication management, it seemed to me that the official response on 15 March was almost word-perfect.
Events continued to unfold overnight and on Day 2 the country’s newspapers hit the street. Without exception they concentrated on the victims of the terrorist attack and the perpetrator was relegated to inside pages. The Press, Christchurch’s own newspaper, did a fine job in covering the attack. Their coverage was reproduced throughout the Stuff media chain and, of course, on its website. This newsroom had already had its baptism of fire during the 2011 earthquake that badly damaged their building and, once again, its staff performed in a highly professional manner.
On Day Two – the Saturday – the shooter appeared in the Christchurch District Court and was named as Brenton Harrison Tarrant. He faced a single murder charge.
Media applied to photograph and film the accused. Judge Kellar ruled that, in order to protect the fair trial rights of the defendant, media were required to pixelate – obscure — his face. The judge went on to say it was “vital that no news media publish any material that could imperil the prospect of a trial that is fair to all who are involved in it.”
It’s important to remember that there WILL be questions of formal identification in the trial. For that reason, New Zealand media took this comment by the judge as a signal that they should not publish ANY unpixellated images of the accused man. One editor instructed his staff to even obscure the face in a picture of him as an eight-year-old boy.
Australian media are outside the jurisdiction of New Zealand courts but – with one exception – they observed the pixilation order in relation to photographs of the accused in court. That may well have been because most images were pixilated before they were transmitted overseas.
However, Australian media felt under no obligation in relation to other pictures of the alleged gunman. His portrait – taken from the live stream video – featured on the front page of most Australian newspapers. He is, of course, Australian-born.
They also had no qualms about showing the first-person shooter aspect of the video. In the case of the Sydney Daily Telegraph – a Murdoch paper – one of the shooter’s victims is seen in the video grab. The video itself featured in television coverage and on websites.
Not only the media are bound by the court rulings. Individuals have been cautioned about spreading his image, the video or the ‘manifesto’ on social media. New Zealand news organisations made the right call in widely interpreting the judge’s ruling and the determinations by the chief censor.
Dr Denis Muller of Melbourne University has castigated Australia’s media for their coverage of the attack. He says its television channels were particularly culpable for showing the gunman’s streamed video, although he also takes the press to task for publishing extracts of the manifesto.
He added: “The use of the footage was obscenely voyeuristic and gave the terrorist the propaganda dividend he wanted. It also grossly violated standards of public decency. It is getting on for 200 years since civilised societies treated the killing of people as a public spectacle.”
Before the defendant’s second appearance in the High Court, Justice Mander refused to allow photographs and video to be taken in court despite the fact that the defendant’s appearance was via video link from Auckland’s maximum security prison (to which he had been transferred). During that appearance, Tarrant faced many more charges.
Foreign media elsewhere took a variety of approaches to their coverage. Some, like Canada’s National Post, featured a screen grab from the gunman’s live-stream video as he entered the mosque. Some, like Britain’s Daily Mail showed the alleged shooter’s face. Both of those newspapers, however, highlighted the role Facebook had played in disseminating the horrifying video of the attacks. It is hardly surprising that the Daily Times in Lahore had a strapline on their lead story noting the narrow escape of the Pakistan cricket team members who had been on their way to the Al Noor mosque when the attack took place. Nine Pakistani nationals died in the attacks, but these statistics were unclear in early coverage.
By the third day we started to hear stories of the carnage and bravery in the wake of the attacks.
In New Zealand, the UK, across Asia the concentration was on victims, survivors, their families and the actions and reaction of the Prime Minister. Stories about searches of the shooter’s home in Dunedin did not overtake media concentration on the Muslim community. There was a harrowing ‘selfie’ video posted by Wasseim Alsati a survivor who was transferred to Auckland along with his four-year-old daughter, Alen. It was rebroadcast by most media. He asked people to pray for him and his daughter.
Australia still concentrated on the shooter – interviewing members of his family.
In the days that followed the New Zealand media were able to piece together more of the story.
They put names and faces to the list of victims – fifty dead and fifty injured.
The images of the dead were widely published but media have been more circumspect about showing images of survivors. Those that have been shown have been at public events or published with permission.
There was also growing recognition in the media here and elsewhere of the remarkable reaction of New Zealanders to the tragedy, summed up by the cover of Time magazine illustrated by New Zealand artist Ruby Jones.
But perhaps the most unexpected media reaction related to New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. This was Cometh the Moment, Cometh the Woman writ large. Editorial opinions around the world lauded her for both her qualities of leadership and her genuine empathy and compassion. An image of her, wearing a hijab and embracing a member of the Muslim community, was projected onto the world’s tallest building in Dubai. That may sum up the way the world saw her.
Britain’s Guardian published an extraordinary tribute written by New Zealand journalist Toby Manhire. He had been researching a feature on Jacinda Ardern before the shooting and his long profile traversed her world before and after the shooting. It was the cover story in the newspaper’s Weekend magazine and carried the coverline: “The leader who spoke for a nation and moved the world”. The New York Times carried an editorial headed: “America Deserves a Leader as Good as Jacinda Ardern”. Fortune magazine’s list of the world’s greatest leaders in April placed her second – between philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates and Russia probe special counsel Robert Mueller.
The Prime Minister was not alone, however, in receiving highly positive media attention. The Police were widely praised in New Zealand for their heroism in ramming the alleged gunman’s car containing explosive devices and his subsequent arrest; the constant flow of information, particularly by commissioner Mike Bush in the confused early days; the empathy displayed by Constable Michelle Evans standing guard outside Christchurch Memorial Park Cemetery in a hijab with a rifle and a rose; and the community spirit of police officers signing autographs for Muslim children outside the Auckland mosque they were guarding.
In the aftermath, however, serious questions began to be asked by media, politicians and the public. Some, like the claim the shooter had not been subjected to proper gun licence checks, were strongly refuted. Others will be the subject of official enquiries and, as a result, reporters’ questions are being stonewalled until that process is underway. That stonewalling won’t be accepted indefinitely, and we can expect media to ask their own hard questions as coverage moves into an analytical and investigative phase. We are already starting to see questioning on other fronts.
As the initial shock subsided, media also began to carry opinion pieces questioning the wider community’s attitudes and past performance in relation to minorities. Anjum Rahman gave an embittered account of her unsuccessful efforts over time to ensure the well-being of the Muslim community.
And we were forced to confront our own racist attitudes, whether they be latent or otherwise. I suggest that, uncomfortable as it may be, this is healthy discourse.
Less healthy are the outpourings of vested interests and, in particular, the gun lobby railing against both the extent and the speed with which sweeping prohibitions on assault weapons are being introduced. Should they be given space in the media? Yes, they have a right to be heard. Do you have to accept what they say? No. Are you at liberty to agree? Yes. You can use your own judgement – as you will on the sort of invective that is being employed in fringe publications like Fishing and Outdoors, which published the following on its front page: “Gun laws had to change but not with the level of corruption and bias shown by the Police and government. Our Dumb-as-a-Plank New Zealand Prime Minister and lapdog New Zealand Police Minister have announced a Ban on Assault Rifles …”. Elsewhere there were exaggerated claims that the planned firearms buyback scheme that is part of the legislative change was “going to cost the taxpayer billions”.
Coverage also had unintended consequences that the media also have a duty to report. An Iranian activist lamented the Prime Minister’s wearing of the hijab — widely commended, incidentally, as a mark of respect and solidarity with our Muslim community. She had a point to make. Compulsory head coverings may be a sign of subjugation of women in Iran. However, these stories need to be kept in perspective, particularly in the absence of a widespread campaign of condemnation. In New Zealand, for example, wearing the hijab may be a voluntary affirmation of faith.
Likewise, what appeared to be a gesture of solidarity by the Returned Services Association — in proposing a Muslim prayer at an Anzac Day service — came unstuck because someone objected, went public and turned it into a front page issue. Obviously that someone had never heard of Kemal Ataturk and his spirit of reconciliation over the disastrous British-led Gallipoli campaign of the First World War that gave rise to the Anzac commemorations each year (including services in Turkey at the site of the campaign).
These stories may be counter-productive, but they should not be ignored by media. The views need to be brought out into the open so the community at large can consider their validity or otherwise.
Other unintended consequences were some own goals in the media. One newspaper had to apologise for devoting its front page to an image of a girl purporting to be Wasseim Alsati’s four-year-old daughter, Alen. It was not. I sympathise with the newspaper to a degree. Misidentification is an ever-present hazard and identifying children can be difficult. However, there were easy ways in which this could have been checked on social media posted by the family.
Less understandable was the newspaper’s excessive naming of the alleged gunman – his name appeared 23 times in a single profile – in spite of an editorial claiming the contrary. I suspect the wrong version of the story was flowed into the page because online versions did keep the name to a minimum.
However, it’s not only the media that have had an Oh **** moment. The police also tripped up, as the New York Times informed its readers, by naming a survivor as the murder victim in the original charge against the gunman (the charge was subsequently amended).
Obviously both the media and the police have an obligation to check what they are producing, particularly in such emotion-charged circumstances.
News media are under no obligation to give oxygen to bigots and racists. New Zealand coverage of an isolated number of public and social media expressions of hate speech have concentrated on public outrage and swift police action. In sharp contrast was a Fox News Facebook page which, after the attack was reported, carried posts such as “Something to rejoice”, “praise God”., “Muslims got killed. Hmmm. I don’t care”, and another claiming Muslims are bombing churches and raping women in Europe.
New Zealand’s largest news website, Stuff.co.nz issued new rules covering the posting of story comments on its website and took the precaution of not allowing comment at all on stories about the Christchurch terrorist attack.
Some media routinely prevent comments on their websites but direct people to their social media pages which appear to be unmoderated or light-handed moderation. Most negative comments, however, related to changes to gun laws.
So, what’s next? The immediate challenge facing news media is how they will cover the trial of the alleged shooter.
New Zealand has little direct experience of such criminal cases. Outside military conflict, the previous most deadly mass shooting in New Zealand occurred at Aramoana near Dunedin in 1990. However, the perpetrator of the Aramoana massacre, David Gray (who killed 13 people), died in what I firmly believe was ‘suicide by police’ and therefore did not stand trial. Nonetheless, there are instructive overseas examples and later I discuss one of them – the Anders Breivik case in Norway.
How the Christchurch case plays out will depend on a number of factors, including judge’s rulings. The judge will have wide powers to what may or may not be admitted in evidence or submissions and can order media not to report certain proceedings. Media organisations will also, I think, have their own lawyers ready to challenge judge’s rulings that they think go too far.
Media are acutely aware that the case could be used by the accused to grandstand his beliefs and to further traumatise victims, their families and, frankly, the country. Senior news executives from Radio New Zealand, Television New Zealand, Mediaworks, Stuff and NZME, plus the chair of the Media Freedom Committee, are working together on a proposed shared protocol that would guide our coverage while respecting each outlet’s editorial independence. That work will be completed well in advance of the trial. The aim is to ensure coverage of the case is robust and comprehensive without causing further harm (for example by amplifying extremist ideology, images and signals). Effectively, the protocol will cover all New Zealand mainstream media.
The accused will be named in court reports and that is as it should be. His name has not been suppressed and naming him is part of the accuracy that needs to be embodied in every report of proceedings.
The Breivik trial will be instructive.
In 2012 Anders Behring Breivik was declared criminally sane and legally responsible for the killing of 77 people during the bombing of government buildings in Oslo and a subsequent shooting spree on the island of Utøya in July 2011.
The International Centre for Counter Terrorism at The Hague wrote a Research Paper that examines to what extent the Breivik trial attained the goals of criminal justice and whether it met the need for closure in society.
The paper concluded that the trial did indeed have a positive impact on the coping mechanisms in Norwegian society and that most Norwegians viewed the trial as a positive counter-weight to the brutality of Breivik’s acts. Overall, the trial was viewed as an example of justice and as a trial that upheld the democratic values of Norwegian society – in stark contrast to Breivik’s values.
The media were under constraints during the trial – particularly in relation to publishing and broadcasting Breivik’s video manifesto. Otherwise they had to weigh the principals of public dissemination (of something that was manifestly a matter of public interest) against the principles of consequential ethics – what harm may coverage cause.
When Breivik gave a fascist salute in court, editors had to decide whether or not to use a photograph of the incident. Many opted to publish on the grounds that it indicated the accused’s political beliefs, the fact that he showed no remorse, and that it summed up Breivik as a person. Given that Norway had suffered under Nazi occupation during the Second World War, the vast majority of the public believed the gesture cast the accused in a negative light.
The ICCT research paper included a survey that indicated that less than a third of Norwegians thought too much attention had been given to Breivik. Although a further third thought much attention had been given to him, this was not seen in an overly negative light. No-one thought he had received too little attention from the media.
Aside from the trial of the Christchurch gunman, the media will be required to cover formal inquiries and a raft of legislative and regulatory changes that are flowing from the terrorist attack. Three reviews have already been announced: the emergency service response; the role of security and intelligence in monitoring white supremacist groups; and hate crime laws. How much of what transpires in those reviews will the public be allowed to know? Security and intelligence are sensitive areas and media may have to push for access to some information.
Media are already involved a target in the fast-tracked gun law changes — being used by the gun lobby as an invective-riven adjunct to select committee submissions. There is a lot of heat and emotion around this coverage and the media need to ensure they fact-check some of the claims that are being made. I do fear that the U.S. National Rifle Association may see this country as a cause celebre and marshal some rather dark forces against the curbs on assault weapons.
Some law changes will directly affect the media – no more so than hate speech – and they will have a vested interest in limiting its scope. There is a fine balance to be maintained between protecting citizens against harmful speech and maintaining their rights to free expression. American academic Stanley Fish was right when he said: “There’s no such thing as free speech, and a good thing, too.” It has its limits, but we need to make sure politicians draw that line in the right place.
The media also have a responsibility to keep the victims, survivors and their families in our mind. It may be that journalists will have to advocate for these members of our community when mindless bureaucracy blocks their path. Media also need to ensure that these people are seen to be playing a part in a justice process that needs to give them some sense of closure. But the media also need to know when to back off and allow them their own space.
Right now, there is a commendable sense of unity and community spirit in New Zealand. Media will reflect the public’s wishes in trying to sustain that spirit, but society isn’t all sweetness and light. The aftermath of the attacks will place a burden that the media will track.
Security, for example: How long will it be before the phrase “heavy-handed’ begins to appear in reports? New Zealand media have already carried criticism of the cancellation of a number of Anzac Day events on safety grounds.
And the right to disagree: There is something of a moratorium on dissent at the moment, but people are entitled to disagree – within limits that have already been exceeded by one Hamilton councillor who had called refugees “scum” and was held to account for his comment. The community will expect media to carry dissent but call out those who breach acceptable standards.
The shooter will provide on-going editorial and ethical challenges for media. Coverage will not end with a verdict. It will be on-going, but the media have a responsibility to ensure that its coverage does not re-traumatize victims, their families or the community. Media also needs to ensure the shooter does not become a media cult figure or that investigation of the movement to which he claimed allegiance does not give them unwanted forms of publicity.
It may be harder than one imagines to keep the shooter’s name out of the media. Anders Breivik has been little short of masterful in keeping his name before the Norwegian public…in ways that the media can hardly ignore. He has used appeal systems in Norway and internationally to lay complaints over his incarceration. And we have already seen that the accused in the Christchurch case has taken a leaf from Breivik’s book by complaining about his treatment while in prison on remand.
Expect the foreign media to stick with this story for some time to come and don’t expect all of it to be fair, balanced and accurate. Note, too, that some overseas media have agendas. The difference in the way the Daily Mirror – and some others – portrayed a white supremacist terrorist compared with a jihadist speaks volumes.
And don’t be taken in of social media by what looks like news media but isn’t. The screen shot below is from a streamed video courtesy of the National Rifle Association.
So, what for the future? Editors have some big issues to ponder. Here are some of them.
• How should we treat ongoing use of shooter’s image and name? I think his image should be avoided wherever possible and use of his name limited to those circumstances where it is unavoidable – court and prison-related. Let’s deny him what he has been unable to achieve any other way – making a name for himself.
• Should the event change media use of language/imagery? Editors will be faced with the same dilemma now being faced by New Zealand Rugby over the name of the Crusaders rugby team and its undeniable association with Europe’s two-hundred-year campaign against Islam exemplified by its now-discontinued pre-match display of knights on horses. I face a similar dilemma. My website is White Knight News, which a colleague has said has an unacceptable association with white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan. Should I change its name (taken from a book I wrote in 2014 called Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media moguls and white knights) or should I — as I’m sure editors throughout New Zealand will have to do in the future — draw a line on what can legitimately be said to cause unnecessary offence?
• How should we mark anniversaries? Norway continues to mark the events of 22 July 2011. It has learned one lesson – do not remember the killer, remember the killed and maimed. An anniversary exhibition that featured the remains of his car bomb and a timeline of his killings was heavily criticized. Conversely a moving memorial of the names of the dead won admiration. There are lessons there for New Zealand’s media.
• When is it time to leave survivors and victims’ families alone? While these members of the New Zealand community must not be forgotten, editors must always be mindful that being reminded of these awful events runs the danger of retraumatizing people who, above all else, deserve peace.
[The foregoing was a talk delivered to U3A chapters in Warkworth on 8 April 2019 and Meadowbank on 15 April 2019]