Police officers standing outside court in Christchurch, May 2019 (Getty Images)
Police officers standing outside court in Christchurch, May 2019 (Getty Images)

MediaMay 2, 2019

Overseas critics don’t get why our terror trial reporting restrictions matter

Police officers standing outside court in Christchurch, May 2019 (Getty Images)
Police officers standing outside court in Christchurch, May 2019 (Getty Images)

The decisions made by NZ’s media organisations over how to cover the trial of the alleged Christchurch mosque shooter have come in for international criticism. But do they really understand what they’re talking about?

It’s a strange thing when every major media organisation in a country decides to sing from the same song sheet. When we see it in other countries, we’re naturally suspicious.

Six media companies covering the trial of the alleged Christchurch mosque shooter have agreed on a set of rules for how they’ll do it. The level of cooperation is almost unprecedented. Basically the rules boil down to not giving any coverage or allow any glorification of white supremacist views. General reporting of the trial will continue.

Politico’s senior media writer Jack Shafer is a critic. He says New Zealand media outlets are censoring themselves, that the decision goes against the “robust free-speech traditions of such other former British colonies,” is an example of “the nation’s paternalistic opposition to free speech,” and is a sign that editors don’t trust their readers to not be influenced by those views. “You can’t stop a threat you have blinded yourself from seeing,” he concludes.

Over on the other side of the world, and from a very different perspective, an op-ed on the Russian government-funded RT.com argues that the New Zealand media restrictions aren’t about abstract principles at all, which Shafer’s argument leans in on. RT takes the view that the move is aimed primarily at audiences, with the media companies acting as moral guardians over what the public can and can’t say. It also devolves rather quickly into comparisons with Stalin’s Russia.

To say I think they’ve both missed the point would be an understatement. The views are consistent with a sort of free speech absolutist position, the likes of which is enshrined in the USA’s first amendment. But how exactly is that working out for them?

The United States is awash with media outlets that actively and aggressively lie for partisan gain (and no, not just from the right.) It is governed by an administration that does the same. And there are seemingly never any consequences for anyone who indulges in it. How exactly is free speech absolutism advancing the cause of truth there?

What doesn’t seem to be widely understood about both these coverage rules, and the insistence from figures like the PM and members of the Muslim community to not use the alleged killer’s name, is that they are part of a wider effort to prevent something like this ever happening again. It is well documented that saturation coverage of mass shooters in America leads to further atrocities, in part because the shooters know that they will be given an immense amount of profile and coverage. Classifying the manifesto as objectionable is the same. The fact that it can easily be accessed by anyone with the wherewithal to use the internet is irrelevant. It cannot now be further broadcast and spread by the major online and offline platforms of the country.

By contrast to what happens in the USA, the alleged killer in Christchurch has been utterly stripped of whatever mana he might have once had. He has been reduced to nothing. There are no legal consequences that might discourage someone from doing something like this – that much is clear when mass shooters in the USA have been given life imprisonment, or the death penalty. But cultural consequences might make a potential terrorist think about exactly how they’ll be ruining their own lives forever if they proceed. It hasn’t really been tried before.

The idea is also pushed that terrible ideas can only be combatted by open debate, and by allowing them to be aired and rebutted. It’s utter rubbish. Denying abhorrent figures and ideas a platform actually works really well for keeping them out of the mainstream. I personally have quite a high bar for what I consider to be so abhorrent that it should be blocked, but calling for race war meets that threshold as far as I’m concerned.

But has the country as a whole had a chance to declare it abhorrent? Well, there’s a fair bit of qualitative evidence for that. Look at the massive vigils that took place afterwards. Look at the genuine and heartfelt outpourings of grief, often from people who had no connection whatsoever to the Muslim community. Look at how quick people of all ethnicities in this multicultural society were to say ‘they are us.’

Context matters immensely here. Of course we should be debating what the definition of free speech is. Of course both media organisations and the public should be able to air strong opinions, and in my view offence being taken shouldn’t necessarily be a reason for those opinions to be suppressed. The potential hate speech laws that look likely to come in make me wary, though I’d be more than happy to see laws strengthened against incitement to violence.

Jack Shafer from Politico invoked the word paternalistic, to make it seem like the editors of this country were treating their readers like children. I wholeheartedly disagree. It is one of the signs of intellectual maturity that you can both hold a position of principle, and also understand that there are times when that position requires exceptions. If anything, it is childlike to believe that in all circumstances the same rules should apply. I would imagine the New Zealand public are wise enough to understand that.

We don’t have a culture in which mass shootings take place with a monotonous regularity. We also don’t have a culture of political and social authoritarianism, the likes of which is experienced in Russia. We have a free press, in which organisations have freely made a decision. Other organisations who aren’t part of that group of companies can and probably will in turn criticise it.

But if the studies on covering mass killers and terrorists are any guide, we’ll stand a better chance of avoiding something like this ever happening again if media organisations follow the rules they’ve set out for themselves. Regardless of what pundits overseas say, that should be the primary concern.

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