One tragedy, one farce, and six days of ugliness

How two families, in the space of one week, brought out the worst in New Zealand media and public.

Tragedy unites us. A shared pain can be what brings a nation together, with people from all backgrounds setting aside their differences to suffer, grieve, and rebuild together. But as it happens, there’s one thing that unites New Zealanders more than tragedy: anger. And thanks to two families and their actions, 2019 has already been marred by the ugliest displays of anger this country has shown in a long time.

On January 13, the Mcallister family lost two sons. Glen (16) and Craig (13) died after the car they were driving hit police spikes and crashed into a tree. The car was stolen by the boys and their friend Brooke Taylor (13), who also died in the crash. Police had pursued the car before calling off the chase and instead laying out the spikes. All three boys died at the scene.

The death of three young men is a tragedy, regardless of the circumstances. There’s a discussion to be had around the possible influences – familial, societal – that lead to three teenagers stealing a car and driving it recklessly. There’s also a discussion to be had around police pursuits and the alarming number that end in crashes and death. These issues are important and valid, and can be talked through at the same time as accepting that the death of three teenagers is tragic.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, media in this country, almost certainly motivated by the knowledge that anger drives traffic, have sought to vilify first the recently deceased children, and then the children’s father.

On January 17, the NZ Herald led their website with an “exclusive” report from a senior reporter. The headline? “Dead teens’ link to high-profile murder-suicide”. Glen and Craig Mcallister were the nephews of Glen Mcallister, who shot and killed Wayne Richard Motz before shooting himself in 1989. The report included comment from Motz’ sister who discouraged members of the public from donating to a Givealittle page raising money for the boys’ funerals.

The public interest in two recently deceased teenagers being related to a criminal who died before either of them were born is nil. The reporting of it, and seeking comment from a relative of a victim of a relative of a victim (see how ridiculous that reads?), was nothing more than an attempt to ignite anger for anger’s sake. And it worked. Readers were angry. Thousands of comments on the Facebook post promoting the article show a nation angry at two dead teenagers and angry at their father, who was approached for comment and (surprise, surprise) turned the blame back on police.

Commenters blamed Craig Mcallister Snr for his sons’ deaths. They blamed him for being a bad parent. Meanwhile, Mcallister’s sons and their friend were being identified using dental records because their bodies had been so badly burnt in the fire that had engulfed the car they were driving.

It was a gross story to publish and a gross reaction. But not as gross as Newstalk ZB’s Andrew Dickens’ thoughts on the matter. Spoken during his afternoon radio slot, Dickens expressed anger and scorn at Mcallister for minimising his sons’ roles in their own deaths. He also took issue with Mcallister saying that the police killed his sons (a view shared by many who believe NZ Police need to drastically alter how they handle vehicle pursuits). Those thoughts were transcribed to form an opinion column and presented by Newstalk ZB’s Twitter account like this.

It’s not the first time Dickens has used the word “feral” to describe children who have just died. It appears to be his default descriptor for those who perish in crashes involving the police. But what’s fascinating is that, though the word was used to encourage Twitter users to click (either in anger or agreement), “feral” made no appearance in the column. Yes, it’s still a column filled with blame and finger pointing at Mcallister, but nothing so aggressive as “feral”.

Listen to the attached audio from his show, however, and you’ll hear Dickens say “you’re a selfish, narcissistic man” and “the headline reads ‘’Don’t judge us’, says dad’’. The headline should be ‘The blind, stupid, selfish immorality that blights our country and kills innocents’.” And finally, “ferals bringing up ferals, trash begets trash.” A truly outrageous tone to take when describing two children who have just lost their lives, and a man who has just lost his children.

Dickens was not alone in his anger. The NZ Herald republished his opinion, removing the audio and polishing it so that no mention of “feral” or “trash” could be found. But the sentiment remained, and readers added their voices in the comments. It has done nothing to advance the dialogue on what are very real social and political issues involved in that case. It has simply encouraged anger. But anger is so much easier to express than sadness. Perhaps we simply get angry so as not to fully accept that two 13 year olds and a 16 year old just died.

After all this, it was almost a relief to read about the group of travellers – now widely known as the “unruly tourists” – and their trail of mild destruction throughout the North Island. I loved seeing the updates of yet another restaurant bill gone unpaid, and the feisty kid with his large straw hat. Their behaviour was bad, of course, but in a way that was so separate from a triple fatality that it was, perversely, endearing. A collection of minor offences – littering, being rude – joining together to create an enthralling saga. It was quintessential New Zealand and, for a reader, immense fun.

But for every person who laughed at the brazenness of this family, there was someone who wanted them punished, and painfully. Our anger was back. With every restaurant slighted and birdie flipped, the anger grew. Why didn’t they seem to care that we were angry? Like Mr Mcallister, why didn’t they immediately apologise for their family’s actions, regardless of what their own worse outcomes were?

The outcome for the travelling family has been to become celebrities in New Zealand. After one member was convicted of theft in Hamilton District Court, the family continued their travels despite being tracked by the entire country. “BREAKING: Levin motel describes ‘unruly tourists’ as ‘polite’”, yelled Newshub. “Unruly tourists spotted in Wellington by eagle-eyed locals” was a Herald headline. The family, still rude, still unpleasant, are now under 24 hour surveillance by the public. “Have you seen the family? Get in touch at newstips@stuff.co.nz” has started appearing in Stuff articles about how someone in the family was surprisingly civil, or how their car was spotted filling up at the petrol station before leaving without causing a scene.

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The ‘unruly tourist’ saga has quickly developed from funny low-rent scandal to a form of nationwide stalking. It’s creepy and gross, but it’s evidently what New Zealanders want.

The two biggest stories in New Zealand news this week began as legitimate news and were reported as such. But with a strong reaction from readers and the media’s willingness to cash in on collective anger, they’ve become examples of what can happen when the news becomes dictated by the emotions of the mob. The actions of two families, one tragic and one not, have united the country for all the wrong reasons.

One day, hopefully sooner rather than later, we’ll look back, hungover after this week of rage, and wonder what the hell we were thinking.


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