Christchurch terror attack
A makeshift memorial at the Christchurch Botanical Gardens (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Yesterday New Zealand news organisations issued a statement saying they had agreed to protocols for covering the trial of the person charged for the Christchurch mosque attacks. The protocols are essentially a moral and ethical statement ahead of the trial of Australian Brenton Tarrant, who faces 50 counts of murder and 39 counts of attempted murder.

RNZ, Stuff, Mediaworks, TVNZ and NZME said they agreed to guidelines for the trial so their coverage “does not promote white supremacist ideology”.

The protocols are:

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a) We shall, to the extent that is compatible with the principles of open justice, limit any coverage of statements, that actively champion white supremacist or terrorist ideology

b) For the avoidance of doubt the commitment set out at (a) shall include the accused’s manifesto document

c) We will not broadcast or report on any message, imagery, symbols or signals (including hand signals) made by the accused or his associates promoting or supporting white supremacist ideology

d) Where the inclusion of such signals in any images is unavoidable, the relevant parts of the image shall be pixelated

e) To the greatest extent possible, the journalists that are selected by each of the outlets to cover the trial will be experienced personnel

f) These guidelines may be varied at any time, subject to a variation signed by all parties

g) This protocol shall continue in force indefinitely

The media organisations that have agreed to the protocols make up the bulk of NZ’s radio, online, print and television newsrooms. But, notably, one news organisation has abstained.

Newsroom, a relative newcomer in the NZ media environment, is co-edited by two of New Zealand’s most experienced journalists: Mark Jennings and Tim Murphy. Speaking to Crikey yesterday, Jennings explained why Newsroom had not signed the accord.

“The main points of the protocol appear to be that they won’t publish anything from his manifesto, show any hand signals from the accused and assign only experienced reporters to cover the trial. We agree that this is no place for inexperienced reporters and our own coverage will be done by an experienced person.”

“[However], our own view is that we will make decisions about what we will or won’t do as the trial unfolds. If something from the manifesto becomes [an] important part of the evidence in the case, we will weigh up at the time whether we will report it or how we will report it.”

Jennings isn’t sure these unprecedented protocols are necessary. “If you are a responsible media company, you are not going to ‘promote white supremacist ideology’. I think the much bigger issue is going to be the content and commentary that is carried on social media.”

He also pointed out that the protocol includes something of an escape hatch for the signatories with the inclusion of the line “these guidelines may be varied at any time”, and that it’s silent on the issue of naming Tarrant. While Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said she won’t be mentioning his name, RNZ has stated it will continue to use Brenton Tarrant’s name in its coverage, but only when it is material to the story.

For the record, that is also this journalist’s position. While it was perfectly understandable politically and emotionally that the NZ PM made a stand not to name the shooter, he should not profit from being a figure of intrigue or worse: his name becoming some internet horcrux for junior nazis.

Jennings believes international media will report the case differently to the NZ media; the latter, he feels, will be particularly cognizant of the mood of the country and feel a need to be “patriotic” in its coverage. “The challenge for all of us is to balance the potential impacts on the victims with the need to document history.”

When asked to comment from an Australian perspective ABC editorial director Craig McMurtrie told Crikey, “We’re aware of the agreement made by NZ media organisations. In our reporting of the trial the ABC certainly won’t be giving the accused a platform, or doing anything to amplify hate speech or extremist ideology”.

Australian lawyer Michael Bradley thinks the main impact of the NZ protocol on the Australian media will be confusion. “It’s impossible to imagine a similar thing happening here. It presents a moral challenge to our media, because the NZ approach places ethics and social responsibility squarely ahead of commercial interest. By contrast, the behavioural trends in our media look pretty shabby.”

Bradley believes some media will probably follow suit out of a mixture of respect and guilt; others will ignore the protocol, and some will even spy an opportunity in the gap which the NZ media has agreed to leave open. He also points out that the NZ protocol has no binding effect, there or here.

Tarrant next appears in court on June 14 by which time the two court-ordered mental health reports assessing the defendant’s fitness to plead will have been completed.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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