New Zealand media put Christchurch gunman in his place with focus on victims

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New Zealanders and media embody Jacinda Ardern’s approach to deny gunman publicity, muting coverage until life sentence delivered

On the first day of sentencing, New Zealand’s public broadcaster TVNZ put out its nightly news bulletin. The legal process unfolding in Christchurch made it to fourth spot, behind three domestic Covid-19 stories.

Radio New Zealand (RNZ) focused its attention on the victim impact statements. The gunman himself barely warrants a mention, beyond the briefest physical descriptions from journalists in the room.

Other media outlets have done the same. In some coverage, it’s easy to forget he’s even there. It follows an unprecedented agreement reached in May last year to limit reporting of the trial of the gunman in an attempt to contain the dissemination of his white supremacist beliefs.

Just as the reporting has been muted, particularly in comparison with international counterparts, so has the response of New Zealanders, echoing the approach of prime minister Jacinda Ardern when she said: “You won’t hear me speak his name.”

On Thursday, after the gunman was sentenced to an unprecedented life in jail without parole, Ardern reiterated her commitment to never speak the terrorist’s name, saying he deserved “a lifetime of complete and utter silence”.

The coverage changed tone on Thursday, when the sentence came down and the media had the opportunity to celebrate with the victims of the atrocity.

Throughout this week’s hearing, Justice Mander, the presiding judge, had tight control of his courtroom and has banned media from making any transmissions before the 1pm adjournment. This has stymied the 24/7 coverage cycle typical in coverage of high-profile crimes, when many outlets run liveblogs of proceedings.

This means that stories only drop twice a day – and when they appear, they have already been through a tight editorial sieve, devised over a year ago by the country’s leading media companies in the hope of avoiding the spectacle that took over the trial of mass-murderer Anders Breivik in Norway – an idol of the Christchurch gunman.

At RNZ, director of news Richard Sutherland says his team have “strictly” adhered to the media agreement in their coverage. “We were never going to let him use any of his court appearances as a platform for espousing his unsavoury views,” Sutherland says.

Mediaworks director of news, Sarah Bristow, is singing from the same hymn sheet. “The coverage of this case is immensely important … but that doesn’t mean we are here to be used to perpetuate hateful ideology,” Bristow said.

“We were extremely wary of the possibility Tarrant may try to use the news media and our coverage of the case to disseminate his white supremacist beliefs.”

‘The media here doesn’t want to centre him’

When Ardern stopped using the gunman’s name, New Zealanders followed suit en masse. ‘He is not one of us” Ardern said, and Kiwis took her message to heart.

Rosemary Overell, a senior lecturer in media and communication at the University of Otago, describes the domestic media and Kiwis’ response to the sentencing of Tarrant as “muted”, and intentionally so.

She notes that the sentencing has not once trended on Twitter this week. “In Australia, a lot of people are asking more provocative questions, like how did white Australia produce this man?” Overell says. “But the media here doesn’t want to centre him, so we’re only getting asides from the journalists about him, and that is very deliberate.”

Overall says she has noticed an “an absence of public mourning” that she thinks may be deliberate too, “refusing him haunting our space”.

“That muting is quite pronounced and significant,” Overall says, of the public mood in New Zealand this week.

“And that demonstrates something the public has absorbed and is embodying and practising Jacinda’s mandate, even though the journalists are naming him, the public seems to want to continue the practice of not naming – not humanising.”

Victims, too, have adopted the Ardern practice, using words such as “loser” and “trash of society” and “nothing” and “monster” to address him, rather than his name.

The voluntary media agreement was due to be tested on Thursday when the gunman was going to have the opportunity to speak in court. However, on Wednesday it emerged that opportunity would not be taken, with a Crown-appointed lawyer making a brief submission instead.

With his act of mass atrocity, Tarrant – a loner, a misfit – sought notoriety and fame – as stated in his manifesto. In New Zealand at least, that quest has failed.

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