Has anyone else been struck by the extraordinarily low-key media coverage of the inquest into the Christchurch mosque massacres?
Day after day, major news outlets have, at best, played down the proceedings. At worst they have ignored the inquest altogether. The coverage has been so conspicuously subdued that I can only conclude it’s deliberate.
RNZ is an honourable exception, but even there the coverage has been relatively light. Television has reported the inquest only spasmodically and you have to search the Stuff and NZME websites for any reference to it.
This is perplexing. March 15, 2019 was one of the most traumatic days in New Zealand history – arguably more so than previous tragedies such as Pike River, Mt Erebus or the Wahine sinking, because it was the result of a deliberate act. Only the Aramoana massacre of 1990, in which 13 people were shot dead compared with the 51 in Christchurch, comes close.
It follows that the nation has a vital interest in knowing not just how and why the mosque killings happened and whether they could have been avoided, but also in establishing whether the response by police and emergency services was adequate.
A royal commission of inquiry in 2020 dealt with those first questions, but it falls to the inquest under deputy chief coroner Brigitte Windley to investigate the latter issue.
What has emerged in evidence so far is not encouraging. Witnesses have told of confused, chaotic, slapdash and even heartless responses to the shootings; of indecision, communication breakdowns and rigid adherence to health and safety rules that meant medical help for the surviving victims was delayed.
Until yesterday, perhaps the most disheartening revelations were that paramedics didn’t enter the Deans Avenue mosque until 30 minutes after the killer had left and that surviving victims were abandoned altogether for 10 minutes after reports came through of the second outbreak of shootings and police left the scene to rush to Linwood.
Now it has emerged that distraught relatives of the victims at Deans Avenue were told to leave the scene and even threatened with arrest when they wanted to comfort the wounded. An American police expert on terror attacks told of “heartbreaking” witness statements and gave his opinion that people who were already inside the mosque should have been allowed to stay unless they were interfering. Another overseas counter-terrorism expert said there was no excuse for leaving the shooting victims alone.
No doubt the inquest has also been told, or will be told, of acts of heroism and compassion by first responders, including the two courageous and quick-thinking police officers who apprehended the killer. It’s likely too that the coroner, in her findings, will make the point that this was an unprecedented event and that confusion and errors of judgment were probably inevitable.
That Brenton Tarrant was arrested only 19 minutes after the shooting began, and before he could continue his murderous rampage at Ashburton, was remarkable. Failings by police and ambulance staff should never be allowed to overshadow or diminish that fact.
But at the same time, the public is entitled to know where the system failed and how it might be improved. That’s what makes the news media’s apparent lack of interest so puzzling.
In past eras, an event such as the Christchurch inquest would have been given saturation coverage. Reporters would have been present throughout and filed blow-by-blow accounts of every witness statement.
That this hasn’t happened is partly an inevitable result of the hollowing-out of newsrooms and the shrinkage of newspaper space. But the level of coverage also reflects editorial priorities.
Not so very long ago, news editors would have regarded the inquest as an essential “running” story – one that automatically commanded daily prominence. Now it has to compete for space with such essential news as why you should avoid French and Italian wines on aircraft and the $100 million wedding of a woman even Stuff admits no one has heard of.
Clearly reporters are present at the inquest for at least some of the time, and equally clearly the stories emerging from the inquest are a compelling matter of public interest. Yet far from being highlighted in news columns and bulletins, those stories are given surprisingly subdued treatment. Why?
For once, I’m not suggesting there’s any ideological or political factor involved. More likely it’s a simple matter of editorial judgment, in which case I think it’s badly flawed.
I can’t help wondering whether the national memory of March 15, 2019 is considered so painful that media decision-makers decided we should be spared any unnecessary reminders. Or are the shootings regarded as a stain on the nation’s reputation that has now been made worse by the shame and embarrassment of an inept response, and therefore something to be reported grudgingly and reluctantly – if at all?