The Dom Post last Saturday published a photo of Mona Kahui, aunty of the dead twins Chris and Cru, kissing their headstone at Mangere Cemetery. Her partner Stuart King, half-brother of the twins’ mother Macsyna King, was with her.
What were we to make of this picture? My first thought was that here were two representatives of a disgraced and discredited whanau trying hard to rehabilitate themselves in the public eye by demonstrating some humanity. To be fair, an article in the Dom Post the previous day had portrayed the couple as possibly the least dysfunctional members of the extended family. Mona was attending a school for teenage mothers in an attempt to get an educational qualification and King was the only person in the King-Kahui household with a job.
My second thought, only milliseconds later, was that there might be a more specific motive behind the appearance at the cemetery. The couple’s daughter Cyene, born only a month before Chris and Cru, was taken into CYF custody after the twins’ death. Mona has been fighting since to regain custody of Cyene and has repeatedly travelled to Gisborne to visit her. I concluded (I don’t think cynically) that the performance at the cemetery was, at least in part, a public relations exercise aimed at showing that Mona and her partner were caring human beings and thus worthy of another chance at looking after their own child.
My third thought had less to do with Mona Kahui and Stuart King than with the media’s role. The photo at the cemetery was taken by John Selkirk, the Dom Post’s veteran Auckland photographer. I don’t think John just happened by chance to be at Mangere cemetery with his camera gear when the couple turned up. The paper had obviously been tipped off in advance. In fact the couple’s attendance at the cemetery may well have been dependent on the Dom Post turning up too.
Would Mona Kahui and Stuart King have gone to the cemetery and kissed the twins’ headstone if there was no newspaper photographer there to record the occasion? Of course I can’t say. But instinct and experience makes me sceptical.
If the couple were merely intent on expressing sincere grief and affection for the dead twins, there was no reason for a newspaper to be present. So the event was at least to some extent contaminated by a PR motive. I suspect the Dom Post was enlisted as an accomplice in the couple’s plan to get their child back.
If this was the case, Kahui and King were only doing what politicians, pressure groups and PR firms do all the time – staging what the British journalist Nick Davies calls “pseudo events”, manufactured to generate publicity and therefore advance an underlying agenda.
These are not genuine news events which happen spontaneously. They are publicity stunts, orchestrated to attract media attention.
Greenpeace is an acknowledged master in this field, scoring prime newspaper and TV coverage every time its activists unfurl a protest banner on a nuclear power station or abseil on to an oil rig. Would they do it if the media paid no attention? Of course not. They depend on what Margaret Thatcher once described as “the oxygen of publicity”.
Politicians do it all the time too. A hypothetical example is the Minister of Education choosing a kindergarten as the venue for the announcement of an early childhood learning policy (as if the kindy kids really want to know), then having his/her picture taken pretending to play with the kids in the sandpit. The media are complicit in these sorts of stunts every day. Contrived photo opportunities have become part of the daily news diet.
Harmless? Relatively. Dishonest? Well, yes.
Lest I be accused of being holier than thou, I confess that in seven years as a news editor I would have been party to similar deceptions myself. And I don’t mean to single the Dom Post out for criticism, because everyone in the media does it all the time, without thinking. That’s the problem – bad habits develop over time, to the point where no one questions them.
I can afford to be judgmental now that I’m safely removed from the pressures of the newsroom. But if I were a news editor wanting a strong news picture for page 3 and the picture desk offered me one of Mona Kahui kissing her dead twins’ headstone, in the very week when the country is trembling with outrage all over again at their violent deaths, would I turn it down? Hmmm.
Nick Davies’ recent book Flat Earth News, which I hope to review on this site shortly, takes a highly critical look at how the British media have been enlisted by the spin industry. His thesis is that the news agenda is no longer controlled by journalists, but is largely dictated by spin merchants pushing their own political, ideological or commercial interests.
It’s far worse in Britain than here, but clearly it’s prevalent enough in New Zealand for Mona Kahui and Stuart King to have cottoned on.