The air of calm at Christchurch’s justice precinct last week was jarring.

Sure, a uniformed police officer carrying a rifle patrolled the outside of the central city’s justice precinct. But inside the doors, the security guards at the x-ray machine were relaxed, and there was little hub-bub outside the High Court room. 

The media waited near the victims’ families for the sentencing of a double-murderer, who would be sentenced to one of the country’s longest non-parole periods – 28 years.

Despite the horror of the man’s terrible crimes, the court itself had the atmosphere of business as usual, a hall of justice just going about its routine.

Compare that with the chaotic scenes of March 16, for the first appearance of an alleged terrorist.

It was a Saturday – a day after the mosque attacks that killed 50 people. Squads of TV and still cameras swarmed the footpath, reporters interviewing onlookers, some of them victims’ family members. A scrum of media assembled outside the court’s closed doors. Armed police had a quiet word to rubberneckers to stand back.

When the doors opened, it was explained that media identification would be checked and those with cameras who didn’t have judge-approved orders wouldn’t be allowed in. Preference was given to local media. Once past the x-ray machine, groups of between five and 10 people were personally escorted to the third floor – outside the same courtroom used for last week’s hearing. (Although it functioned on that day as the district court.)

Yesterday, when police put out a three-sentence statement saying they would charge alleged shooter Brenton Tarrant with 50 murder charges and a further 39 charges of attempted murder, it was picked up by international news agencies and media outlets around the world. Such is the interest in today’s High Court hearing in Christchurch (at which the accused will appear by audio-visual link), media have been warned to turn up early because of tight security.

Extraordinary challenges

The mosque shootings – with 50 dead and more than 40 injured, many of them still in hospital – has put a global spotlight on our media, and presents extraordinary challenges.

While media outlets are expected to name the gunman in court reports, given Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s vow not to name the alleged gunman, there’s a debate about how often to name him.

Complaints to national broadcaster Radio NZ prompted an editorial by CEO and editor-in-chief Paul Thompson, who wrote his name is a known fact “and should not be airbrushed away”.

(Newsroom has decided to use his name in court reports and, sparingly where appropriate in other news reporting and commentary.)

Kamala Hayman, editor of Christchurch newspaper The Press, part of the Stuff stable, tells Newsroom it has had an informal approach to not name the shooter. “It hasn’t been a hard-and-fast policy and, likely, when it comes to the trial we’ll have to revisit that. From this distance out, my expectation is that we will name him through the trial and try and cover it as normally as we can. But that’s a decision yet to be made.”

Other complex matters include reporting on ideas of white supremacists and the far right, without promoting them, she says. Talking about the gunman’s livestream video and manifesto, she says: “There are extremist people who see that as a call to arms.”

Most media are seeing emails about false flag events, she says, and choosing not to report them.

“It’s a really strange time to be a journalist, where we choose what we do or don’t report. Instinctively, we’ve always edited what we report, to what we see as the most important, but we are now doing a kind of censoring of extremist views, being aware, from overseas experience, that reporting on them can simply promote. It’s a really difficult balancing act.”

Taking a firm hand

The judiciary is already taking a firm hand with reporting from Tarrant’s court appearances.

On March 16, Judge Paul Kellar ordered pictures of Tarrant taken in court to be pixellated. (An Australian journalist told the judge his employer was seeking legal advice on the ruling and warned it may not follow the order.) 

Ahead of today’s hearing, Justice Cameron Mander denied media applications to film, photograph and make audio recordings. In a hearing, the court can use its discretion in a trial to stop off-topic rants, that have nothing to do with the suspect’s guilt or innocence, and strike them from the public record.

Tarrant is yet to plead to any charges – and isn’t expected to do so today for what is billed as a mainly procedural hearing. The alleged shooter’s manifesto – now deemed objectionable by the chief censor – revealed his plan to be taken alive by police and plead not guilty, perhaps giving him a platform to spread propaganda.

Calls for the media to restrict coverage of a trial have been met with a firm response from the defenders of press freedom. Censorship is problematic, media commentator Gavin Ellis says, as media are the eyes and ears of the public in court.

But he thinks journalists and their employers will want to report responsibly, without giving the alleged terrorist a platform for his views.

The scale of the massacre means the media has turned to overseas killings, such as the 2011 terror attacks by Norwegian Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in a mass shooting and bomb blast, to look for precedents of how to cover such a trial.

Research suggests terrorists are motivated by the notoriety they gain in the media, and manifestos such as Tarrant’s – now banned – can spawn copycats. 

Espen Egil Hansen, the editor of Norwegian paper Aftenposten, told RNZ that Breivik’s trial diminished him, showing what a copycat he was rather than an original thinker.

Global media interest

International interest in the story is set to remain strong.

Sophie Walsh, a reporter with Nine News, was reporting live from last week’s national remembrance service at Hagley Park. She told Newsroom it has been one of the network’s biggest stories of the past two years – especially because the alleged shooter grew up in Grafton, northern New South Wales. The story led its bulletins for almost a week, with rolling coverage on the ground from New Zealand for a fortnight. 

“It’s really hitting home for us. A lot of people have relatives in New Zealand, a lot of Australians travel to New Zealand. We consider them part of our family and I think that is why it has touched people in Australia so heavily.”

She adds: “It’s sad to say, but there’s that fear that something similar could happen in Australia as well.”

Reporters are having to choose their words carefully, she says. If she’s described the suspect as a gunman or alleged killer, the public have urged her, through social media, to call him a terrorist.

Walsh says there’s a lot of interest in following the story, through court hearings and the Royal Commission. “There’s interest across the globe, though, it’s not just Australia. I’ve been reporting next to people from America, people from the BBC in London. There’s a huge interest.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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