Jenny Marcroft: The Curious Case of self-imposed Censorship

Opinion 18/05/2019

By Jenny Marcroft, New Zealand First MP, Spokesperson for Broadcasting.

I would like to commend the New Zealand media for its sensitive and responsible coverage of the massacre in Christchurch.

Which is a tricky thing to say because the collective noun suggests the “media” is a single unit acting for all. Of course, the media is thousands, now billions, of competing voices if you include social media.

So when people make blanket criticisms of “the media” it really is a nonsense because one outlet cannot be responsible for what everybody else says.

Why I think I can refer to “the media” collectively in this case is because New Zealand is a small place and most of the reporters are Kiwis who shared our shock and sorrow at what happened.

There was no need for sensationalism because the event was so “sensational” in itself. It was such a heinous crime that the sorrow touched us all, including the reporters who had to cover it.

Along with other western democracies, we have a tradition of robust free speech. Although we have never really developed a tradition of sensationalist newspapers like the Sun or the National Enquirer, we have had our moments.

The Truth is our most memorable sensationalist paper and the famous yellow poster placed outside dairies and news agents was the original clickbait. It was that headline which used to determine how many newspapers Truth sold that week. The headline which generated its most sales ever was “The Girl Who Ruined Stratford”.

And who can forget Alan Hitchens slamming down the phone on those TV ads. The Sunday News of the early 1970s could also be described as sensationalist.

But if you compare those newspapers with our mainstream media now, what strikes you is that the headlines to encourage you to read the story are more sensationalist now than Truth or Sunday News ever were. In an online world the headline, what we now call clickbait, has become more important than ever. The other thing that strikes you is how much solid investigative reporting those papers did.

So it seems curious that our major media organisations, who did not receive any criticism over their reporting, have decided they want to collectively censor themselves and become “the media” when reporting on the forthcoming trial of the alleged Christchurch mass shooter.

There are legitimate occasions when the media co-operates to suppress information, such as the kidnapping by Islamic State of Red Cross nurse Louisa Akavi, whose life was in danger, or during wartime.

But this is not that sort of situation. It is a first for the media in New Zealand and I cannot imagine Alan Hitchens agreeing to this. As one former newspaper editor said to me, “Censorship is easy to put in place but much harder to withdraw from.”

If the various editors don't trust themselves is it because they don't trust their competitors to exercise good taste and do they not trust New Zealanders to be able to think for themselves?

There will be difficult and disturbing material revealed at the trial. Are we so vulnerable that we would not be able to resist any expressions of white supremacism?

The trial will also be covered by overseas media who have not signed on to this pact. We cannot ringfence the reporting to New Zealand.

Like the Prime Minister I choose never to speak his name, I share that sentiment. But I cannot insist that everyone else does as well.

Jenny Marcroft MP is New Zealand First Spokesperson for Broadcasting