16 Dec 2018

Heart-breaking news and suppression frustration

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 16 December 2018

The news of Grace Millane’s murder prompted a flood of media coverage and comment this week. A lot of it was devoted to the news media’s frustration over not being able to name the accused man.

An image of Grace Millane amid candles at a vigil in Wellington, 12 December 2018.

Photo: RNZ / Emma Hatton

Grace Millane was not the first young woman from overseas cruelly killed during a holiday in New Zealand.

Women from Sweden, Scotland, Germany and the Czech Republic have all been murdered here in recent years, as Stuff reminded readers under the stark headline: Grace Millane joins list of women tourists killed in New Zealand while travelling.

But her death has had a profound personal effect on many people throughout New Zealand. People took to the streets for vigils and marches in several centres and it has prompted discussion and debate about women’s safety, toxic masculinity and violence in New Zealand in general.

The intense reaction - from the public and in the media - puzzled some commentators.

"You've got to ask yourself why are we seeing so much about this one person. I don't say she's undeserving by any means but it's just kind of odd," former TVNZ news chief turned PR man Bill Ralston said on Radio Live.  

In the New Zealand Herald on Thursday, reporter Kirsty Johnston described conversations she’d had with men to explain why.  

"It could have been any of us," I said. "It is a reminder that we aren't yet equal. She was just a kid. She was just trying to live her life," she wrote.

There have been plenty of other powerful pieces written by women this past week - and some by men.

The Timaru Herald’s Grant Shimmin this weekend said the ‘not all men’ response amounted to a “failure to grasp how the world works from [women’s] perspective.”

The huge volume of media content and comment ramped up last weekend when police announced an arrest had been made and charges were imminent.

Several broadcasters went beyond expressing mere sorrow and shock to channel the anger people were feeling - and speculate about the culprit.

Newstalk ZB’s Martin Devlin interrupted his sports talk to tell listeners he predicted the killer would have a long criminal record and that the government was letting too many people out of prison.

On the AM Show last Monday, Duncan Garner settled on the word ‘scumbag” - which was subsequently bellowed at the accused when he appeared in court later that morning.

He made a personal apology to Grace’s family on the air on behalf of the country. The PM followed suit that afternoon.

On Radio Live Gil Elliott, father of Sophie Elliott who was murdered 10 years ago in Dunedin, said New Zealand’s image of a “clean, green and safe place” was a thing of the past.

But when host Mark Sainsbury told him last year's murder rate was the lowest in New Zealand since 1975, he was right.

Police stats show a homicide figure of 58 in 2016 - and it was 48 last year. But in a timely piece of data journalism, Stuff made it clear most victims of violent crime in New Zealand are women.

Another aspect of the story that preoccupied our media was reporters from overseas reporting more details than reporters here - and a free-for-all on social media.

The accused’s identity was suppressed for 21 days after his lawyer applied unsuccessfully for name suppression - but then appealed the judge’s ruling. Breaches of name suppression orders can compromise a fair trial and result in prosecution of contempt of court.    

But the media here really wanted to be able to tell their audience who was charged with Grace’s murder.  

The Herald alerted its mobile app users when it published the first image of the man - which turned out to be a photo of him in a police car with his head and shoulders completely blurred to hide his identity.

New details about the man accused of murdering Millane can now be revealed,” an online Herald headline blared the same day.

The New Zealand Herald's front page last Tuesday.

The New Zealand Herald's front page last Tuesday. Photo: PHOTO / RNZ Mediawatch

But the only details the Herald could reveal were the estimated date of the murder, and that the accused was listed as living at the same hotel where Grace Millane was last seen alive.

On Newstalk ZB Larry Williams complained bitterly that "overseas media will run endless stories that can't be reported here" and told listeners “the law is an ass.”

Fellow ZB presenter Chris Lynch said 30 listeners had sent screenshots of the accused’s Facebook page to make sure he was up to speed.

Our courts have not kept pace with Google, he complained, and our media have been unfairly hobbled.   

On Three, Duncan Garner repeatedly called the situation “a farce” in four separate interviews on the issue on Tuesday.

But by that point, hardly any UK and Irish media outlets were reporting the details suppressed here anyway.

While the clickbait driven Mail Online / Daily Mail insisted it was not bound by the court order here, almost all other UK outlets publishing online were not reporting the name of the accused man or publishing pictures of him after Monday.

The UK’s top-selling tabloid The Sun for example called him simply “a 26-year-old man who cannot be named” (though they were also happy to run headlines referring to Tinder 'killer' ...).

Thomas Cheshire from Sky News UK flew from Beijing to cover the story. He told Newstalk ZB the channel would abide by New Zealand law. He insisted Sky News’s focus was on Grace and her family, not the accused man whose name was suppressed by the courts.

On Newstalk ZB, Larry Williams said it was significant that police were happy for the accused man to be named, but it’s never been up to the police set the rules for our courts and our media.

A timely Stuff backgrounder on Monday pointed out fair trial rights are not the only reason for suppression of names by the court.

The Criminal Procedure Act lays out are nine grounds in total, which include "extreme hardship to the person charged with the offence or people connected with that person.

Another factor is whether publication would "cast suspicion on another person that may cause undue hardship to that person, or cause undue hardship to any victim of the offence”.

Also, "a court must take into account any views of a victim of the offence" when considering name suppression for a defendant.

It doesn’t say anything about the views of talkback hosts.

Stories about Grace Millane dominated Stuff's 'most viewed' list . . .

Stories about Grace Millane dominated Stuff's 'most viewed' list . . . Photo: screenshot

Restrictions on reporting details of the accused man didn't stop the media running plenty of stories about the case and alerting online users when fresh ones appeared. 

"The media coverage here and overseas is beginning to seriously threaten the trial of this guy. The media have got to show some discipline here," former TVNZ news chief turned PR man Bill Ralston said on Radio Live.  

 . . . and nzherald.co.nz catered for the readers' strong appetite too.

. . . and nzherald.co.nz catered for the readers' strong appetite too. Photo: screenshot

"The New Zealand Herald has just gone nuts on this. It's running story after story on its website, maybe because deep down in the bowels ... sits an editor whose whole job is to watch the analytics that show the number of people reading the stories," he said.

"So every time someone reads a story about Grace Millane, they say: 'Let's have another story'. It's just not helpful at all. It is ghoulish and feeding on a real feeling of grief that people have got around the country - almost a hysteria," Bill Ralston said on Radio Live.   

Google’s suppression snafu

Later in the week The Spinoff’s Toby Manhire pointed out our media obeyed the order and even policed their own social media channels to make sure their followers didn’t breach the suppression there.  

But that the same couldn’t be said of the big beast of online search.

“Shortly after midnight on Tuesday this week, Google delivered to everyone signed up to its ‘what’s trending in New Zealand’ email the name of the 26-year-old accused of the most-headlined crime in this country in 2018,” Toby Manhire wrote.

An unnamed spokesperson for Google in New Zealand - who was actually in Australia - would only say Google “wouldn’t comment on specifics”.

That, Toby Manhire pointed out, was a no-comment on the specific fact Google dispatched an email with the name of the accused in the headline - even though it was suppressed.  

Mark Richardson clashed with AM Show co-host Ingrid Hipkiss- and he was almost alone among media hosts in backing name suppression until a guilty verdict.

Mark Richardson clashed with AM Show co-host Ingrid Hipkiss- and he was almost alone among media hosts in backing name suppression until a guilty verdict. Photo: screenshot / AM show

The AM Show resident contrarian Mark Richardson was almost alone in arguing the case for extending name suppression to the point where a guilty verdict is delivered.   

In 1975, the third Labour government changed the Criminal Justice Act to outlaw publication of particulars of defendants until they were found guilty.

The following year the incoming National government - having argued justice should be seen to be done - reversed the change.  

Appearing on the AM Show on Tuesday, Otago University law professor Mark Henaghan said there was another good reason for observing name suppression where the courts had imposed it.

“We don't want trial by media. We want to be tried by the proper processes of justice," he said.  

On Radio Live this week , leading media law authority Prof Ursula Cheer told Mark Sainsbury social media and overseas media reporting online isn’t a "reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater here".

Prof Cheer also said the law had been changed just eight years ago and the media would have had the opportunity to state their case then.

In the case of Grace Millane, it is highly likely that after 20 days media will be able to name the man accused of her murder in the new year.

Then they can use the photographs of him taken at court last Monday without the pixelation that made publishing them pretty pointless that day.

If name suppression is not lifted in January there would have to be a pretty good reason - or at least a better one than simply the media want to answer the ‘who’ question for their audience long before the other questions about Grace Mullane’s murder are resolved during a trial.