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TV watchdogs differ on Christchurch gunman’s footage

The Broadcasting Standards Authority has sanctioned Sky TV for screening snippets of the gunman’s video of the Christchurch mosque attacks in March. But other broadcasters escaped censure here and in Australia. Mediawatch asks an ethics expert cited by the BSA if it made the right call – and if we need new rules. 

TVNZ's limited use of the video on March 15 did not breach standards, the BSA ruled this week.

TVNZ’s limited use of the video on March 15 did not breach standards, the BSA ruled this week.
Photo: screeenshot / TVNZ 1 News

It’s not surprising our official broadcasting watchdog concluded Sky TV breached broadcasting standards on 15 March when the Sky News channel sourced from Australia aired scenes from the Christchurch gunman’s live-streamed video.  

Back in March possessing the video or sharing copies of it became a criminal offence when the Office of the Chief Censor declared it objectionable within 48 hours.

The Chief Censor also said news media “need to carefully consider the impact of sharing, broadcasting or publishing any part of this video, given the potential for harm”. Two people have since been prosecuted for distributing the video and amplifying it with extremist messages. 

Since then the BSA announced a new mission “to protect New Zealanders from harm”.

Five months after Sky News viewers here complained, the Authority announced this week airing the images was a breach of the standards for ‘violence’ and ‘law and order’ on pay TV .  

“While the broadcast as a whole was newsworthy and had a high level of public interest, the clips themselves contained disturbing violent content, which had the potential to cause significant distress,” the BSA said. 

“These clips also risked glorifying the alleged attacker and promoting his messages. The degree of potential harm that could be caused to audiences was greater than the level of public interest,” the BSA concluded.

But while Sky TV was the only broadcaster sanctioned for this, it wasn’t the only one to air or publish parts of the footage in New Zealand. 

TVNZ also aired selected footage on TV on 15 March and Newsroom.co.nz embedded a video in an online story – ironically one which urged Facebook’s boss Mark Zuckerberg to shut down live-streaming. 

The video – showing shots being fired outside the Al-Noor mosque at one point – was swiftly removed by Newsroom which apologised to readers. 

In Australia four national TV networks showed scenes of the gunman firing but last month the official media watchdog there – (ACMA)  found most broadcasters’ output on the day was responsible given the “unique circumstances”. 

Holding them accountable for “individual contraventions of the codes would have little regulatory or educative benefit,” ACMA concluded.  

One of the four was Sky News Australia – the source of the coverage on 15 March that the BSA deemed not fit for airing here on Sky TV.

What did Sky News show? 

Sky News added subtitles when screening scenes from the gunman's video.

Sky News added subtitles when screening scenes from the gunman’s video.
Photo: screenshot

During the afternoon and early evening of 15 March Sky News showed footage of the gunman taking his weapons from his car and approaching the mosque.

Later it showed 40 seconds of the gunman boasting of his success with subtitles. 

In a jarring nod to usual standards of decency, the swear words were muted and displayed on screen with asterisks.

The BSA noted that at 5.26pm that day “a video clip ended with a frozen image of the alleged attacker’s face, shown clearly and in full frame, looking directly at the camera. This image was shown on-screen for over 10 seconds”.

At another point the presenter told viewers:  “You do get a sense from this of how heavily armed he was, how comfortable he was with the weapons and his manner, both before and after this shocking event. Take a look . . .”

“The video-game-like quality of the footage was highly disturbing and further dehumanised the victims of the attack,” the BSA ruled.

Later that day – after some pushback from upset viewers – Sky News in Australia announced no more images would be screened. 

Shortly after 8pm local time Sky TV announced that the Sky News Australia channel had been replaced with sports coverage.

“It will remain off-air until we are confident the footage won’t be shared,” a spokesperson said

But the BSA has ruled that didn’t happen soon enough. 

The BSA acknowledged the footage screened on eight occasions spread out over more than five hours of live broadcasting. 

“The events of March 15 were fast-moving and challenging, including for media,” it said.

“While SKY NZ has limited editorial control over the programme, we consider that more should have been done to mitigate the potential for harm to audiences in New Zealand,” the BSA concluded.  

What did TVNZ show?

TVNZ also aired selected footage on TV on 15 March twice in a 1News special, carefully edited to include only an image of the gunman’s car and the weapons inside. 

Viewers were told the channel would not show any more, but that was enough for some viewers who complained. 

TVNZ’s head of news John Gillespie told Mediawatch at that time that TVNZ’s 1News showed a few non-violent seconds of the footage to show “the high degree of pre-meditation and planning” from the attacker. 

The footage was only used subsequently in the context of discussions on gun reform, he said.

The inclusion of any sensitive footage in news coverage was signed off by him before broadcast.- and they had discussed it with the censor’s office subsequently.

The BSA agreed TVNZ exercised appropriate caution and the potential harm didn’t outweigh TVNZ’s right to show it. 

Next month the BSA is meeting broadcasters in Auckland to discuss reporting terrorism and extreme violence  – and whether the rules need to change. 

They’ll find out then if they think the BSA has drawn the line in the right place.

Denis Muller, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne.

Denis Muller, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne.
Photo: supplied

Media ethics expert Denis Muller was cited by the BSA in its ruling upholding the complaints against Sky TV.  

In Australia he criticised the watchdog there for pulling its punches. 

The ACMA said use of the footage “raised serious questions” but found no scenes of anyone being shot in 200 hours of coverage it monitored. But it did find images of a person being shot at, a victim who had already been shot and the scene inside the Al-Noor mosque, where most of the victims were killed.

“The report is open to the interpretation that the threshold for violence acceptable for broadcast in these circumstances is footage that does not show someone actually being shot,” he said 

“The broadcasters will see it as a green light, so long as they don’t actually show someone being shot we can show everything up to that point,” he told Mediawatch

“The test of necessity would have been satisfied by showing the first minute, where the (attacker) is getting his gun from the car and where white supremacist slogans can be seen written on his equipment,” he wrote back in April. 

“I think the BSA have done a first-class job. They say there was a high value in informing the public about this but the harm caused by the repetition and content of the clips (by Sky News) was disproportionate to the value of them,” he told Mediawatch.

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