Day 151 in the time of coronavirus and the things that are currently preoccupying me are: the media and its destructive reverberations; the media and the potential of journalism for healing and enlightenment; and acts of human kindness.
I admire journalists, some more than others, though. I respect their skilful handling of language and form, there is sometimes a loose free flowing feel, a soaring and easeful rhythm to a journalist’s writing that makes the reading experience so very pleasurable. I have total admiration for the quality of in-depth research and well-balanced synthesis of information in many an investigative article. I admire the speed with which a journalist can pull together an article covering a demanding set of ideas making them comprehensible and digestible. I admire too the ability of the journalist to cut to the chase, go straight to the expert, or the human beings at the centre of a subject for direct answers to relevant questions. I warm to the writers that operate with integrity and humanity. They are the classy ones and then there is a breed and a genre of reporting, perhaps that is the best term here, that can cause unnecessary trouble and pain, spreading alarm, squashing hope, stirring the pot pointlessly in an insatiable and oftentimes seemingly desperate quest to attract a reader.
I’m sick of this aspect of our news coverage. It is bad news in the time of a pandemic. Also I’ve detected recently, as others have also voiced their dismay, that in defending their own work, a certain arrogance has crept in - I'm talking about a few individuals here, not the entire community of writers. It goes along the lines of; it is our job, because we have the intelligence to do this, to point things out to the poor ignorant public. They need us to ask the questions they haven’t thought of yet, and might not ever. There is even a sense of righteousness, that some consider themselves the moral arbiters of the issues of today. It is never spoken but a feature of the reporting style seems to be to badger, harass and taunt those in public office, under the guise of ensuring they are made accountable, when sometimes what is really happening is a misguided witch hunt.
We are told we need this. And yet do we? Without news reporting there would be no Donald Trump, president of the United States. It wasn’t the people so much as the continued and unbalanced global exposure of the buffoon beamed into people’s living rooms or featured in print media from the beginning of his campaign that secured his ridiculous victory.
With that off my chest I can focus on a positive aspect of the journalist's craft and how it can be a force for good. That’s how it felt during this momentous week in New Zealand history when mosque killer, I don't want to say his name, was sentenced in the High Court and given the harshest sentence available, life imprisonment with no possibility of parole ever, for murdering 51 worshippers and attempting to murder a further 40 people, on 15 March, 2019, at two Christchurch mosques, Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre.
Throughout the week I have been informed of the proceedings via Radio New Zealand whose focus has been on reporting verbatim the impact statements of victims injured in the attack and family members of the 51 worshippers who died on that terrible afternoon. Initially a total of 66 statements were expected but as people in the packed public gallery and seven additional court rooms listened, more came forward to give their testimony, leading to 93 statements in all. This was the darkest and worst mass killing in New Zealand history and it needed this level of exposure to honour the loss of life and its shattering impact on many, many, many lives. The massacre was pre-meditated. It was motivated by hateful, ideology, implemented by a cold-blooded murderer who showed no mercy at any point.
Through the efforts of Radio new Zealand I have been able to listen, through the week, to many of these courageous people presenting their experience, expressing their pain. The speakers were eloquent, passionate, angry, fearless and one beautiful woman, Janna Ezat whose son was murdered, was forgiving. “I decided to forgive you, Mr Tarrant because I don't have hate. I don't have revenge," she said directly to him. “In our Muslim faith we say . . . we are able to forgive, forgive. I forgive you. Damage was done and Hussein will never be here so I have only one choice to forgive you." Throughout the period since the massacre, seventeen months ago, the terrorist has shown no remorse, no insight, no comprehension of the shattering pain he has caused to so many people but at Janna Ezat’s words he nodded in acknowledgment and blinked profusely wiping at one of his eyes.
And yet who would not weep at her words and those of the other 92 who came forward. The stories that have flowed in the High Court these past days have been devastating to learn about. Aya Al Umari, who lost her beloved brother — their birthdays were always celebrated together, as they were only one day apart — described the “gut-wrenching feeling” of having to call her mother and say to her that “Hussein might be dead, prepare to grieve," she said. "I still have the urge to pick up the phone and talk to my brother tell him about my day and rant to him because he's the only one that would understand.”
The courage to stand up and speak publicly about their suffering has been humbling to witness. Many of the speakers looked him, ‘the devil’ one person called him, in the eye as they spoke. There was the heart-breaking account of Nathan Smith, who converted to Islam about nine years ago, speaking directly to the killer saying "After you left Mosque Al Noor I was surrounded by the injured, the dying and the dead. I held a three-year-old boy in my arms praying he was alive - he was not. You took him away. He was three."
And providing context, Mazharuddin Syed Ahmed explained, "We all come from countries where these things happen," and then amazingly he continued, "We came to New Zealand because it is safe, but after the shooting when we saw how people respected us and treated us all well that made us feel good about New Zealand."
It was expressed more than once, that the terrorist had failed in his mission to spread racial and religious hatred and xenophobia. Instead he had united the community and New Zealanders in general. Wasseim Sati Ali Daragmih said, "You think your actions have destroyed our community and shaken our faith, but you have not succeeded. You have made us come together with more determination and strength.”
"So you have failed completely. So you have failed completely."
In this instance the media, and in particular RNZ through its thorough reporting and transcribing of statements have achieved something important. It has provided an opportunity for the rest of New Zealand to listen and to learn. We might all pause to consider the words of Nathan Smith, to the killer, ‘When you get a free minute… maybe you should try to read the Quran – it’s beautiful.’
And then there was Justice Cameron Mander. Family members and victims spoke highly of him saying he had made the court a safe space for people to express their pain and the rippling impact on families, so many parents, siblings, children, friends still grieving and traumatised. In his closing words Justice Cameron read out all the names of the murder victims, mentioning details of their lives, and referring to the shattered families left in the wake of the killer's actions. He said to the terrorist that he had been motivated by a "base hatred of people perceived to be different from yourself". And added the murderer's "hateful ideology was anathema to the values of New Zealand's society."
"It has no place here. It has no place anywhere."
The flowers in the accompanying photo are for the brave worshippers at the two Christchurch mosques, defenders of their loved ones and their faith. The posy was originally a gift to me, on a bright morning in early spring, from a friend who had seen my photo and read my earlier post on the tussie mussie. She phoned and said, ‘I’m delivering some flowers from my garden to your door.’ Acts of human kindness in harsh times. They count.