The Christchurch massacre is being used by government officials around the world who want to curtail freedom of speech
- Government officials and their cheerleaders in the media, in several countries, have used the New Zealand mosque killings to suggest that information linked to the murders should not be published.
- Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said live-streaming on the major social media platforms should be stopped. New Zealand police asked for video footage to be removed.
- The deputy leader of the Labour party in the UK called for YouTube to be hobbled in the aftermath of the shootings.
- Britain's police chief for counter-terrorism blamed the "mainstream media" for terrorism.
- Guardian writer Owen Jones named a specific journalist whom he believed "helped" the killings. (There is no evidence that journalist has anything to do with Christchurch.)
- These people are afraid that uncensored information inspires and radicalises terrorists.
- The right to free speech is only meaningful when it includes the right to publish material that many find objectionable. The "right" to publish information everyone agrees with isn't much of a right. It's the right to disagree that is the key.
Within hours of the massacre at the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, last week, government officials began calling for censorship of the media. The New Zealand police were first. In reference to copies of the killer's live-streamed video of the shooting, they tweeted, "We would strongly urge that the link not be shared. We are working to have any footage removed."
That immediately posed a problem for the media trying to make sense of the event. The video showed the killer's face clearly. It was imperative for reporters to be able to correctly identify that the man in the video was the same man whose Facebook account was taken offline that day, and that he was the same man who published on Twitter a racist manifesto justifying the killings.
The price for misidentifying a killer is high: That happened in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2015, when idiots on Reddit - as part of a "crowd-sourced investigation" - decided that Sunil Tripathi, a completely innocent man who had disappeared the month before the bombing, was a prime suspect. In fact, Tripathi had died some time before the bombing. In the meantime, however, his family was targeted by an online lynch mob. The Tripathi family received hundreds of threatening, racist, and Islamaphobic messages until the truth came out.
Yet government officials and their cheerleaders in the media have expended considerable effort since the killings to suggest that facts surrounding the Christchurch murders should not be published.
Tom Watson: "They should suspend all new uploads at this time"
In the UK, Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the opposition Labour party - a man who might be the deputy prime minister after the next election - called for all of YouTube to be disabled on the day of the killings. He tweeted:
"If YouTube don't have the capability to halt the spread of the NZ massacre videos - because they are going up faster than they can take them down - then they should suspend all new uploads at this time."
YouTube is one of the largest media platforms on the planet. Five billion videos are watched on YouTube every day. Almost every major press brand uses YouTube extensively. Yet Watson wanted it crippled.
"I will also be speaking to my Conservative counterparts in government to discuss how we can act together in order to deal with the unaccountable wickedness of the Silicon Valley oligarchs," he told BuzzFeed's Mark DiStefano later.
Watson isn't an extremist, braying in the wilderness. He is in respectable company. Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that live-streaming on the major social media platforms should be stopped. "In the past, they have suspended this sort of Facebook live-streaming, and assurances were given that when it was put back up it could avoid this. Clearly it hasn't," he said.
Australia's largest telco censored the internet
Then Telstra, Australia's largest telecommunications company, granted Morrison and Watson's wishes. It blocked access to "a number of websites that continue to host footage of Friday's terrorist attack in Christchurch."
"We understand this may cause inconvenience for some legitimate users of these sites but these are extraordinary circumstances and they required an extraordinary response," it said.
"We appreciate that it is necessary to ensure free speech is carefully balanced against protecting the community - but with these sites continuing to host disturbing content we feel it is the right thing to do to block them."
The company's statement is telling. It admits what it did hurts "legitimate users" and "free speech" - but it chose censorship anyway.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Britain's head of counter-terrorism blames the media for terrorism
In Britain, Head of Counter Terrorism Policing Neil Basu went further. He blamed the "mainstream media" for terrorism. "Every terrorist we have dealt with has sought inspiration from the propaganda of others," he wrote. "The criminal responsible for the Finsbury Park attack in 2017 is a case in point, driven to an act of terror by far right messaging he found mostly on mainstream media, not even having to plumb the depths of social media or the dark web to find the material that ultimately radicalised him."
Basu's statement isn't true.
The mainstream media is not responsible for Darren Osborne's killing of a Muslim worshipper at the Finsbury mosque in 2017. As the judge made clear at Osborne's sentencing, the killer "educated" himself by reading material from other racists on the internet, including former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson and the far-right group Britain First. He also had a history of mental illness.
Normalising the idea that the media are responsible for murder
Osborne did watch the BBC drama "Three Girls," about the organised sexual abuse of young girls by a group of Muslim men in Rochdale. So one unintended consequence of calls for the censorship of any material that radicalises racist murderers might be to prevent the BBC from airing this dramatised version of real events.
Should this series have been shelved? And if so, who would take that decision - the police? The police were one of the agencies that failed to stop the abuse in Rochdale. They might have been happy to see the BBC show banned, for their own reasons.
British MP Wes Streeting took a similar line to Basu, blaming the media for the New Zealand killings (emphasis added): "Islamophobia doesn't begin with senseless slaughter. It starts with unchecked prejudice in our workplaces, our schools and our communities; amplified by the mainstream media; and then legitimised by so-called mainstream politicians like Boris Johnson."
Basu and Streeting aren't literally "blaming" the media for the deaths, perhaps. They might be just suggesting that the media should cool it before doing what the MailOnline did, which is to publish video of the New Zealand shootings on its front page.
Owen Jones: "You helped make this happen. This is on you"
But these law enforcement officials and politicians are creating an environment - a "platform" if you will - for the normalisation of the idea that the media is literally responsible for the murders, and that free speech should thus be curbed. The Guardian writer Owen Jones last week tweeted, "It's time to be honest. There are people who are currently dead who would be alive if it wasn't for the hatred whipped up by the media. And I am beyond sick of those in the media who whip up this hatred, as well as their apologists. Game over."
He singled out one journalist in particular, an ex-employee of The Sun:
"You're the former chief political corespondent [sic] of The Sun newspaper, which has systematically whipped up hatred against Muslims, migrants, refugees, LGBTQ people, and the left. You helped make this happen. This is on you."
The idea that The Sun's Kevin Schofield "helped" kill 50 people on the other side of the planet is factually false. (The Sun is a terrible newspaper, but it's not that bad.)
Dylan Thomas did not radicalise the New Zealand shooter
Blaming the media for the killings is like blaming the Pontyclun Van Hire company for letting Osborne hire the truck he drove in North London; or blaming the poet Dylan Thomas for radicalising Christchurch shooting suspect Brenton Tarrant (his racist manifesto opens with a recital of the poem "Do not go gentle into that good night").
The logic of blaming the media is a dangerous path to walk down. A lot of people, for good-hearted reasons, would like to see racist material banned from the internet because they believe it harms targeted communities.
But the corollary of that argument is to suggest a double standard: That these communities - always them, not us! - are too feeble to withstand seeing video or information that is upsetting or extreme, or that their members are especially vulnerable to radicalisation (unlike everyone in politics and law enforcement, who seem to be able to read the Sun and the Mail just fine without being turned into terrorists).
These voices cannot be allowed to curb the free press. The civil rights of a free press and free speech are only meaningful when they include the right to publish material that many find objectionable. It is in times like these - when important people are arguing to curb our freedoms - that our rights are most important. (The "right" to publish only information that everyone agrees with isn't much of a right. It's the right to disagree that is the key.)
As The Times' David Aaronovitch pointed out, censoring the press in the hopes of reducing terrorism has been tried before - and it doesn't work. In the 1980s, the UK government banned TV broadcasters from using the voices of members of the IRA in their news reports, in hopes of depriving Irish terrorists of "the oxygen of publicity." The unintended consequence was to make Britain's treatment of Northern Ireland look even more unfair than it already was; it drew supporters to the cause.
I am glad I read the Christchurch killer's manifesto
I am glad I was able to read the Christchurch killer's manifesto. I am glad it was not censored by do-gooders in the government or banned by the police. By "glad," I mean it was helpful to discover inside those 74 pages of drivel that the killer described himself as a "racist" and a "fascist." It confirmed that racism and fascism do indeed lead to killings. Murder is a real part of their ideology.
That's useful information that ought to inform public debate and law enforcement investigations.
But we wouldn't know any of this if we didn't have free speech and a free media, even on days when the speech we encounter is deeply unpleasant.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.