In one of several impressive acts of leadership, New Zealand’s parliament opened last Tuesday with the Speaker inviting an imam to lead prayers, first in Arabic then English. In Hansard the last of these “verses of patience” reads: “Oh Lord, we ask you to protect New Zealand and the whole world from such calamities. Amen.”
Would we be better protected if journalists followed the urging of New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern and did not name the perpetrators of acts of terrorism? We can acknowledge her skilful and empathetic response to the shooting of scores of people at two Christchurch mosques on 15 March. We can recognise that Ardern’s purpose as prime minister was rightly to turn the focus on those lost and mourned. But is she correct in implying that acts of terror will be deterred if no one speaks the names of perpetrators? Can, should, notoriety – as distinct from glorification or anti-hero status – be denied?
Many think so, including the UK’s head of counter-terrorism policing, Neil Basu, who in an open letter challenged editors to debate how they cover terrorism, arguing that the problem goes beyond the social media platforms where perpetrators can by themselves disseminate live their crimes and manifestos. Though the Guardian, like most professional media outlets, did not circulate the Christchurch shooter’s video or screed, readers wrote to me to admonish the paper for continuing to refer to the accused shooter by name. Copy Ardern, they urged.
I asked the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, for her response, and she replied: “The role of a news organisation is different from the role of a politician or a political party; our responsibility is to report the facts, contextualise events, and work with our readers to understand what’s going on. Not reporting the terrorist’s name would undermine those efforts. However, we do think it’s important to ensure that the terrorist’s identity is not overly represented in our coverage, and that our coverage also focuses on the victims.”
I agree with Viner. The fundamental task of journalism is to try to reflect society to itself, especially the aspects that do harm unless they are understood and faced. The ignorance and bigotry that underlie most terrorism breed in the dark and feed on paranoia. Rumour and conspiracy thrive in closed information loops. Professional journalism, by circulating verified information and giving context, breaks them open. If journalists choose to be silent, conspiracists fill the void and turn the silence to their purposes.
Suppression of information about the identity, acts and motivations of a terrorist is a self-defeating defensive crouch. Stand up and defy haters and killers, as have large numbers of people in New Zealand and other communities where terrorism has occurred. We underestimate ourselves grossly if we behave as though the decency of the majority of people in our diverse and intermingling societies is so fragile that the diatribes of odd individuals can overwhelm it. Scrutiny exposes the oddness, the isolation and the smallness of these individuals. Context gives perspective and combats fear.
Due process, applied to a specific individual, has purposes. When appropriate, communities name and shame. Notoriety is not in itself anything of value. The wrongdoer, though known, is powerless. Through open justice, we judge, and remind ourselves of what is damagingly aberrant.
In these strange times, when truth is under attack and populism’s deceits beckon, the strengths of liberal democracies – elected leaders who can unify, police on lawful guard, journalists striving to inform, courts open, each in their proper sphere – are essential.
Be confident that our communities can be exposed to the facts about how and why a dreadful crime was committed, without tending toward either paralysing fearfulness or mindless emulation.
• Paul Chadwick is the Guardian’s readers’ editor