To hell with the middle ground
Does the public have a right not to know?
The public's right to know has always been a fundamental tenet of media ethics that needs to be treasured and protected.
The media has a responsibility to inform and educate. This was hammered home to me when I started my career as a reporter in newspapers more than three decades ago. We need freedom to report on news that is beneficial to the public or -- and this is important -- that which the public has the right to know.
There are all sorts of forces out there trying to stifle this fundamental tenet. The government, for example. Big corporations with crack legal teams. Wealthy types who behave badly. Those desperate to avert shame. The newspaper owners themselves. Clever public relations departments … they are all obstructionists in the eyes of journalists trying to maintain the public's right to know.
As lofty as these ideals may be, this way of thinking could well be outdated in these modern times.
What about the public's right not to know?
Last Monday we woke up to the mass killing of 50 people in New Zealand.
So well-planned was this massacre, the killer live-streamed it on Facebook. Within a day 1.5 million people had tried to actively upload and share that video, and while he carried out the massacre, an audience of up to 200 people watched his performance live -- and indeed, that's what it was. A performance.
We live in an era in which any dumbed-down psychopathic nutcase can make himself famous in the blink of an eye.
Such is this miserable aspect of humanity. Mass murderers no longer load up rifles, target prey, empty their load and endure the consequences, i.e., death or a lengthy jail sentence. Now that we're all connected, they can enjoy instant fame by televising their actions. What a glorious high. It must be such an adrenalin inducer to be able to snuff out four dozen lives in an instant with the world's Facebook Live audience to watch. Imagine the likes!
We all desire acceptance and recognition and this is where social media is both a boon and a burden. Our daily reporting of our lives has, in recent years, been defined by how many of our friends "like" us on Facebook. While this can be cute (or maddening) when friends post pictures of their delicious Starbucks beverage, or their cat performing a banal act with a ball of wool, those of us with psychopathic tendencies now have the world at our fingertips.
And make no mistake; mass killers on all sides of the political and religious spectrum are not doing it for God in her myriad forms, or to save their society from foreign scourges. They're doing it for publicity because they weren't loved as kids -- a sweeping and perhaps uninformed generalisation, but nobody can deny their desire to be loved, and the end justifies the means.
Take my neighbour. He now can operate his own TV "channel" via Facebook. There are no editors or producers checking his copy. He just plonks his Huawei down in front of himself, presses "video", and out it streams.
This is where things get a little convoluted when it comes to the public's right to know. There is a very, very strong argument that the rest of us have a right not to know what my weird neighbour thinks and feels. Our society's stability could rely on his remaining an anonymity.
That killer live-streamed to an audience of 200. Another 4,000 watched it before Facebook removed it. In the first 24 hours after the incident, it was uploaded another 1.5 million times. That level of interest makes your average mass murderer drunk with power, not to mention a sad comment on us, the viewers.
The person of the hour is New Zealand's prime minister. Jacinda Ardern took the reins of the tragedy. She harnessed, via the media, the public's right not to know.
This Australian shooter's desire to murder may have been satiated, but his desire for fame and attention could very well be curtailed.
First of all, Ardern vowed never to utter the name of the killer in New Zealand parliament.
"He sought many things from his act of terror -- and one was notoriety. That is why you will never hear me mention his name," she said in Parliament the day after the shootings.
She is absolutely right. I hope the next step is informing the New Zealand media not to mention his name, either.
(CNN, when reporting this story last week, also chose not to mention his name. The BBC had a short, stylised paragraph revealing his name and age.)
It would not be difficult for Ardern to gather the country's top media houses to request a media blackout of his name. But why stop there? Why not have a complete blackout on the court trial? This would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, and I would have been right up there demanding the public's right to know.
These are different and dangerous times, however, and sometimes the public has a right not to know.
A day-by-day exposition of this guy's court case is fodder for every radicalised nutcase in the world. We perceive radicalisation as being confined to unhappy Muslims looking for respite (and, again, love), but it happens over on the far right of western society as well.
What if we turned off that light? What if we made a conscious decision to close the information pipe?
There are those who would argue it would set a dangerous precedent. Ardern is a politician. For every sensible Ardern, there are a hundred Trumps intent on vilifying, bullying and using such blackout powers as a means for their abhorrent ends. Imagine giving that "public right not to know" power to a military government, such as the likes we have seen here in Thailand for the last five years.
I have no idea where the middle ground is on this -- perhaps there is none. It is just that Jacinda Ardern has shown that sometimes, to hell with middle ground.
I like the common sensibility of what New Zealand has implemented immediately. It has taken steps to curtain semi-automatic rifles and has refused to bow to this guy's quest for legendary status. Compare that to the United States, where a gun lobby has defined liberty as the right to own semi-automatic rifles that are ideal for mowing down innocent people in an instant.
It is simply not in the public's interest to know this man's name.
It would be perfect for this killer to be tried in a closed court and then sent to prison for the rest of his life, without a single scrap of media attention. That would extend to his life in prison as well.
"To others I implore you," said Jacinda Ardern last Tuesday. "Speak the names of those you lost, rather than the name of the man who took them. We in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name."
No more Facebook Live for you, buddy. You're not living with anybody else. You are damned to live with the single, most deplorable, repulsive person you could never imagine -- yourself. See how your ideals hold up then.