The trial of Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik for the murder of 77 people has a special significance for journalists in Australia, and not just because Breivik summoned the names of John Howard, Peter Costello, George Pell and Keith Windschuttle in the manifesto he wrote before the slayings.
There are a number of issues newsrooms here will be considering. Should we broadcast or publish the five-week trial? If it is broadcast or printed, how can we do so responsibly? And is there any advantage to be gained from putting his extreme views on the public agenda for debate? Should journalists be publishing, broadcasting, tweeting and live blogging the trial?
By doing so, the media gives him the opportunity to do what he set out to do – publicise his anti-Islam manifesto. But Breivik has a legal right in Norway to explain himself.
His defence lawyer said on the first day, “He is obviously pleased that he will be able to explain himself and that there is an interest in the case, there is no doubt about that.”
Many of the survivors and the victims’ families will want to hear Breivik’s explanation. They will want to try to make sense of it. But equally there are those who survived the massacre who do not want to give him an international stage.
Survivor Tore Sinding Bekkedal said: “He stated he did this to gain attention and I don’t believe that he should gain attention to it.”
But the 800-odd journalists in attendance are being paid to report not just on what he says, but on the justice system. It is the journalists’ job to ensure that happens, regardless of what they think of Breivik’s behaviour.
It is not the job of a journalist or their editor to act as judge and jury, no matter how simple a case might seem.
Fortunately new technology is making it much easier for journalists who want to report the trial but do not want to spread hate. The court banned television cameras broadcasting his testimony to avoid giving him a direct platform to air his views, but live bloggers have been able to go one better.
Take for example, The Guardian. Not only are they reporting what is being said, but making sure that his incorrect statements are followed by correct information. For example:
11.32am: Breivik claimed this morning that Norwegians would be a minority in their own capital “within five years”. That is not what the statisticians say.
Statistics Norway predicts that immigrants are set to make up almost half of Oslo’s population by 2040 and its definition of “immigrants” includes children of immigrants (unlike in the UK where children of immigrants are not defined as immigrants), the Local reported last month.
This may satisfy some. But for others, particularly survivors, there is a need to block the information completely. The best innovation seems to have been created by Dagbladet, one of Norway’s major newspapers, which has set up a version of its website with a button that removes any mention of the trial.
This wonderful use of digital technology – an opting in or out process – can provide a happy middle for those who are concerned about freedom of speech and justice, but don’t want to censor others’ access to it.
The public domain
That said, there is an advantage of putting his hateful diatribe in the public domain. It allows people to make their own decisions about his culpability. It may encourage others to express their support of multiculturalism.
It also prompts journalists to consider how many other people might echo his views. Are those views present in Australia? Is it a minority or a growing body?
After all, Breivik relied on some still prominent Australians to back up his arguments.
As technology becomes more sophisticated, the public and the media are able to handle such thorny issues more deftly. As The Guardian and Dagbladet have demonstrated, it’s becoming easier to report the truth without harming those affected by tragedy, or providing a soapbox for some of the world’s most dangerous, extremist ideas.