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Drawing a line

Posted on 23 September 2019 by Chief Censor David Shanks

In two years as New Zealand’s Chief Censor, I cannot begin to describe to you some of the things that I have seen.

On one hand, my Classification Office is responsible for age-classifying commercial films, videos and games. That is the fun part. I’ve never seen so many film festival movies as I did in my first year, watching them at a cinema that had been opened specially for myself and one of my team.

On the other hand, my staff and I have to classify material sent to us by law enforcement. This is the dark side. This can be dreadful child sexual abuse images, or harrowing rape clips. And other things, things that some people would find even more damaging to watch.

Over the past couple of years, I have found that different categories of extreme and illegal material impact members of my team differently. The thing that hits us hardest can sometimes be unexpected.

I really hate having to watch people be brutally shot to death.

That is why six months ago, when I went into my office at home I paused just for a moment, before I opened my laptop and clicked on the video file that had been sent to me moments before by Internal Affairs. I had some idea of what I was about to see. This was the clip now known as the ‘Christchurch livestream video’ - seventeen minutes of helmet cam footage of the worst mass murder, the worst terrorist attack in New Zealand history.

On one level, I could describe and assess this video in professional, objective terms. On another level, there are no words to describe something like this. 

What made it all much, much worse was I knew this had gone viral, that it had been amplified across multiple large internet platforms, all around the world. As I watched, I knew that Facebook, Google and others were fighting a desperate battle to take this off their platforms, as more and more versions of it mutated and spread. Over a million attempted uploads had been blocked by Facebook by the time I saw it. Nobody can tell me how many versions got through and were viewed, but I suspect it was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, in New Zealand alone.

So all kinds of people saw this. Some of the people closest to this horror would have seen it, people like the relatives, friends, loved ones of the innocent people I was watching being ruthlessly shot to death. Christchurch school children saw it on their phones while they lay on the floor of their classroom in lockdown, as they tried to make sense of what was going on.

I know the impact viewing this video had on me. And I am a grown man. I didn’t know the victims. I have viewing safety protocols in place and a work provided counsellor. I signed up for this. But I didn’t know what to say to the Muslim man who asked me with tears in his eyes about what he should say to his 9 year old boy, his child, who had accidentally watched this on a social media news feed.

That is one of the reasons why I think this event is not only New Zealand’s worst mass-murder, but it is also quite probably the most harmful media event ever inflicted on the people of one nation.

When I and my team classified this video, we saw the white supremacist branding prominently displayed throughout the slaughter. This was clear terrorist promotional propaganda – unlawful and objectionable under our law. The same went for the ‘Great Replacement’ a so-called manifesto, which exhorted followers to kill various groups, specifically explaining why women and children should not be spared. It really was no different from a range of terrorist promotional literature we had classified and banned before.

Some people disagreed, and both decisions to ban were appealed to our Board of Review. We had callers tell us that we shouldn’t have banned the livestream video – because it was a fake. We also heard that ‘The Great Replacement’ was an example of ‘political free speech’. Those types of arguments did not wash, and the bans were upheld. In the same way that your freedom of expression does not extend to a right to enjoy watching a child being violated, it does not give you license to create products directing followers to commit murder and atrocities in the name of whatever twisted cause it is that you are recruiting for.

While subsequent events have shown that we could not act to prevent this hatred bleeding out and apparently triggering other atrocities elsewhere, such as in Poway and El Paso, we could do something in New Zealand and we did. It is now hard to find the livestream video and the Great Replacement document even online in New Zealand. Everyone knows possession of them is illegal. And yes, some people have been arrested, notably one offender who wanted to have the livestream video modified with cross hairs and a kill count.

This doesn’t fix everything. But it is a start. And now, we have the Christchurch Call, with signatories spanning 17 countries and most of the tech giants. The Call’s approach in drawing together national and industry collaboration to address this global issue just makes sense. I also understand the reasons for the Call’s tight focus on online extremism. Even so, I do not underestimate the size of the challenge ahead in driving the digital industrial complex towards a new, transparent and accountable way of managing and monitoring their platforms. Fixing this won’t be easy or cheap.

The solution will need to recognise freedom of speech as a vital and essential right, but also the fact that this right has to have boundaries. Completely unrestricted freedom of speech tends to be weaponised by terrorists and despots, who have no compunction about depriving you of your rights. History tells us this.

If we are serious about getting the balance right, someone has to draw the line, somewhere.

David Shanks is New Zealand's Chief Censor.


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