Like many I woke last Thursday to the horrific news of the live on air execution of a US journalist and her cameraman, and subsequent suicide of their disgruntled former colleague. The killings were captured on digital video and broadcast first by the victims, and then by the shooter, who uploaded his “first person” footage to social media before taking his own life.
I read the first of many blogposts on the subject, and tweeted about it:
Others shared similar views:
The text of the tweet clearly implied that the footage showed the killings, and I was deeply troubled. And conflicted – I wasn’t going to watch the footage just so I could be distressed and moved to greater outrage, but if I didn’t, what could I do about it?
I could complain to the relevant regulatory body: the Online Media Standards Authority – or OMSA for short.
The OMSA was established in 2013 to fill the regulatory gap existing for broadcast media who, while regulated by the Broadcasting Standards Authority, were largely unregulated in relation to content which was exclusively online.
Like its real-world equivalents, it is standards based, and self regulatory, run by the industry it polices.
I discussed whether I should make a complaint with my team, and if so, whether it should be as “outraged of Mt Cook” or as Privacy Commissioner. We decided this was a significant matter of privacy, albeit not one of a New Zealand citizen. It is an absolute affront to the dignity of life to offer up the last, terrified moments of a victim of an execution, for the momentary distraction of an online audience and to drive traffic to a commercial enterprise. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the disclosure of images taken of events occurring in a public place can nonetheless be part of an individual’s “private life” and involve a reasonable expectation of privacy.
The OMSA complaint process is admirably accessible, and efficient. There is an online form, and after submitting details on Sunday afternoon, I received not only an acknowledgement, but the broadcaster's response, and a request for further information from the Chair, in little over 24 hours!
The response from TVNZ said:
The publication had a warning sting in the tweet, at the front of the video and text warnings in the stories where it was embedded. The vision froze at the moment before the shots were fired. We strove to portray a terrible real life event without showing gratuitous images, balancing the public’s right to know about an important story with taste and decency considerations.
So despite the warning of the graphic content, the footage apparently did not contain graphic content. I don’t think I can do more than accept that assurance. I have thanked the OMSA and advised them that I do not wish to pursue the matter.
The standard has some limitations, as also (superfluously) noted in TVNZ’s response:
In regard to the complaint under Privacy and Fairness, TVNZ notes that Privacy and Fairness complaints can only be brought by the person or organisation taking part or referred to in the publication, or their representative/caregiver.
Further in determinations about Privacy we note that the Privacy standard does not apply to deceased individuals.
But the process of complaint and determination seems prompt, and effective. The fact that it is there acts as a check on online media. Read the standards, assess the content, and exercise your right of complaint if you think the broadcast media has overstepped the mark.