Message to Mitch: “Dude, you’ve got egg on your egg.”

How could the editorial executives at the Sunday Star Times have thought that pulling a stunt like infiltrating the crowd at a provincial rugby game with reporters carrying fake terrorist gear would ever be a good idea?
As we say in the news business: “It’ll all end in tears.”
In this case, perhaps the tears of a newsroom clown forced to fall on his or her sword and take the blame.

I had a chat with TVNZ 7’s Miriama Kamo yesterday evening. I made the point – also made by Jim Tully in today’s Herald – that the premise of the story is dodgy from the start.

Security at a 14s or provincial rugby match today – a year or more out from the Rugby World Cup – is not going to be as tight – in fact the main security ‘threat’ is that spectators try to smuggle in their own cheaper booze. So the premise of “testing” the security arrangements that might be in place for the RWC doesn’t hold water.

The only ground for defending the SST‘s actions would be a favourable comparison to the Schiphol airport sting which is also in the papers this week. It would be a defence based on a high threshold of public interest, but I don’t think a stunt at a provincial rugby ground is quite the same.

I also think it’s ethically questionable and probably is a technical breach of at least three clauses in the EPMU Code of Ethics.

The SST – terrorists at the rugby stunt has become a real “What were they thinking?” moment. And we might argue, a failure of leadership in the newsroom hierarchy.

The Schiphol Sting – March 2008

In February, a Dutch reporter bought a bottle of duty free dark rum at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. He replaced the contents with water, put the bottle back on the shelf and “bought” it again. He then carried it through customs and check-in procedures all the way to the UK and on to the US.

The sting operation was shown on Dutch TV last weekend and has led to a tightening of security at Shiphol’s duty free stores.

The reporter who led the sting, Alberto Stegeman, said he was surprised that Schiphol knew about the risk and had not acted earlier.

“If I can think of this, then so can anybody,” he told the news media.

“It is easy to think up and easier to carry out.”

The public interest here is demonstrable and greater than that which can be used to justify the terrorist at the rugby stunt.

On Christmas Day 2009, accused Nigerian terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate a liquid explosive attached to his underwear while on board Delta Flight 253 as it was landing in Detroit. He had boarded the Detroit flight at Schiphol. Within days, new security measures were implemented at international airports, including pat-downs of passengers.

But let’s be generous:  if the SST‘s staff had got away with it and done a story, would we think they were heroes for exposing security “flaws” in the lead up to the world cup?

It didn’t pan out that way and now it looks like a failure of decision-making at the SST.

A big case of “What were they thinking?”

There are still too many unanswered questions:

  • Were the people “dressed as terrorists” SST reporters or were they hired “actors”? — It seems they might have been SST staffers.
  • How were they dressed?

As my colleague Greg Treadwell put it: “Anyone dressed as Osama Bin Laden, probably isn’t Osama Bin Laden”

  • Were they carrying fake weapons or bomb-like stuff hanging off their bodies?
  • How did they behave inside the stadium?

Really, it is likely that their presence was treated as a joke; as Greg and I discussed in the office on Friday afternoon,  if they’d been at the recent Sevens tournament in Wellington no one would have looked twice.

If they were dressed in Islamic-style dress – Shalwah Kameez, turbans etc, with fake beards – it’s also possibly insulting to Muslim communities, or some Asian and Middle Eastern groups in New Zealand.

We don’t know.

I think Mitchell Murphy should be called on to explain himself – obviously he’s had a conversation with the police.

And I note that he’s quoted extensively and defensively in the Herald article this morning.

The Fairfax-owned Star-Times said its investigation was carefully considered and done under strict protocols.

“We have discussed our investigations with police and stand by our offer to debrief them and the minister in order to assist with fixing flaws we have exposed in security levels,” said managing editor Mitchell Murphy.

Mrs Collins’ statement that the newspaper arranged for groups of people dressed as terrorists to infiltrate stadiums was completely false, Mr Mitchell said.

OK, so we have conflicting statements today. I’m sure there’ll be a story in tomorrow’s SST that lays it all out. If there’s not the paper will look even worse. There will be egg on the egg.

I guess Murphy could argue it’s a storm in a stadium, but the issues raised by the Police Minister are valid:

“I am not prepared to say that [at] our provincial Super 14 rugby games, or our school rugby, or any other rugby games or sporting events, that spectators should have to go through aviation-type security with body checks in case there is some idiot from the Sunday Star-Times behaving like they did.

“This is New Zealand. It’s not Kabul. We shouldn’t have to put up with that.”

Yesterday Judy Collins was talking about panic, danger,possible injuries had the stunt gone more wrong than it did.

I reckon if it had been in the US or some other countries, the “terrorists” would be dead.

It’s embarrassing for the SST and staff have been told quite bluntly not to discuss it with anyone.

I imagine that the Herald on Sunday will have a party with this.

In commercial terms it’s like the SST painted a target on its bum and hung a sign saying “Kick me”.

While preparing for last night’s TVNZ appearance, I made a few notes. I was trying to think of the pluses that could come out of this for the paper and to understand why they considered it might be a good idea. This is a bit of what I came up with

Upsides:

  • Front page splash – security no good for RWC.  This would sell more papers and generate a number of follow-up stories on radio & TV
  • Might have prompted review of security, but to what end?

Downside:

  • If we get caught out before we publish, we could look really stupid.

This is what’s happened. Security experts don’t like it because any exposed breach can be exploited by terrorists.

I think that’s scare-mongering.

Ethical dilemmas:

In my view, I think that the actions of the SST and its staff probably breached the following clauses in the code of ethics

(a)  They shall report and interpret the news with scrupulous honesty by striving to disclose all essential facts and by not suppressing relevant, available facts or distorting by wrong or improper emphasis.

What they did here could be “distorting by wrong or improper emphasis”. This relates to the basic premise of the story – that you could test RWC security by infiltrating a provincial rugby ground more than a year out. I came to the same conclusion as Jim Tully:

Journalism Associate Professor Jim Tully, of Canterbury University, said it was difficult to see what the paper was expecting from its actions in the form of serious journalism.

“Nobody is going to have security measures in place this far out from the [2011 Rugby] World Cup. So testing them now is premature and, on the surface, rather stupid,” he said.

The question constantly has to be: “Does it serve the public interest?” The short answer is “No.” Second clause breach in my view is about the means used to obtain news:

(g) They shall use fair and honest means to obtain news, pictures, films, tapes and documents.

(h) They shall identify themselves and their employers before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast.

Well, from what we know this is not what occured in Christchurch and Hamilton. But let’s wait and see how the SST explains itself.

As Miriama and I discussed last night, the competitive pressures of the Sunday market may well have contributed to this unfortunate and potentially embarrassing stunt being considered, but I’ll bet circulation will be up tomorrow as we all wait for Mitchell Murphy’s explanation.

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2 Responses to Message to Mitch: “Dude, you’ve got egg on your egg.”

  1. [...] I mentioned in an earlier post; if the SST had not had its cover blown on Friday, Sunday’s “expose” of [...]

  2. Medusa says:

    Sounds very similar to a typical “Chasers” stunt, they do it (and get away with it) most of the time

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