Christchurch Earthquake and the Real Looting Scandal #eqnz #christchurchquake #nztv
Update: A couple of people have responded to this post by saying that police have arrested a couple of people for alleged “looting”. I was aware of this — but in my view the word “looting” implies more than a couple of kids hurling rocks. It implies anarchy and mayhem, both very unlikely in Christchurch under any circumstances. What the police have done is arrest a couple of kids for vandalism. Words matter.
There were early reports that there was some looting in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake this morning. This is par for the course. Reports of looting are far more common than actual looting. Who are these people that touch off these looting stories, most often without any basis? Pranks? Paranoia? Are these the same people that constitute that mysterious 3 percent in surveys who answer “no” to questions like “do you think education is important?” We called them shit-stirrers at school. As it turns out, the NZ police looked into the “looting” rumours and found a couple of “isolated incidents” that didn’t amount to anything worthy of national hysteria.
But the real scandal uncovered by the 7.1 quake is the looting of news reporting capability in New Zealand, although it is not a phenomenon limited to this country.
It took four hours for the state TV network, TVNZ, to broadcast live from Christchurch. Up until that point, the only interview with anyone on the scene was by phone to a reporter who happened to be on holiday in Christchurch at the time. Her stunning insights included a description of how the earthquake caused her hotel room to shake as if it had been hit by, well, an earthquake. Things, she went on, may also have rattled on shelves a little.
By contrast, Twitter came into its own. Under the hashtags #eqnz and #christchurchquake, tweets flooded in (if you’ll excuse the mixed natural disaster metaphor) from the moment the quake subsided. Photos soon followed, giving a visceral sense of the damage that the number “7.1” can never convey. News outlets, playing catch-up, went on to Twitter to trawl for information signifying, perhaps, the end of primary news reporting in New Zealand. For several hours, the television and online news coverage consisted solely of material generated by Twitter (including, admittedly, the looting rumours).
NZ television news has long survived on the smell of the proverbial oily rag. The 6PM news bulletin is a triumph of Kiwi ingenuity, managing to cobble together a half-credible hour-long program made up of overseas stories, recycled breakfast news and detailed descriptions of car accidents, minor crime and unremarkable weather events. The Christchurch quake has exposed the cracks in the capacity of TV organisations to cover big, breaking stories. The coverage only came together once the government response swung into action, providing news outlets with cut-and-paste-friendly information to dress up as reporting. Further evidence, if needed, of how the diminution of genuine news reporting is great for governments and spin-doctors, but terrible for the rest of us.
Now, this is a quake-prone country and tremors don’t confine themselves to working hours or weekdays. This should not have fallen outside the realms of likely disaster scenarios. It is a disgrace, if not altogether surprising, that NZ’s state TV broadcaster took four hours to begin half-decent coverage of such a significant story.