Shedding light on the chilling story of the ‘teenage terrorist’

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Last weekend, the same startling scoop surfaced in the newspapers of the two major publishers: a teenager arrested for plotting a school massacre that was completely suppressed for nearly two years. The two companies fought a long legal battle to publish details of a story that could have impacted the gun law debate.

Photo: photo / RNZ Mediawatch

It’s not often the same surprising scoop that appears in rival newspapers on the same day.

But the troubling case of a Tasman District teenager who planned to shoot teachers and high school mates was on the headlines of Stuff newspapers across the country last weekend – and on page three of the Weekend Herald, written by Jared Savage.

The other amazing thing about this story was that it had taken almost two years for some details of it to be revealed in the news.

Since January 2019, blanket removal orders have prevented all media from reporting the story of the teenager arrested after a police raid found an arsenal of weapons, including an AR15 rifle – the type used in the atrocity of the Christchurch mosques – and homemade explosives as well as a plan to attack the school.

We’ve seen school shootings in the United States often in our news in recent years, but as the Dominion Post said last weekend, that’s the kind of thing that never happens here.

Although it happened once – almost a century ago.

Truth diary reporting the tragedy of the 1923 Waikino school shooting.

Truth diary reporting the tragedy of the 1923 Waikino school shooting.
Photo: Past papers

In a correction published last Monday, the newspaper said a man shot dead two children and injured others with a gun at a small school in Waikato, Waikino town, in 1923.

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“Not all Arabian perfumes will cleanse John Higgins’ blood-stained hands,” the Truth newspaper said at the time.

The police raid in late 2018 also found objectionable images of minors and a letter to “investigators” in which the teenager declared himself a “terrorist”.

The teenager subsequently pleaded guilty to a range of charges, including illegal possession of explosives, firearms and restricted weapons, and was sentenced to intensive surveillance.

According to reports last weekend, a judge in charge of the case felt that the police intervention – prompted by public reports of the teenager’s conduct and social media posts – could have prevented a tragedy similar to the shooting at the Christchurch Mosque.

But the arrests and court appearances for the Tasmanian teenager have been kept under wraps as the debate over changes to the gun law unfolded after March 15, 2019.

We still wouldn’t know anything about them if Stuff and the Herald publisher NZME had not pursued a lengthy joint legal bid to secure the right to finally publish the details – or at least – some of them last weekend.

And even now, much of what was collected by police and presented in court still cannot be reported, according to Stuff’s senior reporter on the story, Blair Ensor.

“In the last 18 to two months, there have been a number of iterations of history on my computer. We had different versions of the summary of facts available to us and different versions of what the story was going to look like, ”he said. Mediawatch.

A judgment rendered the day before Herald and Stuff released their stories finally gave the green light to release some of the previously removed details.

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“This allowed us to post an agreed summary of the facts, including details related to the charges to which the teenager had pleaded guilty. In 12 years as a journalist, I have never dealt with a case like this. It’s very unusual, ”he said.

The stories from last weekend must have been written with great care.

No legend

Photo: PHOTO / RNZ Mediawatch

“There were senior executives watching this and our attorney, Robert Stewart, who attended the hearings, was looking at things like a hawk,” he said.

Even discussing the common challenge of removal with Mediawatch ran the risk of revealing details that are always suppressed – which would constitute contempt of court.

When asked how he first learned about the story, Blair Ensor could only say that it was triggered by “something a reporter saw that piqued our interest” .

The main reason for the large-scale crackdown was the harm that could be done to the adolescent’s rehabilitation. The crackdown also made it impossible to name the school the teenager was planning to attack.

Blair Ensor said Mediawatch Stuff initially wanted to reveal the identity of the teenager, but it became clear early in the process that this was probably not allowed.

“We argued that the rehabilitation argument did not meet the test of extreme hardship. We felt that identifying the adolescent would make people aware of the risk they posed – and even if the threshold was not met, the principles of open justice and freedom of expression were not surpassed. “, did he declare.

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Some details of the agreed summary of facts and details collected by the police still cannot be released.

“It is very frustrating. I think it’s important that we get to see how a teenager gets into the kind of delusional position that this one has taken. Without being able to go through history and look at the police file, it is very difficult to learn the lessons of this affair, ”he said.

“We can’t see how the agencies reacted to this because we can’t get this information,” he said.

“In my opinion, the events of March 15 in Christchurch are really irrelevant here,” Judge David Ruth said when the teenager was sentenced.

“Perhaps by imprisoning this young [person] and by taking the cautious and conservative approach of the tribunal, it can be argued that we have prevented another episode similar to the ones that happened in Christchurch, ”he said.

But had the public known that such an episode could have happened even before the Christchurch atrocity in March 2019, it could have made an impact on public opinion when the controversial gun law changes were a live problem.

“I don’t want to get into the gun reform debate, but it would undoubtedly have added weight to calls for change,” said Blair Ensor of Stuff. Mediawatch.

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