MacCarthy’s World | Terrorism retold

I’m writing this from Oslo where my seventh-floor hotel room desk has a panoramic view of the city courthouse. Having spent most of the week corralled within its corridors, it’s good to have an exterior view. But for all the architectural finesse of the building (it’s modern and quirky), I’m not enjoying the view one bit. It’s been an awful week at the Anders Behring Breivik terrorism trial.


Around 800 journalists from 120 countries were accredited to cover this most horrific of trials. We work for all sorts of media: print, broadcast and internet. We’re a pretty mixed bunch. But even before the opening court session, there was clear unity on one particular front: not one of us was looking forward to the task ahead.


Working on a fast-moving news story that’s taking the front pages globally is every news hack’s dream. We like the attention. We like to think that we’re on top of our game. We like to revel in the (imagined) kudos. Not this time. This one was different. It was nose to the grindstone, fingers to the keyboards, and a case of just getting the story out as accurately, sensitively and competently as possible.


Big media events such as this are usually unruly melees of ego and super-ego. TV presenters preening in the most prominent spots possible, camera crews dislodging rivals’ gear to get better viewpoints for themselves, print journalists hogging desk space and pulling the plugs on other people’s computers to get their own computers powered up. The usual sort of stuff. It goes with the territory.


Given the sort of media scrums you often see on television news when we thrust microphones and notebooks into the face of our given quarry, it’s hardly surprising that many Norwegians were extremely apprehensive about the media coverage of the trial.


Given our record, they were right. The leader of the national support group for bereaved families and others affected by the atrocities voiced concern that we would be intrusive and would compound the grief with insensitivity. He arranged for stickers saying “No interviews, please” (in English) to be distributed at the courthouse to relatives of the victims, so as to shield them from foreign reporters.


On Monday, the first day of the hearing, lots of people were wearing these stickers. By Tuesday nobody bothered with them, though they were still freely available on information desks throughout the building.


What had happened in the meantime? The simple answer is that we behaved ourselves. There wasn’t a hint of unruliness, and reporters obediently stayed within the zones marked out for interviews and only talked to those who voluntarily ventured inside.


Nobody was chasing a scoop. We also shared information much more readily than usual. We all have our friends and acquaintances on the international circuit and regularly hand out useful snippets to a chosen few within our own orbits. But this time around, information was being exchanged with all-comers. Without having discussed it, or planned it or thought about it in any objective way, it was as if we all knew we were on a common mission and acted accordingly.


But the real heroes of the week were the Norwegian people. Just like in their initial response in the aftermath of the attacks last July, the Norwegians again displayed a truly remarkable level of dignity.

Grief was still etched on many faces, and eyes were wet from weeping, but they stood up straight and proud with a sense of natural dignity that I will never forget.


Inside the courtroom (I was one of the lucky few dozens to be allocated a seat in there), I watched mothers and fathers sit just a few feet from the terrorist who had ended their children’s lives so brutally. I will never understand how they coped with such tremendous bravery in this unimaginable situation. The only sound was silence. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught winces as the terrorist was led into the room. I saw parents weep silently as their child’s name was read from the long list of fatalities, with details of how many gunshot wounds they sustained and which one killed them. I saw parents flinch as they heard an audio recording of an emergency phone call from one girl. Multiple gun volleys were painfully audible in the background as she whispered a desperate plea for help. Some of these parents already knew that it was one of these shots that killed their child.


I will never understand how these grieving families got the strength to endure this week and the tortuous weeks ahead. But endure it they will. Because they are determined to do so, to bear witness for their slaughtered children and to see justice done. Those of us living in Denmark are honoured to have them as neighbours.