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Pike River, After The Second Explosion - Scoop Editorial

Pike River, After The Second Explosion - Scoop Editorial

What is important now is that all the questions are answered.

But almost equally important is that they be seen to be answered well.

The experience of the past week in Pike River and Greymouth has traumatised all of New Zealand - and possibly more than usually, the media and the police.

The relationship between the two has - to be blunt - reached a new low point.

For some in the media - and no doubt the public also - it felt as if the Police grossly mishandled the quantity and quality of the information they released.

For some in the police - and no doubt the public also - it felt as if the media preyed on the event looking for controversy and ratings.

Meanwhile for the victims, their families, the people of Greymouth and of New Zealand as a whole the absence of answers to deeply felt questions has left a gaping hole in all of our understanding of what has just happened.

Instead of light we have had far too much heat. Perhaps most disgraceful of all has been the spectacle of reporters arriving from Australia - asking legitimate questions - and getting stonewalled by responsible officials, and then criticized by NZ media for daring to ask the questions.

These journalists were not asking questions that were out of line. Rather it appears NZ media are getting so thin on the ground that NZ's responsible officials are forgetting how to be accountable.

The question regarding a comparison with firefighters running into burning buildings on 9/11 was legitimate - it was thought out by the experienced reporter who asked it.

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And the answer should not have been to villify the question and questioner but rather to answer it. This might have (and may still) mean admitting that the decision to send people in or not in the first few hours had been a very hard one to make - and that they now probably don't know whether they made the right decision.

Or it could have simply been - as the PM answered similar questions - "now is not the time to try and answer that question." Instead we saw outrage on the faces of those being questioned and shock in the media at the cheek of the media involved. Ultimately we will know the answer only when the bodies are recovered.

Advice seems to now be emerging that the only safe time to mount a rescue mission would have been in the first four hours after the explosion - before methane could build back up. And that after that time, any expert advice from anywhere in the world, would have been to stay right out of the mine, period.

By Saturday morning - 12 hours after the first explosion - the rescuers, police and anyone else involved in the operation likely had no choice but to do what they subsequently did.

And so perhaps - given the futility of debate over this issue by Saturday - the police desire to clamp down on information became inevitable. Too much openness could have undermined public confidence in their operation and then led to even more media chaos than we saw. And hence decisions like the one to withhold the footage of the explosion were made.

And we must remember that Police Superintendent Garry Knowles, and Pike River boss Peter Whittle and their respective teams (including the Minister and Commissioner of Police) had to hold it together under enormous pressure in an extraordinarily difficult situation.

But that said, now we have time for reflection - and now we have time to learn from our mistakes.

Unfortunately in the meantime something of an impasse has developed between the media and the emergency managers. In times of crisis the police and the media ought to work effectively together - at present they are not coming close.

And this is a very unfortunate point to have now arrived at in this tragedy. The emergency is not yet over - and will not be over until the bodies are recovered.

So what to do now in all this muddle?


What is important now is that all the questions are answered.

But almost equally important is that they be seen to be answered well.

So what does this mean?

First of all the situation has changed.

If the objective is no longer to save the miners then the new objective becomes to recover the bodies and answer the questions around why they died.

The scene of the explosion and the rescue operation no longer has any justification to be a closed book to the public and the media.

Police should begin releasing as much information as they are able to do so about what they are doing, and what they have done - first to the families and then to the public. The provision of the full video of press conferences online can help this process and should continue. But we need more.

We need a timeline of what happened in the 24 hours following the first explosion. Who was informed when? When was the search party formed and on site? When were decisions made regarding their deployment and what were those decisions? All of this information should have been logged at the time and should now be released. It is what it is.

And in relation to the hard stuff let's start asking questions politely and answering questions honestly instead of playing games. If we don't know if the perfect decisions were made then let's just say so.

From this point on the terms of the disclosure test should now be: is there a good and sufficient reason to withhold this information? And if not then the question should be just answered and the information provided.

The second key priority must be to maintain the integrity of the next phase of this process.

We know there will be at least four inquiries into this disaster: the Police's; the Department of Labour's; the coroner's; and a Govt. appointed commission of inquiry.

Police Superintendent Knowles should now be replaced as commander of the recovery operation. His removal from the "coalface" of operations last night at 7pm is a useful step but - given the level of interest and controversy around this event - is in this publication's view, insufficient.

This is no reflection on how he has done his job.

Like it or not, he is the individual whose decisions will now be the subject of a large part of these inquiries. For the sanctity of the process, and for his own protection, he should not be seen to be the person responsible for collecting the final evidence which will be presented at the inquiries relating to how the miners died.

Also - like it or not - in days to come and beyond Knowles will be the subject of speculation and "armchair jury" deliberation around the country, in the media, in blogs, on facebook and on talkback radio.

And this is something which the police need to accept is not the media's fault. It is the result of a natural human instinct to try to understand the things that most upset us. It will probably be painful for many of those involved in the process - but that is part of the job description.

It is the reality of life as a policeman in NZ, that when a large (or for that matter any) loss of life occurs, they and their superior's (including the Minister and the Commissioner) must expect to have their actions examined in minutiae. We do so so that we can learn from the experience and hopefully prevent similar things happening again.

We also need to remember that the inquiries need to extend a great deal further than simply into what happened in the last seven days - but into the safety and working conditions in this mine in particular and in NZ coal mines in general. If mistakes have been made at a regulatory level we should not shrink from discovering them.

But in the meantime we must remember that in the middle of all of this confusion are the victims.

They need to be treated with respect and to be kept in the loop. If they want to be listened to - and to ask their own questions - then they should be enabled to do so, and their questions should be answered. But they are also people who should be given space to grieve.

Ultimately they are the people who need the answers most of all.


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