The trial of confessed mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik had barely gotten underway in Oslo when debate erupted over the media's coverage of the event.
Press turnout was impressive. Some 800 reporters were on hand for the opening day; pool video coverage of most of the session were broadcast live on Norway's national television station, NRK; at least a half-dozen reporters live-tweeted the throughout the session, including those parts of the proceedings that NRK was not allowed to show live.
Online coverage in the Norwegian media sites has become so ubiquitous that at least two publications are looking at creating a button that would allow readers a "Breivik-free" version of their pages.
The criticism, voiced by both media critics and some of the survivors of his rampage, is that all the coverage is playing into Breivik's desire for a platform for his crackpot ideas of the dangers of Muslims, multiculturalism and women's liberation.
"He stated he did this to gain attention and I don't believe that he should gain attention to it," survivor Tore Sinding Bekkedal told the Associated Press. "I don't want to give him that reward."
Breivik, who began the trial by denying the authority of the Norwegian judiciary and called his murder of 77 people an act of "necessity," no doubt does perceive the public airing of his views as a reward for his actions.
In this case, that's actually a good thing. His trial is not about guilt or innocence. It's about deciding how his obvious mental disorder might define his punishment. The only "audience" that matters is the panel of judges. The more empowered he feels -- the more he plays to the audience, the more he plays to the gallery, the more disjointed his ramblings -- the better.
In an indication of just how ineffectual his arguments have been, one of the three lay judges hearing the case was dismissed this morning after news broke that he had written on Facebook last summer that Breivik should get the death penalty. Norway does not have the death penalty.
Fears that the public dissemination of Brevik's ideology could increase anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe also seem unfounded. The people who are likely to agree with him are those that already agree with him. The ideas he's espousing are the same ones he's been sharing on ultra-right forums for years now. He's unlikely to win fresh converts to his cause.
Plus, the saturation coverage is assuring that his claims are being debunked in real time. "Breivik claimed this morning that Norwegians would be a minority in their own capital 'within five years,'" The Guardian reported on their live-blog of Tuesday's proceedings. "That is not what the statisticians say. Statistics Norway predicts that immigrants are set to make up almost half of Oslo's population by 2040 and its definition of "immigrants" includes children of immigrants..."
How the media should cover sensational legal cases is always a debate worth having. We've all seen situations where the depth of coverage has gone far, far overboard.
In this situation, Breivik's crime was an assault not only against a group of innocent victims but against Norwegian society as a whole. That society deserves every opportunity to see him confined within the strict rules of the judicial process, challenged on every statement, held to task for every action, and finally, sent away to jail or an institution for however long the judges see fit. It's not a reward for him. It's the best way to exorcise him from the public mind.
Photo by Stoyan Nenov/Reuters