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Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I’ve thought that a few times listening, watching and reading some of the media coverage of the coroner’s inquest into the 2019 mosque attacks.
It’s obviously something that Mike Ardagh has thought too. If the name rings a bell - he’s a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Otago in Christchurch. He’s also a specialist in the Emergency Department at Christchurch Hospital.
He’s been in the news a lot over the years. And he’s in the news again today with some pretty strong comments about the inquest into the mosque shootings, which has been going for the last three weeks and is expected to go for another four weeks.
In a nutshell, he’s saying that the way it’s being run is unfair and mean to the emergency responders who have been hauled-in to give evidence. Those are the words he’s using to describe it - “unfair and mean”.
He says ambulance and police staff are being treated as if they’re the ones on trial. Saying it appears to be all about winning arguments instead of finding facts. And, from what I’ve seen, I think he’s spot on.
There was one line of questioning in particular that I couldn’t believe one of the lawyers representing the victims’ families asked. It was last week. When a member of the Armed Offenders Squad involved in the response that day was in the stand.
Lawyer Kathryn Dalziel wanted to know why he stopped people outside the mosque from going in after the shootings, and he explained that he didn’t know who they were and there was a risk that one of them could have been an offender. Or a “sleeper”. So someone pretending to be a member of the mosque community but actually being a terrorist themselves.
And, as she told the court, these people were desperate to get inside and help.
She then went on to say this. And this is the bit that staggered me.
I’ll quote her directly. She said: "My clients, and this is really important to them, they want to know, would you have been so cautious about there being a possible sleeper if you had been talking to a group of white people?"
The report I saw said the AOS member “appeared surprised by that question”, which is probably putting it mildly. But he responded as you would expect an AOS person to respond. He said: "I would have dealt with the situation the exact same way".
Which, of course, he would’ve. But this is what Mike Ardagh is getting at. He’s saying today that the whole approach seems to be about challenging the emergency responders. Prove to us that you didn't cock-up. That’s why he thinks it is unfair and mean for the emergency responders giving evidence.
You can imagine how gobsmacked the Armed Offenders guy would have been with that question. And, from the coverage I’ve seen, it does feel like the lawyers representing the victims and families are doing what lawyers normally do in criminal trials. They create murkiness. They create doubt. And we’ve seen plenty of that so far.
As Mike Ardagh says, the emergency responders being questioned and treated this way are good people. They are not accused of any crimes. But it seems, doesn’t it - from the way they are being spoken to and questioned - that they are on trial.
In some respects, the response that day itself is on trial. But how fair is it that individual people - who put their own lives on the line that day - are questioned and treated the way they are in such a public way? I think it is very unfair.
Because, as Mike Ardagh points out, many of these people are already significantly distressed by what they went through on that day. And he reckons what he calls a “more collaborative exploration” would not only be better for the responders in the dock, but it would probably get more useful information.
And I’m with him 100 percent. I think it is completely unfair that individual emergency responders are being asked to publicly defend suggestions that they were too slow, confused or biased in their decision-making.
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