29 Dec 2019

The year in news reviewed, part one: Stories that shaped 2019

12:28 pm on 29 December 2019

New Zealand's memories of 2019 will forever be stained with the tragic events of the 15 March shootings and the deadly eruption on Whakaari/White Island just a few weeks ago.

But it was also a year when major fires around Nelson and in central Auckland raged for days, when the trial of a man accused of killing a British backpacker went to the High Court, and when New Zealand won a World Cup, and lost two.

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Photo: RNZ

In the first of a three-part look back at 2019, RNZ revisits the big stories of the first four months of the year.

Read Part Two here
Read Part Three here


January is one of the hottest months of the year - and this year was one of the hottest ever - but is also traditionally known as the 'silly season', with the year's news cycle usually starting with more light and fluffy stories, as politics and business takes a break.

But 2019 began with some big news stories, including the revelation that a man who distributed child sex images as part of a paedophile ring was awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars by Corrections; the death of three people in a horrific fire when their vehicle crashed in Christchurch while fleeing police; and new reports that workplace exploitation was spreading despite government attempts to clamp down. The problem of cars tooting in Wellington's Mt Victoria tunnel was also a pressing issue for many New Zealanders, judging by the social media reaction to the story.

Mt Victoria tunnel in Wellington.

The question of whether drivers should be able to toot their own horns was a major issue in Wellington. Photo: Google Maps

The country was shocked to discover in January that sheep now outnumber New Zealanders by just five to one; but were not so shocked to find out that housing in all main markets was now "severely unaffordable". The wisdom of trying to steal from a UFC athlete was also obvious to many.

In international news, the year started with Britain still struggling with Brexit issues, while in the US, President Donald Trump's proposals to end the longest government shutdown in US history were rejected. There would be plenty more to come in both political arenas.

Biometric verification. Modern young woman with the phone. The concept of a new technology of face recognition on polygonal grid is constructed by the points of IT security and protection

Facial recognition technology can leave you vulnerable. Photo: 123rf / Oleshko Artem

The biggest stories on RNZ for the first month of the year included Paul Brislen's column on how facial recognition technology leaves users vulnerable, an RNZ investigation that found Pākehā people have the loudest voice when it comes to shaping Auckland's future, and the rescue of two dolphins who became trapped on Wellington's south coast.


The huge fires around Nelson were the top story in early February, burning for more than a week before being brought under control. Thousands of people had to be evacuated, with some unable to return home for weeks. Fires across the Tasman had some concerned that continuing climate change issues could make Australia uninsurable.

Sir Michael Cullen, Tax Working Group chair

Sir Michael Cullen, Tax Working Group chair. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

New Zealand's tax system also came under the spotlight in February, with the Tax Working Group's final report recommending that the government extend taxes on capital gains, while rumours of a National Party leadership change continued to swirl, despite senior MPs openly supporting Simon Bridges.

Other top stories on rnz.co.nz during the month included Mike King being named New Zealander of the Year; redundancies at Te Papa and RNZ crime reporter Anneke Smith's look at a spate of teenagers being sentenced for violent murders.

Concerns over the safety of Lime scooters in New Zealand's big cities also rode into the headlines, while serial rapist Malcolm Rewa was finally found guilty of murdering Susan Burdett.

Lime scooters back in Auckland this morning.

Limes scooters in Auckland earlier in the year. Photo: RNZ /SUPPLIED

In lighter news, the 2019 Oscars ended with Green Book taking the top film award, while Six60 played for the largest crowd for any New Zealand band ever at Western Springs.


One bright and sunny Friday afternoon in Christchurch will always be remembered as one of the darkest days in the country's history, as 51 people were viciously murdered by a gunman at two Christchurch mosques on 15 March.

Tributes and flowers left outside Al-Noor Mosque in Christchurch after the terror attacks.

Tributes and flowers left outside Al-Noor Mosque in Christchurch after the attacks. Photo: RNZ / Isra'a Emhail

The day began with a sense of hope, as the country's young people marched for action in the fight against climate change, but this was swiftly overshadowed by the horrific news coming from central Christchurch.

The attack was over in less than an hour, with police arresting a suspect 36 minutes after they were first alerted, but the damage had been done, and New Zealand would never be the same again.

Worshipers at two mosques were shot by a gunman described by witnesses as "very calm", after allegedly posting white supremacist videos and documents online. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern swiftly described the shootings as a "terrorist attack" and vowed to never publicly speak the alleged gunman's name.

The Bangladesh cricket team - who were in Christchurch on the day of the shootings - cancelled their NZ tour and leaders around the world expressed their sorrow and condemnation.

As the alleged gunman made his first appearance in court, funerals for the fallen began a few days after the attack, although there were some concerns about the length of time it took to return the bodies to families.

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Two people at the national remembrance service held in Christchurch. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

In the aftermath, there were a number of tributes and vigils in the wake of the attack, with the national remembrance service held in Christchurch at the end of the month.

With multiple investigations and inquiries launched, the government quickly signalled that it would look at gun reform, while questions were also raised about the lack of warnings about threats from right-wing extremists. The chief censor also classified the alleged shooter's manifesto as objectionable and several people were prosecuted for sharing video footage of the attack.

There were stories of heroism, and stories of New Zealanders doing what they could to help, but the country couldn't escape the awful fact that so many people had fallen, and we have vowed to always remember them.

RNZ's full coverage of the terror attacks can be found here.


New Zealand was still struggling with the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks in April, and experts warned the after-effects of trauma could last for years. Many pitched in to help the victims, including a couple who had 26 bullets fired at their car in the attack, while millions of dollars were raised and distributed to the victims. Prince william visited Christchurch towards the end of the month, saying "extremism in all its forms must be defeated".

The alleged gunman made another appearance in court and was charged with 50 counts of murder, and more details of his movements before the attack were uncovered, including a trip to Bulgaria, while the chief censor called for action on the 'weaponisation of social media'.

The Crusaders rugby team was urged to change its name in the wake of the attack, and more details of the government's plans to ban military-style semi-automatic firearms were revealed. Some gun owners handed in their weapons voluntarily, although some being stored at the Palmerston North police station were stolen.

Cathedral of Notre-Dame (Notre Dame) burning 15/04/2019 ©Julien FAURE/Leextra via Leemage

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame burning. Photo: AFP

Overseas, Sri Lanka was rocked by bomb attacks on Easter Sunday that claimed hundreds of lives, while the world watched as the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris went up in flames. In more positive news, scientists unveiled the first ever photo of a black hole.

Other stories to make headlines in April included the government ruling out a Capital Gains Tax, despite the Tax Working Group's recommendation; a tragically high road toll that included the loss of eight people in a crash north of Taupō]; concerns about a growing white supremacy movement at Auckland University; and flooding on the West Coast that saw rubbish from a local landfill spill into water and onto the region's beaches, an issue that would continue for months to come.

Tomorrow on RNZ: The year in news - May to August