On the surface, RNZ has had a banner year, with record audience numbers and the end of a funding freeze for the public broadcaster. However, a leaked internal document reveals staff concerns about a culture of “fear, division and mistrust”, as Sam Sachdeva writes

After enduring a bitter chill, RNZ came out of the cold in May.

In Budget 2017, The Government announced an end to a nearly decade-long funding freeze for the public broadcaster, with an extra $11.4 million over the next four years.

RNZ’s supporters saw it as overdue reward, with ratings figures released in May revealing the public broadcaster had added 44,200 listeners in the last year, taking its weekly audience to 579,400 – second behind only The Edge.

Its increased popularity has also been matched with critical acclaim: RNZ won a number of awards at the New York Festival Radio Awards.

Yet beneath the surface, there appears to be angst within the organisation about its change in direction, a possible hollowing out of the Wellington newsroom in favour of a shift to Auckland, and the loss of experienced staff.

The discord was on display when Parliament’s commerce committee heard submitters on a petition to end RNZ’s funding freeze (submitted well before this year’s Budget).

Peter Thompson, chairman of the Coalition for Better Broadcasting, told MPs the group welcomed the end to the funding freeze but argued it “still [wasn’t] enough”.

“Given that there’s been a crisis in the news media roughly in the same period, massive decline in revenues, particularly for the print sector, the business models of many traditional news media have collapsed, there’s an enormous argument here to say that we should be supporting public service media more than before.”

Internal report reveals RNZ staff fears

Thompson said the organisation’s expansion into online news and video had come at a cost – as outlined in an internal report into a recent RNZ restructure leaked to the petitioners.

The document outlines the staff response to the disestablishment of three newsroom positions – including editorial development director Gael Woods – and the creation of three new roles, including the director of a new investigative unit and deputy head of news in Auckland.

It says there was a strong feeling from staff that the organisation’s pool of journalists was under-resourced and would be stretched further by the investigative unit.

One staff member suggested RNZ was “burning down the village to serve it”, while another believed their feedback “had been twisted to justify getting rid of staff”.

“The culture being developed is one of fear, division, suspicion, and mistrust.”

Yet another staff submitter said the investigative unit would add “yet another silo to an organisation drowning in silos”.

“Every decision being taken by the senior leadership team is aimed at adding to these silos.

“The culture being developed is one of fear, division, suspicion, and mistrust. That is not the basis for a successful news media organisation facing the challenges of new media with an absolute commitment to independent, ethical and quality journalism.”

Thompson said he had also heard from RNZ staff concerned about cuts to regional coverage and key programmes, the resignations of experienced staff, and “skeleton staff” in newsrooms.

“This is not indicative of a happy camp.”

There was “very real evidence of cannibalisation”, with expansion in online news and video facilitated by cuts in other critical areas.

“Whether or not it’s a crisis I think is debatable, but certainly there’s a number of staff within RNZ who think it is.”

RNZ board pushes back

RNZ board chairman Richard Griffin pushed back hard in his appearance before the committee, saying the statements from petitioners were “largely speculation and based on what would be a perfect world”.

“We’re very grateful for anybody prepared to stand up and plead a case for more money, but we do live in the real world too.”

Griffin said RNZ was a more functional, efficient and strategic operation that it had ever been, dismissing suggestions that services had been cut.

“That’s hyperbole – it’s based on no facts at all, in fact it’s contrary to the reality … we’re offering a wider service now than we’ve ever offered in the past.”

He also denied the broadcaster was planning to centralise its operation in Auckland, saying it simply wanted to ensure it had a back-up if there were any problems with its Wellington office.

“This is not a plot, it’s not some sort of conspiracy – we’ve said ever since I took over the board that we are determined to have an operation in Auckland that could operate just as efficiently in terms of a crisis as it could out of Wellington.”

“If people within the company don’t want to live within the confines of the strategy, then obviously they can find somewhere else to work.”

Asked about the loss of senior staff, Griffin said: “[In] any operation, there comes a time when people are no longer equipped for new circumstances and a new environment – that’s certainly what’s happened in RNZ.

“Nobody has been forced out, nobody has gone without a good deal of discussion and in some cases several years of discussions before they’ve finally said, we’re out.”

Among those departing is RNZ news director Brent Edwards, who will leave the company in September. Griffin said Edwards had told chief executive Paul Thompson “he didn’t want to accommodate the changes” from the restructuring.

“He wasn’t forced out, he simply didn’t want to work in an environment he thought was unsuitable for his skills.”

Asked why the opinions of staff like Edwards were being disregarded by RNZ, Griffin did not hold back.

“They don’t write strategy for this company – the board writes strategy for this company, the chief executive carries out that strategy.

“If people within the company don’t want to live within the confines of the strategy, then obviously they can find somewhere else to work.”

In a written statement provided to Newsroom after the select committee, RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson said: “Brent Edwards has resigned because he does not support the restructuring that is under way in RNZ News.

“He has made it clear he strongly opposes the redundancies and does not wish to be involved in implementing changes which lead to people losing their jobs. He has acted professionally throughout and is working out his three-month notice period. I will be sorry to see him go.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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