The National Business Review has threatened to sue Newsroom over coverage of former employee Nathan Smith’s racist blog. At the same time, the outlet acknowledges receiving a complaint about Smith making an offensive joke about Muslims in 2018 but has denied that his frequent use of the n-word while at NBR was ever raised with management.

Newsroom first reported on Smith’s blog, which hosted racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and misogynist content, last week. Smith left NBR, an online business news site, in January to join the New Zealand Initiative as the think tank’s chief editor. He resigned from his role the day Newsroom’s report went live.

In a letter sent to Newsroom on Wednesday, lawyers from Couch Harlowe Kovacevich acting for NBR said the report on Smith’s blog “contains statements about the NBR which carry defamatory and false innuendos, which has and is likely to continue to cause harm and loss”. NBR, via its lawyer Aaron Harlowe, demanded a retraction of the parts of Newsroom’s article which mention NBR and a pre-approved public apology to the outlet by 4pm on Friday.

At stake are two lines in the original report: “Smith used to write for the National Business Review before moving to the New Zealand Initiative to serve as their chief editor. At one stage, Smith’s bio at NBR referenced the Likebulb blog.”

Harlowe tried to highlight that the ‘bio’ at issue was not Smith’s “official staff NBR bio” and his writing at that time was “under previous management”. He claimed there were “fundamental errors and omissions” in the two lines above from Newsroom’s report.

However, they are true. Smith is a former employee of the National Business Review, something even Harlowe acknowledges. At one stage, in 2013 – while he was writing for NBR but before he was formally hired – his bio at the end of an article mentioned and even linked through to the Likebulb blog.

NBR also took issue with Newsroom not contacting it before publication for comment, something Newsroom did do for the New Zealand Initiative, as Smith’s then-current employers.

Combined, Harlowe says this means the article carries “innuendos” and a “reasonable reader” would infer that, from 2018 onwards, NBR knew of Smith’s ideologies, condoned his blog, agreed with or did not disagree with his statements on the blog, is bigoted and/or lacks professional integrity.

Newsroom says the statements in the article are true, contain no innuendos beyond their plain meaning and did not suggest NBR thought, held or did any of the things now denied by its lawyer.

In the letter, Harlowe says “Until the Article was published by Newsroom, the NBR did not have any knowledge of the nature of Mr Smith’s ideologies as set out above in the Blog”.

However, former NBR employees spoken to by Newsroom say management were aware of at least two racist incidents involving Smith.

Mackenzie Smith, who worked at NBR from March to July in 2018, said Smith repeatedly used the n-word in the workplace. This was in an “affectionate” manner, in which he would refer to friends and co-workers as “my [n-word]”. When asked via email to stop referring to Mackenzie Smith with the slur, Nathan Smith agreed to.

Brian Ng, a web producer at NBR from March 2017 to August 2018, confirmed the use of the n-word in the workplace, saying it was “v[ery] uncomfortable and we did call him out on it”. 

Mackenzie Smith also told Newsroom that Nathan Smith once told an Islamophobic joke at a work lunch. It went something along the lines of, “What is the last thing a Muslim says? Kaboom!”

That was the last straw for Mackenzie, who reported both the n-word usage and the Muslim joke to management. He went to Fiona Rotherham, then-online editor and now Hunter’s co-editor for NBR, who pulled then-NBR editor Duncan Bridgeman in for the conversation.

In response to a request for comment, NBR co-editor Tim Hunter confirmed management was aware of the anti-Muslim joke but twice noted that Bridgeman was the person who might best have knowledge of that and a second allegation from former staff.

“Offensive jokes, flippant remarks that offend and any other type of offensive speech are not tolerated by the NBR, which is why then-editor Duncan Bridgeman took the appropriate steps to deal with concerns raised about a remark made by Nathan and we understand that the parties resolved such matters,” he said.

“We are not aware of any formal complaint. Neither I nor [NBR owner] Todd [Scott] were aware of these allegations until raised this week and explained by Fiona Rotherham who was aware that Duncan addressed the matter.”

When asked whether staff aired their concerns about Smith’s supposedly “affectionate” use of the n-word, Hunter responded, “Any such use of that word is not tolerated within the NBR, and we are otherwise not aware of any allegation that Nathan Smith subjectively has an “affection” for such word. You will need to ask Nathan Smith. Such question may also be better addressed to Duncan Bridgeman.”

Newsroom tried to contact Bridgeman, who now works as business editor at the New Zealand Herald, but he did not respond. Newsroom also reached out to Nathan Smith for this article, who also did not respond.

Hunter said: “Overall, the NBR as a media organisation (and as Newsroom would well be aware of itself as a similar organisation), welcomes robust debate under the umbrella of freedom of expression, but has zero tolerance for inappropriate conduct of all types that intends to offend and/or harm others. The NBR welcomes the opportunity to review its policies and practices to the extent necessary and appropriate in light of the matters raised above.”

Ng told Newsroom that under the workplace environment at NBR when he worked there, staff were unlikely to make concerns into formal complaints with management.

“I think with the awfulness … it was already a very quiet/siloed atmosphere as it was,” he said.

“There were so many ****** up things [going] on … that [Nathan Smith] became small fry v[ery] quickly. “

* Two Christmases ago, NBR and Todd Scott launched legal proceedings against Newsroom over another alleged defamation, with a similarly bellicose demand for retraction and apology. That matter did not make it to court but an agreement was reached to cover costs to bring it to an end.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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