RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson addresses media over the pro-Russia editing scandal. Photo: RNZ

Comment: RNZ’s failure to act on a warning light more than a year ago has cost it hugely.

The public broadcaster, currently New Zealand’s most trusted news source, is getting a hammering that it could easily have avoided.

In May 2022 a highly experienced RNZ journalist alerted the broadcaster’s management to a story it was running on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The person felt the story, which quoted former Labour Party general-secretary, Mike Smith, and a former minister in the Helen Clark’s coalition government, Matt Robson, was unbalanced.

The two political veterans were commenting on the Ardern Government’s decision to send army instructors and intelligence experts to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia’s “special military operation”.

Smith was quoted as saying New Zealand could now find itself “on the wrong side of history” by helping prolong a conflict in the interests of waning US hegemony while risking its own interests in the Asia-Pacific region, and increasing the risks of a nuclear war.

The story, without quotation marks, also attributed the following to Smith – New Zealand is inadvertently helping to arm neo-Nazi militias and far-right groups in Ukraine with modern weapons, which could be used elsewhere.

Robson, according to the story, claimed the US and Nato were now in a proxy war with Russia and the Government’s decision to involve New Zealand would have huge implications.

“My expectation is that the analysts that we’ve supplied are using intel from the spy planes that are flying around Ukraine and from satellites to provide targeting information to the Ukraine forces. We’ve made those decisions without any procedure as to how they would be authorised.

“We should not just be able to enter into war at the whim of the government of the day.

“The present situation is disastrous because it’s removed any chance of a negotiated peaceful settlement and any chance of a continued independent policy.”

The story was published on Radio New Zealand’s website. The website is run by RNZ’s digital division, not RNZ’s news department, which is responsible for broadcast news. The digital division was set up about four years ago and is under the wing of RNZ’s Head of Content, Megan Whelan.

When alerted by the journalist from the news department, RNZ added balancing remarks from Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, security analyst Paul Buchanan and Victoria University’s David Capie.

The story, with a footnote explaining the additions, remains on the website.

The author of the story was Michael Hall who is now on leave while RNZ investigates a host of other stories he has written. Newsroom understands Hall works mainly from home.

The original version of the story should have seen Hall red flagged and his work given additional oversight. But that clearly didn’t happen.

Hall’s work also came to the attention of the local Ukrainian community which complained to RNZ eight months ago. It said Mike Smith’s claim about neo-Nazi militias and far-right groups in Ukraine was typical of Russian propaganda.

RNZ management is now sifting through a host of stories supplied by Reuters and the BBC which may have been edited and given a pro-Russian slant by Hall.

CEO Paul Thompson said about 250 had been reviewed so far and 16 were found to have been “inappropriately edited”.

The Guardian reported that in some stories whole paragraphs were added, saying that Russia had launched its invasion “claiming that a US-backed coup in 2014 with the help of neo-Nazis had created a threat to its borders and had ignited a civil war that saw Russian-speaking minorities persecuted”.

One article said “Russia annexed Crimea after a referendum, as the new pro-Western government suppressed ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine”. Despite the additions the stories were still attributed to Reuters or the BBC.

Last night, the journalist told RNZ’s own Checkpoint programme off-air that he had “subbed several stories that way over the past number of years. In fact since I started RNZ and … I have done that for five years and nobody has tapped me on the shoulder and told me that I was doing anything wrong”.

Later, RNZ chairperson Dr Jim Mather told the programme the broadcaster’s board was deeply disappointed and that it was going to appoint a panel of experienced journalists to conduct a review that would be completely separate from the work being undertaken by management.

“I certainly have judgment about the systems that we have in place, and I am going to await the findings of the review in terms of the judgment of management around the whole issue.

“But clearly at this point our systems are not adequate, or proven not to be adequate emphatically… it should raise questions about, why was this not identified at an earlier point in time?”

He said RNZ had a “massive challenge” ahead to win back the public’s confidence.

“We pride ourselves as having the highest standards of journalistic quality, so I can say it’s had a significant impact also on our journalism team. I think coming back from this issue is going to take a lot of work. Trust is… hard-fought and hard-earned, but easily lost.”

The controversy comes at a difficult time for RNZ.

Its flagship station RNZ National, which two years ago was a clear number one for radio audiences ahead of all commercial networks, is now down to 5th, its audience dropping from a peak of 703,000 in the pandemic days of late 2020 to just 557,300 now (down from 572,000 at the end of 2022) in GfK ratings.

Online, RNZ had been a success story until the past couple of months, averaging 966,000 monthly unique readers on the Nielsen survey through 2022 and rising to fourth behind Stuff, nzherald.co.nz and Newshub, and just ahead of 1News. But by April’s rankings, rnz.co.nz had slipped to sixth, behind 1News and MSN-NZ, with 789,000 average unique readers, a drop of 18 percent.

Before the current debacle, RNZ also suffered the biggest decline in its trust ranking of the main media outlets in New Zealand. In 2023 trust in RNZ fell by 14.5 percent.

All New Zealand brands fell in the Auckland University of Technology’s (AUT) School of Communication Studies survey, but RNZ had the largest drop.

Despite its decline, RNZ still shares top place in the survey with TVNZ and the Otago Daily Times.

While RNZ’s troubles have led its own news bulletins and featured in most media, NZME, the publisher of the New Zealand Herald has escaped the same sort of scrutiny after one of its reporters was recently taken in by false information over a woman claiming to have gone from a Mongrel Mob background to a high-powered legal career.

NZME provided almost no detail in a brief correction issued a week after the story was published in the Herald’s Sunday magazine. Interestingly carrying the NZME corporate logo rather than that of the Herald, the notice said only:

“A story published last Sunday about a woman who triumphed over a difficult background to become a lawyer had elements that were false. In publishing the article, we fell short of the high standards and procedures we hold ourselves to.”

The story has now disappeared completely from the Herald’s website.

The incomplete correction attracted some social media comment, with one of the authors of the annual AUT trust in journalism report, Dr Merja Myllylahti, saying on Twitter: “It is a strange ‘correction’. No link to the original story, no explanation what was corrected and why. If you want to be transparent and gain trust in your content, you need to explain this better.”

When AUT published its 2023 report on trust levels in the media, co-author Dr Greg Treadwell urged newsrooms to “put regaining trust among their audiences at the top of their agenda for the sake of our democracy”.

The road back for the media just hit a major speed bump.

*This article has been amended to correct the place of Newshub in Nielsen rankings for 2022 to third, ahead of 1News.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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