When RNZ chairman Jim Mather declared “no stone is going to be left unturned” in getting to the bottom of the biggest scandal in the broadcaster’s 98-year history, the collective eyebrow of media executives around the country shot up.
The phrase “careful what you wish for” sprang to the minds of many.
After appointing an independent panel of two lawyers and a veteran Australian journalist, Mather would have been expecting a big bill and a long list of recommendations. He got both – $230,000 for the former, 22 of the latter.
But he probably wasn’t expecting the independent panel’s sympathetic stance towards Mike Hall, the lone wolf journalist who sparked the inquiry, or the clip round the ears for him and RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson.
Mather and Thompson were rebuked for what they said to media when the ‘inappropriate editing’ was discovered.
Back then, Mather told RNZ’s Checkpoint programme the altered copy had “eroded” public confidence in the broadcaster and he was “extremely disappointed” on behalf of the board. The three-person panel felt Mather’s comments added to the public alarm.
This seems unfair to Mather. What was he to do? Try and down play the seriousness of what had happened and lose his own credibility? The story was being reported by media around the world; Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson was describing the scandal as a “major issue” for RNZ.
The panel felt it was “unhelpful” Thompson described the altered wire copy as “pro-Kremlin garbage”, despite the fact that is exactly what it was.
Hall had made unauthorised changes to nearly 50 stories, many of them involving the insertion of pro-Russian lines with no factual basis.
In one of the altered pieces the original wording of the story referred to Russia “seizing” Crimea in 2014. This was changed to Russia ‘annexing’ Crimea after a ‘coup’.
As the panel itself said: “This is highly one-sided and contested language which had the effect of unbalancing the story.”
Other additions to the original stories included references to “neo-Nazi groups” in Ukraine. Putin has claimed one of the reasons for his ‘special military operation’ was to “de-nazify” Ukraine.
Thompson’s use of the word “garbage” did draw more attention to the whole affair but it was understandable in the circumstances. In the same interview he said: “What’s happened is a serious breach of our editorial standards and personally, I’m just so gutted by it.”
In contrast to the swipe at Mather and Thompson, the panel appeared to soft pedal on Mike Hall, who they chose not to name.
“The panel has no evidence before it to suggest that the inappropriate editing was part of a deliberate or malicious attempt to breach the editorial standards of RNZ or the licence agreements of Reuters and other wire services.
“Likewise, there is no evidence to suggest the individual intended to insert misinformation or disinformation into the stories, let alone engage in some kind of pro-Russian propaganda campaign
“On the contrary, it appears to have been an effort on the part of the journalist concerned to add what he considered to be more balance and accuracy into the stories via the sub-editing process.
“Clearly, our conclusions about the inappropriate nature of many of the edits indicate that we consider those efforts to be misguided and a breach of standards and practice.”
Journalists might find it hard to accept that Hall, an experienced sub-editor, believed he was adding more balance and accuracy to the stories he was editing. RNZ’s own audits of his work found he also omitted words and phrases as a way of changing the complexion of a story, including on wire stories covering the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
For example, a story about a fierce and protracted gun battle between Israeli armed forces and Palestinian militants originally read: “On January 27, a Palestinian gunman killed seven Israelis near a synagogue in East Jerusalem, a day after an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin in which 10 Palestinians including eight gunmen were killed”. Hall removed the phrase “including eight gunmen”.
The panel found Hall also made other edits that were anti-Israel, anti-America, pro-China and pro-left wing governments in South America.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines propaganda as “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view”. If this definition is accepted, it fairly describes what Hall was up to.
Two other things arose out of the panel’s questioning of Hall. First, he said he didn’t know RNZ’s wire service contracts prohibit changes (other than stylistic ones) to stories.
It appears that RNZ had not made sub-editors in its digital department, or indeed any of its staff, aware of these contract conditions, although RNZ journalists told the panel there was no need because they “just knew – it was journalism 101”.
The panel also reported Hall’s comments that despite sometimes feeling uncomfortable making editorial decisions on his own regarding international wire copy, he didn’t refer issues up the chain of command because, he said, other staff and managers in the digital news team “seemed so stressed and busy at all times.”
There is no doubt RNZ’s smallish digital team would’ve been under constant work pressure, but editorial leaders in all newsrooms are normally under pressure and it doesn’t stop most journalists asking advice. Many see it is an insurance policy – if someone later complains about a story they can point to having consulted someone senior.
A more cynical view of Hall’s decision is that if he had referred up his decisions to change wire copy it would likely have sparked a review of his work.
The panel confirmed what had become apparent months earlier – that only one journalist was involved in the inappropriate editing. But the wide terms of reference gave it plenty of scope to dissect RNZ’s news and digital operations.
It found big gaps in training, a thinly resourced digital team that wasn’t aligned with the news team, and technology and systems that were no longer fit for purpose.
The fact that the digital team was separate to the better-resourced broadcast news team seems to be a clear management failure. The panel said the teams operated in silos and there was “unhealthy competition and distrust between them.”
A decision to integrate the two teams had been made in May 2023, before the ‘inappropriate editing’ was known about. But, as the panel concluded, the decision should have been made and implemented much earlier. Strangely, the panel seems not to have dug into the reasons behind the delay, despite reporting “a near universal view… that this separation contributed to the inappropriate editing”.
The panel noted RNZ had been under significant budgetary constraints for an extended period. This includes a nine-year funding freeze under National that led to job cuts and meant new activities, including digital content, had to be established within existing funding.
In this year’s Budget RNZ finally got some relief, with an annual increase of $25 million a year.
Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson said the money would “strengthen news and current affairs coverage through a free multi-media digital platform to reach new audiences, expand regional coverage to be truly national, establish a new initiative to prioritise Māori and Pacific content and support RNZ to deliver civil defence lifeline emergency communications.”
By committing to implement all 22 of the review panels recommendations, the RNZ board has taken away a lot of the flexibility from its own management on how the extra funding will be spent. Much of it will now need to go into new software, extensive training programmes, more news staff in editing and supervisory roles, and a senior editorial policy/standards manager.
Perhaps Mather and the board felt they had no choice after making the review the spearhead of its response to the highly problematic position it found itself in.
But, few would have anticipated one rogue journalist and his misguided efforts would end up having such a significant impact on the future direction and operations of our public broadcaster.