23 May 2021

Sportscaster's conduct put spotlight back on media culture

From Mediawatch, 9:14 am on 23 May 2021

Newstalk ZB sports host Martin Devlin was back on air this weekend, after an apology for lashing out at one junior colleague and sending inappropriate messages and unwanted invitations to women in his newsroom. The incidents went unreported for ten days - but they're not the only ones that raised alarm about the culture in our media companies this week.

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Photo: PhotoSport

On Newstalk ZB last Friday one topic preoccupied the talk show hosts: the revelations about Diana Spencer being duped by former BBC journalist Martin Bashir before agreeing to that now notorious TV interview in 1995. 

That Panorama is now part of media history and the finding that the BBC had hidden the truth was almost a day old by Friday afternoon. But at that time another story was breaking which also also involved a well-known broadcaster whose misconduct had come to light elsewhere in the media. And this story wasn’t 25 years old and half a world away - it was in their own premises. 

Around lunchtime on Friday Stuff broke the news that ZB’s star sportscaster Martin Devlin had been taken off the air after aiming a blow - inaccurately - at a junior colleague during a show he hosted ten days earlier. 

He did not do his regular show Devlin On Sport last weekend, though his absence was not explained to the listeners. Stuff’s story said the altercation happened in an open-plan office shared by Newstalk ZB and the New Zealand Herald - but the Herald only reported this on Friday after Stuff spilled the beans. 

Even after the Stuff story about Martin Devlin became its 'most viewed' online and the Wikipedia page on Martin Devlin had been updated with this news, it was absent from ZB’s own news bulletins and talk shows on Friday afternoon.

In a statement from Martin Devlin issued soon after Stuff’s story went live, the broadcaster confirmed the altercation and also that he had sent what he called “inappropriate messages to other colleagues”.

The behaviour was “wholly unacceptable,” he said.

He did not say why - and neither did his employer NZME, who would only say the company does not comment on employment matters. 

But soon after there was more on the New Zealand Herald website from NZME reporter Katie Harris who reports from Wellington. 

She had previously spoken to women at NZME who said they had received unwelcome messages and invitations from Martin Devlin - which he had described in his statement as “innocent”. 

Katie Harris described the emails in question - including one sent in 2018 to a young colleague inviting her for a drink. The woman said she was upset by the approach and complained about it to her manager.

Another woman at NZME told Katie Harris she received emails from Devlin last year which made her feel "uncomfortable" - but they stopped after she raised the matter with a colleague.

In one of these Devlin had joked about a high-profile investigation into sexual harassment at law firm Russell McVeagh. That was in the headlines at the time - and it became a landmark in the New Zealand MeToo movement, pushing back on sexual harassment and discrimination.

And it threw up another irony this week. 

The former Russell McVeagh partner whose conduct sparked all this appeared before a disciplinary tribunal in Wellington - and it was Katie Harris who reported it for NZME and Newstalk ZB. All the while, the notes on Martin Devlin would have been burning a hole in her notebook. 

Reporting on your own media company is never easy - and on Twitter, Katie Harris made a point of acknowledging the courage and integrity of her boss - as well as her sources.  

Back on air 

The statement released by Martin Devlin himself on Friday made it clear allowing him back on air had been discussed and agreed with NZME management after that altercation in the studio on 10 May - but before it was reported in the media. The decision was made in the knowledge that he had sent female colleagues unwanted, unwelcome messages.

“I have been given a second chance and am able to keep my job,” Devlin’s statement said. 

There were "caveats" around his return to work, which he did not specify. 

When Martin Devlin returned to his Devlin on Sport show on Saturday, he addressed the elephant in the studio only briefly - and insisted he would not say any more later on. 

Devlin told listeners he had let himself, family, friends, employer and his listeners down. He said he would confront his mental health with the support of others.

But he did not mention the colleagues in his workplace, including the women who complained about his behaviour towards them.  

It was not the only time misconduct and harassment at our media companies was in the news this week.

TVNZ’s Kristen Hall on TVNZ 1 news on Wednesday reported further claims of bullying at MediaWorks, after previous ones sparked a review of the company’s culture by QC Maria Dew that is under way now.

The company says it is not ruling out separate investigations into individuals - or consideration of incidents outside the three-year period from March 2018 that Dew is investigating.

In his long statement of contrition and explanation on Friday, Martin Devlin thanked his own sons for support - but also for calling him out.  

"’Dad - sort your shit out’  was hard to hear, but the truth I needed to be told,” Martin Devlin wrote. 

Women in the media have urging employers to sort it out for years.

Those with a less than zero tolerance approach are finding out they will not put up with conduct that drives some out of their jobs while those who do it keep theirs. 

They are reporting it to their employers - and journalists are reporting on it in the media, even when it is their own organisations involved.