13 Jun 2023

Pro-Russia edits at RNZ may have been happening for years

5:59 pm on 13 June 2023
090514. Photo Diego Opatowski / RNZ. Radio New Zealand House.

The state broadcaster is launching a review into the edits. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

An RNZ digital journalist who allegedly inserted pro-Russian sentiment into news stories claims they have edited reports in that way for five years and nobody queried it.

The public broadcaster is launching a review after it said it found out on Friday that stories were being altered to give them a pro-Russian slant.

That was despite concerns being raised about the journalist's work more than a year ago. They have now been placed on leave.

So far, 250 stories have been reviewed and 22 have had to be corrected.

RNZ management has conceded the broadcaster's process for publishing stories from other media companies has not been strong enough, and there will be an external review of editorial processes.

"I subbed several stories that way over the past number of years," the journalist told Checkpoint.

"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."

Checkpoint reported that those claims had not yet been verified by the staff member's managers.

An important distinction

RNZ chief executive and editor-in-chief Paul Thompson told Checkpoint, in response to the staff member's claims that no issues were raised about editing for years, that those comments appeared to be about the staffer's overall role as a sub-editor.

"The job of a sub-editor is to improve stories, add context, improve the journalism. What we're talking about here is a very small proportion of stories where something quite different happened, where incorrect and misleading information was inserted into wire copy. So it's important to make that distinction."

Thompson described the altered copy as "pro-Kremlin garbage".

"We're feeling shocked and stunned and really, really challenged by this," he told Checkpoint.

Thompson said there was an employment process underway in relation to the RNZ staff member.

"What's happened is a serious breach of our editorial standards and personally, I'm just so gutted by it.

"We've let our audience down, and the Ukrainian community down, but I do need to make sure that we have a robust process because we've got enough challenges on our plate at the moment, I don't want to compound that by getting ahead of a fair process."

He said the audit had not yet found examples of inappropriate edits outside of Ukraine-Russia stories.

"I would point out that it is confined to one area… they're still serious, I'm not diminishing it at all.

"We've done a really good look to make sure that we have a good feel for the range of the problems and I'm confident they're confined to this one area."

Thompson said senior staff from both the digital and wider news team were involved in the audit.

They were the right people for the job as they knew how the system worked, he said.

"What they're doing is getting to the bottom of the audit and looking at every story and I'm confident in that process and it's being done very well and very robustly," Thompson said.

The independent review would look at robustness of processes around editing of stories for the website. The findings would be "very challenging" and they would be made public, he said.

"I think that is the best path to making sure any other issues are surfaced."

In May 2022, serious concerns were raised about the same RNZ staff member's work in a story written about Russia.

Thompson said the story received additional content and editing which met editorial standards.

"We did review the story at the time and ... the story was changed to meet our editorial standards so our systems actually worked at the time."

Thompson said the journalist was notified.

Thompson said he had not made any decisions yet on changing the editorial structure of RNZ as a result.

"I think that will be something I will be reflecting on and I'll be looking to do anything which can make a positive difference, because we need to get to the bottom of this and we need to improve things."

Thompson said he had not offered his resignation over the matter, nor had anyone else in management.

The independent review will report to the board and provide any advice to them.

Public confidence 'eroded'

RNZ board chairperson Jim Mather told Checkpoint the actions of the staff member who inserted pro-Russian sentiment into web copy published on the RNZ website had "eroded" public confidence in the broadcaster.

He said he was extremely disappointed on behalf of the board. Mather said RNZ was a taonga, with 98 years of history as trusted public media.

"The role the board is going to take is we are going to appoint the panel of trusted individuals, experienced journalists, those that do have editorial experience to undertake the review. This is going to be done completely separate from the other work being undertaken by management," he said.

They would leave "no stone unturned".

"This is one of those times when the board needs to step up into this role, and we have undertaken that." They would meet on Tuesday to decide the terms of reference.

Mather said the board maintained confidence in RNZ's chief executive. He said the board was working closely with the chief executive to ensure a robust and transparent process was undertaken.

As for the story in 2022 which first attracted attention over its apparent lack of balance, Mather said it "should have given rise to measures being taken to ensure that highly topical issue was being closely monitored in terms of editorial standards".

"I certainly have judgement about the systems that we have in place, and I am going to await the findings of the review in terms of the judgement 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."

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