3 Dec 2023

Former Breakfast host Kamahl Santamaria’s deep-dive inquiry into TVNZ seeks ‘texts, emails’ from colleagues and bosses

12:15 pm on 3 December 2023

By David Fisher of NZ Herald

Kamahl Santamaria

Kamahl Santamaria. Photo: TVNZ / Supplied

Former TVNZ Breakfast host Kamahl Santamaria is pursuing the broadcaster for "messages, emails, phone text messages" exchanged by former colleagues and bosses in a wide-ranging personal investigation into the events leading to his departure.

Santamaria, 43, told the Herald he was seeking "transparency" around the events that led to his departure from TVNZ just 32 days after he joined as the new star of its morning show.

Santamaria has recently revealed he has lodged a case with the Employment Relations Authority (ERA).

He told the Herald it added to action already taken, which included a complaint to the Privacy Commissioner over the TVNZ-commissioned "Robins Report" into hiring practices at the broadcaster.

In addition, Santamaria said he was seeking information from TVNZ, describing a forensic-level request for internal communications and documents in which he was mentioned.

"What I am doing - by taking action before the Employment Relations Authority, and utilising the Privacy Act processes - is ensuring there is transparency, and that the record is set straight."

Santamaria, who began his journalism career with TV3 in 1998, was brought in from a headline role at news broadcaster Al Jazeera as a replacement on Breakfast for John Campbell.

A month after he started, he left TVNZ, saying a "family emergency" was behind his absence. It then emerged a female colleague had complained of inappropriate behaviour, which was followed by claims of inappropriate messages to female colleagues at Al Jazeera. Santamaria subsequently resigned.

TVNZ responded by hiring employment lawyer Margaret Robins to examine its hiring processes for presenters, the broadcaster's complaint process and harassment policy, and how it went about hiring Santamaria.

It found TVNZ's recruitment guidelines suffered in "rare situations where famous people, media interest and commercial sensitivities collide, where confidentiality is paramount" and suggested new processes that would provide a structured procedure for "unique" hires.

The review said TVNZ's complaints policy was "fit for purpose" but would be improved with its incoming Speak Up policy, which, Robins said, would be enhanced through a commitment to "protect the confidentiality of complainants" and "protect them from retaliation during and after the reporting process".

Santamaria, who has engaged again with journalism through his website The Balance, has long maintained he was unfairly treated by TVNZ.

He told the Herald he had never seen the full copy of the Robins Report or even its three-page summary and would have expected to as it was "commissioned while I was still an employee of TVNZ".

"I was never contacted, questioned, or interviewed as part of it. I was never given an opportunity to respond to or to correct anything in the report, and I was never given either a copy of the full report or its summary, and have still never seen it."

Santamaria said he had made a complaint to the Privacy Commissioner more than a year ago about the Robins Report "and what I consider to be breaches of my privacy".

He said there was further effort underway through the Privacy Act for "all personal information they held about me" which included "messages, emails, phone text messages, and other digital and hardcopy information".

He said TVNZ had responded with "personnel material" such as administrative and payroll information. "They say that the full request will take some time to action."

Santamaria said efforts such as this - but particularly the ERA action - would bring transparency.

"Suffice to say however, I do want the facts to become public - as I have always wanted - which is why I'm taking the action.

"I have been continually told that transparency in this matter is 'in the public interest' - even though I suspect the public is sick of hearing about it."

Santamaria referenced the decision from the Chief Ombudsman, who weighed in on TVNZ's description of Santamaria's absence as a "family emergency", saying "the public has a legitimate and compelling interest in transparency and accountability for how TVNZ handled this high-profile incident".

A spokeswoman for TVNZ said the broadcaster complied with the Privacy Act but would not comment on "employment or privacy matters".

She said the Robins Report was not made public "because of confidential material included in it". She said recommendations made in the Robins Review had been introduced.

After the completion of the Robins Report, head of news and current affairs Paul Yurisich resigned. He had worked with Santamaria at Al Jazeera and had led the quest to bring the TV star back to New Zealand screens.

Santamaria has acknowledged an allegation of "touching a colleague in the newsroom", saying he was not accused of sexual or other harassment at the time. He said it was "instinctive action on my part, with no ill intent" although he accepted "it had made my colleague feel uncomfortable and I immediately apologised for that".

There were also claims that he had sent female colleagues inappropriate messages during his time at Al Jazeera.

On his new website, Santamaria said: "What I failed to recognise was, particularly in a post-'Me Too' world, there is just no place for over-friendly, over-familiar, flirtatious, tactile behaviour or banter in the workplace, no matter how friendly that workplace is or how prevalent that behaviour might be".

- This story was first published by the New Zealand Herald.

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