Kamahl Santamaria (Photo: Supplied)
Kamahl Santamaria (Photo: Supplied)

MediaJune 1, 2022

Why the Kamahl Santamaria saga could cause even bigger problems for TVNZ

Kamahl Santamaria (Photo: Supplied)
Kamahl Santamaria (Photo: Supplied)

The resignation of its highest-profile recruit in years has become a rolling firestorm for TVNZ’s newsroom, at the worst possible time.

For most of its existence, TVNZ has been the elite institution of New Zealand’s media. It has an incredibly powerful cocktail of attributes in its favour, which help it retain pole position. It has a consistent and mostly benign owner in the state, which allows it to operate commercially but lately has allowed it to heavily reinvest its profits. It has the immense advantage of incumbency, of having been a monopoly supplier of television for decades and thus retaining the most reliable audiences in linear television. And because of all this it retains an enormous level of recognition and trust with the public.

It is also very disciplined, particularly during the decade-long tenure of Kevin Kenrick, the CEO who ran it with steely control until handing the reins to former National Party minister Simon Power in March. Save for a brief period in the mid-2010s when the Herald seemed to have great sources within TVNZ, it has mostly been a very well-controlled organisation, outwardly content, rarely leaking. It’s not perfectly true that leaks equal unhappiness – malcontents exist at every news organisation, and journalists naturally talk – but their absence is a strong indication that things are working.

Contrast this with TVNZ’s cross-town rivals at MediaWorks. During the brief, wildly chaotic reign of CEO Mark Weldon, a former Olympic swimmer who came in with a plan to slash news programming in favour of multi-night reality TV, its newsroom leaked constantly. This was the era when Weldon axed Campbell Live and its main investigative journalism show within months, and spent lavishly to create Scout, a short-lived gossip website run by former Herald columnist Rachel Glucina. Weldon used to beam on to every employee’s computer for state-of-the-nation addresses to announce those moves, and my inbox would start pinging with fury and incredulity not long after. 

TVNZ springs multiple leaks

This week it’s been TVNZ’s internal machinations that have been lighting up other reporters’ inboxes, with Stuff, the NZ Herald and Newshub reporting communications associated with the very abrupt departure of Kamahl Santamaria. To recap, John Campbell announced he was stepping down from co-hosting Breakfast at the start of April, after three years in which the show had become a beloved and cosy presence in the TVNZ schedule (and, against the odds, an important TikTok play for the network). His replacement was to be Kamahl Santamaria, a New Zealander who had joined a large contingent at Al Jazeera in Doha and become a major presence at the Qatari network. 

Santamaria was recruited by Paul Yurisich, a former Al Jazeera colleague appointed as head of news at TVNZ in 2020. Crucially, Yurisich was also Santamaria’s executive producer at the network. Santamaria had been looking to return to New Zealand for some years, after having got his start at TV3, and looked outwardly like a great get for TVNZ. 

Kamahl Santamaria (left) and the Breakfast team, April-May 2022 (Photo: TVNZ)

As we now know, he was anything but, going off air within weeks and resigning after just a month. TVNZ initially cited a “family emergency” as the reason for his departure, the first of a series of blunders that inflamed the story. As we soon discovered, it was in fact allegations of inappropriate communications with women at TVNZ. The phrase “family emergency” had the appearance of letting him escape looking like a hero tending to his family, rather than someone who had created the emergency with his own behaviour. 

Within days it became clear that he had priors, with women at Al Jazeera confirming a similar pattern, including alleged unwanted physical interactions, and an NZME reporter detailing a private Instagram account from which Santamaria allegedly sent flirtatious messages and followed around 150 local reporters, 90% of them women. The sheer volume of complaints, along with the pattern they seem to reveal, suggests that it would not have been hard to discover his reputation ahead of such a high-profile hiring.

A newsroom in revolt?

Since the story broke, TVNZ’s newsroom has been as as strong on the story as any other, despite the unique impediments which exist for them in reporting on themselves (for example, it’s hard for them to leak emails sent to their own inboxes). It led the 6pm bulletin – still by far the country’s most powerful news product – on Sunday, in a lengthy package helmed by Kim Baker Wilson that reported all the available facts while also unpacking the church-and-state separation of the newsroom from the wider company. It was impossible not to read it as an internal rebellion against the way it had been managed to this point – the fact that Santamaria’s dignity and TVNZ’s corporate reputation seemed to be prioritised over his victims, and the simple truth of what he did.

The scandal is now at the point where it is feeding on itself, with a senior TVNZ manager emailing staff complaining bitterly of being “embarrassed” and “disgusted” about the culture of leaking which has sprung up. Which was immediately leaked to the Herald’s Katie Harris. 

The situation is compounded by just how much change there has been in key positions within TVNZ, and the fact that two of the company’s most senior positions are now filled by outsiders unaware of its culture, codes and loyalties. CEO Power has been in the role since March, while Yurisich is less than two pandemic-stricken years into his job leading news. Crucially, two of the most senior corporate communications people in the business have left (one to Sky, one to maternity leave) over the past year – these roles are highly specialised and built to handle moments like this. 

Breakfast’s remaining hosts address the departure earlier this week (Photo: Screenshot)

Power has ordered an inquiry into TVNZ’s recruitment processes, saying he believed Santamaria’s hiring showed it hadn’t been followed or applied consistently. This is unlikely to be the end of the issue, though, as the scale of the uproar means that further personnel changes are very possible – most notably Yurisich, who, as Santamaria’s EP, will be expected to have known about his close colleague’s reputation when he recruited him. 

This is not to say that he did, but the pre-existing professional ties between the pair now look damning. Yurisich also recruited another ex-Al Jazeera colleague in Mereana Hond to head digital news. Whenever outsiders are recruited to key roles it inevitably leaves hurt feelings on the part of those passed over, along with their loyalists. The risk of Yurisich losing his newsroom, and with it his job, is now surely very high.

Behind the saga, the merger

Above it all sits the merger with RNZ, which is set to commence its early stages within the next few months. It’s an enormous event in the history of both organisations, and thus very destabilising. TVNZ, both in scale and in prominence, was always likely to dominate the new entity culturally. The one area RNZ might have been perceived as having an advantage in is news, and events like this feed into a sense that it might be given news to control post-merger. 

Which is to say it’s the worst possible moment for all this to be happening. Most wrenchingly for the array of stellar journalists and news people at TVNZ is how avoidable it all was. There were strong, well-liked internal candidates for Yurisich’s job. Santamaria’s chequered history should have been unearthed by a strong recruitment process. And a proactive accounting for the circumstances surrounding his departure might have prevented this from exploding quite so dramatically, serving no one – least of all those who are alleged to have received his unwanted advances. 

Simon Power, Paul Yurisich and TVNZ now have a major test of character and judgement. The stakes of the moment are incredibly high. How they respond will have enormous implications for the elite institution of New Zealand’s media, which suddenly feels shaken and even vulnerable.

duncan@thespinoff.co.nz

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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