Documents released to The Spinoff show TVNZ knew it had breached protocol during its hiring of Kamahl Santamaria. But a week later, it launched an internal review. Stewart Sowman-Lund reports.
TVNZ already knew it hadn’t conducted proper reference checks during the hiring process of broadcaster Kamahl Santamaria when it launched a review into what happened, correspondence released to The Spinoff under the Official Information Act has revealed.
In a letter dated May 31, three days after Santamaria’s resignation, deputy chair for the national broadcaster Kevin Malloy told then broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi that the company’s recruitment processes had not been adhered to correctly.
“The recruitment policy was not followed in that thorough reference checks were not undertaken,” wrote Malloy. Despite this, roughly a week later TVNZ announced it was launching an internal review of its hiring processes to determine whether protocol was followed ahead of Santamaria’s arrival at TVNZ.
Santamaria, who was hired by TVNZ to replace John Campbell on Breakfast after 16 years at Al Jazeera in Qatar, abruptly disappeared from TV screens on May 19, a few weeks after he started on the high-profile morning news show. TVNZ first attributed his absence to a “family emergency”, but it soon emerged he was the subject of at least one complaint of inappropriate behaviour from a female colleague at the public broadcaster. Santamaria’s resignation was announced on May 28. Reports subsequently emerged of similar complaints from colleagues at Al Jazeera.
The terms of reference for the internal review, which was announced on June 8, stipulated that: “The Reviewer will also review and provide findings on whether decisions made by TVNZ were in accordance with TVNZ’s Recruitment Policy and related processes and practices in the recruitment and reference checking of Kamahl Santamaria.”
Malloy’s letter also noted that: “The Head of News and Current Affairs had worked with the candidate previously.” That’s a reference to Paul Yurisich, who had worked with Santamaria at Al Jazeera and was responsible for hiring him at TVNZ.
Yurisich is currently on leave in the wake of Santamaria’s resignation.
While TVNZ’s chief executive Simon Power told staff in early June he believed the company’s recruitment policy had not been followed consistently, Malloy’s letter, sent just a few days earlier, was more explicit.
Faafoi was first made aware of the situation involving Santamaria on Monday, May 23. A text from TVNZ board chair Andy Coupe asked the minister to call him. “It’s a marginal ‘no surprises’ issue,” wrote Coupe, in the message obtained by The Spinoff. Faafoi would later describe the issue in far more serious terms, telling media he was provided with a “high-level update” during this conversation.
The question, as asked by Newsroom’s co-editor Mark Jennings in a recent opinion piece, is whether reference checks would have revealed Santamaria’s alleged improprieties. A former senior New Zealand media executive told The Spinoff that it was unlikely, and that the process for hiring a big name star such as Santamaria was normally no more demanding than for hiring anyone else. “It’s my experience that talent goes through the same amount of scrutiny as anyone else,” he said. “And in some cases, that’s no great deal. My experience has been that the reference checks are really done after you’ve made the decision to hire someone. In most cases a reference check doesn’t feed into the decision to hire someone.”
It was possible, they added, that you might uncover a disqualifying reason during the reference checks, but a candidate was unlikely to list someone on their CV as a reference if they were likely to give negative feedback. “I have a lot of sympathy for TVNZ, perhaps there were some breakdowns along the way… but in terms of the formal steps that were gone through, it really sort of doesn’t surprise me that you bring up things from someone’s past and you haven’t found it during the reference check phase.”
The findings of the review, headed by senior employment lawyer Margaret Robins, are expected to be released next week to both staff at TVNZ and the wider public.
The Spinoff previously asked TVNZ for information related to the hiring of Santamaria but was told this would soon be released via the review’s findings.