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The review followed a series of Kremlin-friendly edits being identified.
The review followed a series of Kremlin-friendly edits being identified.

MediaAugust 2, 2023

RNZ review backs editorial overhaul, chides reaction that ‘contributed to public alarm’

The review followed a series of Kremlin-friendly edits being identified.
The review followed a series of Kremlin-friendly edits being identified.

All 22 recommendations from the panel appointed after pro-Kremlin edits were made to several wire stories have been accepted. 

RNZ is overhauling its editorial structure and will pursue several other reforms in line with recommendations from an independent panel appointed following revelations that a web editor had made a series of changes to syndicated stories, mostly from Reuters, to alter their stance, notably in adding pro-Kremlin perspectives to articles on the invasion of Ukraine.

The panel, not to be confused with The Panel, which airs Monday to Friday on RNZ National, comprised Willy Akel, Linda Clark, and Alan Sunderland. They concluded that just one staffer, who has since resigned, was directly responsible for the editorial breaches, though wider cultural and structural issues may have contributed to them going unchecked. While there were clear examples of both RNZ’s editorial policy and the contractual agreement with Reuters being violated, “the panel accepts that the person responsible for the inappropriate editing genuinely believed he was acting appropriately to provide balance and accuracy, and was not motivated by any desire to introduce misinformation, disinformation or propaganda.” 

The incident nevertheless amounted to “a serious breach of trust and damaged RNZ’s reputation for accurate and balanced journalism” and “while the inappropriate actions were those of an individual journalist, the wider structure, culture, systems and processes that facilitated what occurred and responded to it are the responsibility of RNZ’s leadership.”

The reviewers identified gaps in training for and supervision of a “busy, poorly resourced digital news team” and a lack of “consistency and effectiveness” in editorial training across the board. They found that the “overall organisational structure”, dating from 2016, was “unsatisfactory”, especially in putting a wall between the digital news team and the main news desk. 

They found that “outdated technology, organisational silos and a lack of trust between the digital news team and the traditional newsroom are all cited by staff as issues of concern and the panel agrees. These factors all potentially create information and/or trust gaps and reduce effective communication and oversight of editorial standards. The unfortunate consequence of this has been a lack of alignment between the two teams, with each often questioning the other in an unconstructive way, rather than working as a complete news team putting news reports first.” The move to merge the operations is under way, and “cannot happen soon enough”. 

The 53-page report included 22 recommendations, spanning the news team restructure, training, technology, monitoring of standards, complaints management and disclosure, contracting and editorial systems. The panel also recommends the creation of a new position similar to the internal ombudsman employed by several news organisations around the world – a “senior editorial role with responsibility for overseeing editorial performance across the organisation, advising programme and content teams on standards and encouraging a culture of editorial integrity”.  

A “formal review of staffing levels, budgets and workload in its digital news team as part of the process of moving it into the news division” is also recommended. 

Paul Thompson, the CEO and editor and chief at the public broadcaster, did not escape criticism, with the review panel questioning his characterisation of the changes as “pro-Kremlin garbage”. Such a framing “contributed to public alarm and reputational damage”. 

Thompson had told the panel that “his instincts were to be brutally transparent, to avoid any suggestion of a cover-up, while noting that inevitably this forthrightness and openness escalated the visibility of the issue with the public and the wider media”. 

Paul Thompson at RNZ
RNZ CEO and editor-in-chief Paul Thompson. Photo: Supplied

The panel concluded, “we accept the chief executive was under pressure at the time (both from his own staff and competing media) and that his aim was to demonstrate leadership in the handling of an unfolding crisis. However, the choice of language like ‘pro-Kremlin garbage’ was, in the panel’s view, unhelpful in maintaining public trust … Listeners and others may have believed the editing had been a deliberate and orchestrated exercise in propaganda, rather than a failure of journalistic decision-making or practice. As is now evident, this panel finds the latter.”

Alongside the system faults identified, the authors stressed “notwithstanding the fact that inappropriately edited stories were published, the panel wishes to acknowledge the sustained excellence delivered by RNZ’s journalists and content makers across a wide range of subjects, programmes and formats.” They said: “Overwhelmingly, RNZ continues to meet high standards in its journalism that justifies its position as the most trusted source of news in New Zealand. The instances of inappropriate editing that prompted this review have provided an opportunity to find ways of improving in a range of areas, and the panel hopes this will ensure RNZ remains, as it is now, a source of accurate and balanced journalism.”

The chair of the RNZ board, Jim Mather, said all 22 recommendations were accepted in full and would be implemented. “The panel’s report indicates that while most aspects of RNZ’s journalism are operating to the high standards that New Zealanders know and trust, the overseas news part of our digital operation was not,” he said in a statement.

“The panel’s recommendations will significantly improve RNZ’s editorial processes. Two of the more significant recommendations – about combining our digital news with our main news operation, and having a new role focused on raising editorial standards – are already in progress.”

Mather said the investigation was likely to cost $230,400.

Thompson confirmed that the recommendations would be implemented, with updates on progress made public. He welcomed the acknowledgment of the generally high standard of journalism at RNZ, but, “we also acknowledge there are areas for improvement which we will address, particularly around the areas of training, process and complaint management”, he said.

“We wish to thank the panel for its considerations and practical findings. In many respects the panel and RNZ are likeminded in understanding what went wrong, what went well, and what can be done to enhance RNZ,” he said.

Thompson noted the increased funding provided in the latest budget. He said: “RNZ is growing stronger and can look forward to an exciting next chapter as an outstanding public media entity.”

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