RNZ facing overhaul after editorial standards audit

2 August 2023
RNZ faces an overhaul of its news operations after an investigation into pro-Russian bias being written into news stories blamed differences between news teams, a lack of supervision and inconsistent editorial standards.
Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

This piece was originally published on RNZ and is republished with permission. 

By Tim Watkin, RNZ Series and Podcasts Executive Producer

RNZ faces an overhaul of its news operations after an investigation into pro-Russian bias being written into news stories blamed differences between news teams, a lack of supervision and inconsistent editorial standards.

However, a report released today also accused RNZ’s leadership of over-reacting, saying it “contributed to public alarm and reputational damage” while the journalist who made the pro-Russian edits “genuinely believed he was acting appropriately”.

The independent panel was established by the RNZ board after it was revealed in June that foreign news stories from wire services such as Reuters and the BBC were being edited so they were “one-sided” and more sympathetic to Russian and Palestinian viewpoints.

The panel today reported back with 22 recommendations, including merging the radio and digital news teams, a review of staffing levels and workloads, refresher training for journalists, and hiring a new senior editor responsible for editorial integrity and standards. It stressed the creation of a single news team “cannot happen soon enough”. RNZ has agreed to implement all the panel’s recommendations.

The report stressed that only one journalist was responsible for the more than 49 story edits, but said he would not have got away with it if RNZ’s systems and oversights had been up to scratch. The report blamed “outdated technology, organisational silos and a lack of trust between the digital news team and the traditional newsroom”.

While both teams adhered to the same editorial rules and standards, they “lacked alignment”. The recommendations, it said, would “enhance editorial oversight and upward referral and reduce the risk of inappropriate editorial content being published in the future”.

Inadequate supervision and training in the “busy, poorly resourced” digital news team was also blamed. Training across RNZ “lacked consistency” and was “basic”, the report said. More training in understanding balance was urged.

However, the report stressed RNZ routinely delivered a high standard of accurate and balanced news and its reportage “overwhelmingly” justified its place as NZ’s most trusted news source.

The panel – made up of lawyer Willy Akel, lawyer and former broadcaster Linda Clark, and the ABC’s former Editorial Standards Director Alan Sunderland – also reserved criticism for the media company’s leadership. Chairperson Jim Mather and chief executive Paul Thompson reacted strongly in interviews to news of the edits, stressing the damage done to RNZ.

Listen toour podcast

Uncovering and exploring the biggest
issues facing public media

Thompson called the journalist’s editing “pro-Kremlin garbage”, but the panel shot back, saying “not all of the examples of inappropriate editing identified by RNZ were found by the panel to be inappropriate”. The report also noted that while news organisations must be alert to the risk of propaganda, it is also important to reflect views from all sides of any conflict.

The panel found the journalist who made the edits – and has since left RNZ – was in breach of RNZ editorial policies and the Reuters contract. The edits uncovered constitute “a serious breach of trust and damaged RNZ’s reputation for accurate and balanced journalism”. However, contrary to concerns that the journalist had a political agenda, the panel said he was “not motivated by any desire to introduce misinformation, disinformation or propaganda”.

Chairperson Jim Mather in a statement this afternoon said the board had confidence in the chief executive and his team and would implement the recommended changes as quickly as possible.

“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 noted the full cost of the investigation was projected to be $230,400.

Thompson welcomed the observation that RNZ journalists routinely delivered high standard news, but said he acknowledged RNZ must improve, especially in its training and news processes.

The controversy began on 9 June when a tweet from New York accused a Reuters wire story on the RNZ website of containing “utterly false Russian propaganda”. Shortly after, Reuters demanded RNZ correct the story. The RNZ journalist had changed the copy with “new content which was coloured, one-sided and contested”, the report found. The word “violent” was added to describe the Maidan Revolution, “after a referendum” was added to a mention of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as was a statement that the Ukrainian government suppressed ethnic Russians. None of these edits were attributed to a Russian perspective but were presented as uncontested fact.

Subsequently, RNZ audited 1319 stories and found 49 to have been inappropriately edited. The panel said changing copy in this way was inappropriate and in breach of RNZ editorial standards, as was the journalist’s failure to check his changes with editors, known as “referring up”. The decision to change wire copy “was not his to make”. However, the independent panel said it felt not all the edits identified by RNZ were inappropriate.

A story written by the journalist himself in May 2022 , quoted former Labour Party president Mike Smith and former Alliance cabinet minister Matt Robson criticising the government’s decision to support Ukraine in the war. The pair said New Zealand could find itself “on the wrong side of history”. It was subject to criticism from members of the New Zealand Ukrainian community. The panel disagreed with suggestions that story should have been “a red flag” to RNZ editors as the men quoted were notable public figures and the journalist was happy to add balancing views to the story the day of publication.


Disclaimer: RNZ is a member of the Public Media Alliance. Paul Thompson is the President of PMA.

* This story has been updated to clarify that the panel said the Russian perspective was unattributed in the 9 June story, not in all the 49 stories RNZ considered inappropriately edited.