The facts behind RNZ’s ‘Russian edits scandal’

Jan 5, 2024
Radio New Zealand House, Wellington.

The broadcaster’s response to my editing of international news stories amounted to a show trial, reflecting a malaise within mainstream media.

In this tumultuous time of war and global conflict the ability of journalists to do their jobs effectively within mainstream media has never been more limited.

We live in a time of state surveillance and creeping restrictions on freedom of speech, where whistleblowers are criminalised and journalists like Julian Assange face persecution and life imprisonment. Self-censorship is strictly adhered to by media outlets, as narratives are shaped by a technocratic elite. Gone are the days when John Pilger was able to have a story attacking George W Bush and Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq on the front page of the UK tabloid, the Daily Mirror.

Instead, stories are packaged with a kind of hermeneutic seal, keeping out vital context that would allow readers to interpret the meaning of events happening in the world. The Forth Estate’s defences have been so comprehensively breached that propaganda campaigns of the powerful obfuscate their machinations without much of a challenge.

Yet so much is currently taking place of profound importance that the public needs to know about. For those of us living in New Zealand and the wider Pacific region, these matters include the potential of being caught up in a proxy war with China at the behest of its peer rival, the United States, with all the horror that would involve.

‘Rules-based order’ and news context

For a long time, the US has exercised control over the global economy using its petrodollar, instruments of economic coercion like sanctions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, as well as through CIA interference in nations’ internal affairs, including the fermentation of opposition groups and violent coups.

As a last resort, it has exercised raw military might, invading countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, or directed its will through NATO, bombing Serbia and Libya in the interests of its corporate state.

Evidence shows that at the core of its so-called “rules-based international order” lies a very destructive neo-colonial system of domination, one that inverts democratic values and institutions to push a conglomerate of corporate schemes for profit.

It is in the interests of democratic participation and accountability that citizens of countries aligned with US power understand this, so they can hold their governments to account for foreign policy positions. They should also understand that this unipolar power, exercised by the US since the fall of the Soviet Union, is being challenged by an emerging multipolarity, particularly through the growing strength of trading bloc BRICS.

Nations are breaking free from the US-dominated global system, trading in their own currencies, seeking greater economic sovereignty to avoid sanctions and the predatory practices of Western financial institutions. BRICS leaders have stated an intent to build an alternative, more equitable global framework for trade and co-operation, while countries in the Global South are eager to participate.

Current US foreign policy strategies that push proxy war as a means of ‘containing’ those nations leading this charge towards multipolarity, namely Russia and China, pose an unprecedented danger of nuclear exchange and the annihilation of life on Earth.

Within mainstream media, striving to present a contextual framework for world news stories is an onerous task and one fraught with risk, as this inevitably means having to address a one-sided, hegemonic version of events.

I’m very much aware of the price journalists face for attempting to do so. In June, I was publicly cast as a Russian propagandist by my employer Radio New Zealand (RNZ) and thrown to the wolves over my subediting of a Reuters story on the US proxy war in Ukraine.

The gross mischaracterisation created a scandal and widespread hysteria amid speculation that the national broadcaster — New Zealand’s most trusted source of news — had been infiltrated by a Russian agent. It led to weeks of intense national and international media coverage. It also left me jobless, with a 20-year career in tatters. Others around the world are being smeared in a similar fashion.

‘Pro-Kremlin Garbage’

I had worked on the RNZ digital team since September 2018. Part of my job involved selecting and processing news stories from international wires for website publication. I had approached such copy critically, finding that Reuters stories on occasions blatantly leaned towards a US State Department position, while BBC copy tended to reflect a UK government bias. In both cases it led to unbalanced and distorted stories. Addressing political or cultural bias usually involved deleting or reframing the paragraph that carried it, or adding counter-factual context to achieve greater balance.

As the Ukraine war kicked off, instances of such bias and imbalance increased, as did what I saw as a journalistic duty to remove it.

On June 8 a story on the Russian-Ukraine conflict I had subedited and then published was flagged on Twitter by New York-based lawyer and media commentator Luppe B. Luppen. He claimed it presented a propagandised version of events during the Maidan protests of 2014 and contacted Reuters.

The original paragraph had read:

“The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Russia annexed Crimea, with Russian-backed separatist forces fighting Ukraine’s armed forces.”

The edited version instead stated:

“The conflict in Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian elected government was toppled during Ukraine’s violent Maidan colour revolution. Russia annexed Crimea after a referendum, as the new pro-Western government suppressed ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine, sending in its armed forces to the Donbas.”

When adding references in news copy to the Maidan coup that ousted the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, I would have usually attributed the position to Russia as a matter of prudence. On this occasion, I didn’t. Leaving in the Reuters reporter’s byline didn’t help my case and it would be used to push the false idea my editing was surreptitious ‘tampering’, even though this was an isolated error.

My immediate boss approached me after Reuters sent an email to RNZ pointing to a breach of contract over the edited story. She emphasised the matter was “really, really serious” as I’d changed the intended meaning of the story. I took responsibility for the changes and accepted paid leave while an investigation took place, alongside the implementation of an external strategy to minimise reputational damage to the company.

In my mind, I was guilty of procedural errors and believed I may be looking at a verbal or written warning after explaining to furious bosses the reasons for the copy edits. Instead, that evening an audit of my work spanning five years was launched after RNZ informed the public it was investigating how “Russian propaganda” had been inserted into its international wires online content.

In framing the matter this way, the RNZ leadership maximised reputational damage to its organisation, as well as to myself. International coverage of the unfolding “Russian edits scandal” really took off after RNZ CEO Paul Thompson increased the maelstrom by calling the edits “pro-Kremlin garbage”.

A political show trial

The broadcaster began publishing a list of other stories it found “inappropriately” edited and in breach of its editorial standards.

Three days after being put on leave, the audit had identified 16 stories of concern. Right-wing politicians demanded a government inquiry. Instead, the RNZ board of directors set up an independent review panel to determine what had gone wrong, re-establish public trust and ensure such “breaches” could never happen again.

The active audit was published at the top of the RNZ website, ostensibly to reassure the public and demonstrate transparency. It in effect became a type of political show trial. I felt the pressure every time it was updated with new stories, complete with editorial notes at the bottom of each. But the audit also betrayed where RNZ management stood ideologically — firmly and explicitly behind a skewed Anglo-American worldview.

It would eventually flag 49 world news stories out of a total of 1319 world stories checked. Less than half related to Russia and Ukraine. The audit demonstrated that, when it came to Palestinian rightsclass struggles and coups in Latin AmericaUS provocations against China involving TaiwanJulian Assange’s plight, and even UK workers’ right to strike, no deviation from US State Department or Westminster positions would be tolerated.

My own original stories were also put under the microscope. In July 2022 I’d written a story “NZ entering Ukraine conflict ‘at whim of govt’ – former Labour general-secretary,” featuring ex-senior politicians, who said the New Zealand government was risking nuclear catastrophe by giving material support to the US proxy war in Ukraine at the expense of diplomacy.

It was removed from the website and screened for Russian bias, before being republished without a byline and with a note incorrectly telling readers an earlier version of the story had lacked balance.

Amid public scrutiny, which also included disinformation experts being invited on national media platforms to comment on foreign interference in relation to my work, as well as online threats and speculation over my motives, I resigned.

Having a young family and coming to terms with a job loss was tough, but the circumstances of the loss was causing much more immediate anxiety. With New Zealand part of the Five Eyes Western intelligence apparatus, I expected the security services would be knocking on my door. Isolated and feeling vulnerable, I began to catastrophe, believing there was a chance I could be removed from the country and estranged from my Kiwi children. As an Irish national I had resided in the country since 2009.

In times of crisis, I’d always prayed for help and this time was no exception.

People begin to rally

I stopped reading media reports as the toxic groupthink became too taxing to process and former colleagues began sharing my personal information with other news outlets. I also ignored media requests. Instead, my energy went into writing up a 14,000-word substantive statement as part of plans to meet with the review panel, which was now seeking to interview RNZ staff, as well as myself.

As I did so, light began breaking through the darkness. People who understood what was going on began to reach out. A New Zealand-based Ukrainian got in contact and offered to assist, thankful for what he said I had helped point to — the plight of his fellow countrymen who were being cynically used, many unwillingly, as cannon fodder to forward US strategic interests.

Award-winning cartoonist Malcolm Evans, an outspoken critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestine who had himself been ousted from The New Zealand Herald decades before, suggested I ring lawyer Deborah Manning. I did so. The power differential between RNZ and myself troubled Manning enough that she offered to guide me through the inquiry process, alongside her colleague Simon Lamain, on a pro-bono basis.

Manning had gained a high public profile after her prolonged, but successful battle against the imprisonment and persecution of Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui after he arrived in New Zealand in 2002, accused by intelligence agencies of being a terrorist.

She also represented Afghan villagers during a 2019 government inquiry following a raid by members of New Zealand’s special forces in 2010 that left five dead and 15 wounded. Manning had proven herself a formidable advocate.

My sense of isolation lessened further after a supportive call from investigative journalist Nicky Hager, co-author of Hit & Run, a book detailing that NZ Special Air Service (SAS) Afghan operation. He assured me time would attest to the fact that RNZ had called it wrong.

Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs and University of Chicago Professor John J Mearsheimer, alongside other highly regarded scholars and political scientists, agreed to write letters of support to the review panel. Both men took a keen interest in the unfolding drama.

In his letter to the review panel, Sachs wrote:

“It may be that the RNZ leadership is simply trying to keep in step with official US and UK policies, rather than to help its readers and listeners to understand the dramatic events of our time… The claim that the edits are pro-Russian propaganda is nonsense. The edits add depth of historical context and understanding, and open minds to a deeper inquiry.”

Commenting on various elements of context I’d added to the Ukraine stories, Mearsheimer wrote:

“I think that his characterisation of the Azov battalion and how it was portrayed in the West before the recent war is correct. I think his views on how Russian leaders thought about NATO enlargement and how that helped cause the war is correct. I think his identification of American involvement in the events on the Maidan and his description of it as both a colour revolution and a coup is correct.

“Someday, historians are going to look back at this period in amazement, wondering how the West allowed itself to engage in such an all-encompassing and vicious propaganda campaign – that is so at odds with the truth as well as liberal values. Hopefully, RNZ will correct its mistake with Mr. Hall, so those historians do not point to this incident as prime evidence of how the West lost its mind.”

Facing the inquiry panel

Buoyed by the fact I was in good company I prepared to meet the review panel, my statement outlining the circumstances of the wires copy editing now completed.

Seated inside the ground floor of a soulless, nondescript corporate hotel in central Auckland, I nervously scanned the faces of those descending the staircase to the cold marble foyer next to our lounges, where immigrant staff served coffee, hoping to identify the person I thought might bring our group of three to the inquiry’s interview room.

Manning stood up as Willie Akel, a media law expert and the panel chairman, suddenly appeared a few metres away, greeting us with a smile and handshakes. A tall, studious-looking man in his early 60s, Akel had a history of battling for corporate media freedoms. He would be the most personable of the three-person panel, yet the most importunate during intense cross-examinations that would take place over two days.

It became clear from my initial meeting with the panel I would not convince them that all my Russia-Ukraine edits were accurate or appropriate.

The panel did not intend to assess all stories flagged by RNZ but wanted to look at a sample to establish that inappropriate editing had indeed taken place. In my view, the exchanges that followed pointed to an inability to discuss the Ukraine conflict without deference to Western orthodoxies, an implicit bias that trumped empirical evidence.

One story discussed was “UN again trying to evacuate civilians from Ukraine’s Mariupol,” published on May 6, 2022. It included a comment from an Azov Regiment commander, after which I had added: “The Azov Battalion was widely regarded before the Russian invasion by Western media as a neo-Nazi military unit.”

A panel member argued it had been inappropriate to add the line without also giving further balancing context, namely, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had brought the Azov private militia into Ukraine’s regular army and in doing so had “reigned” the group in.

I pointed out that even Reuter’s own commentator Josh Cohen had said Azov’s inclusion within Ukraine’s interior ministry did not necessarily mean this and that the group continued to push its neo-Nazi ideology through non-profit activities and children’s camps.

In its subsequent report, the panel found the line’s “uncritical and unexplained inclusion” had unbalanced the story without attribution to Russia and more balancing context added. It noted a “contested and complex debate about the origins of the battalion some years earlier and the extent to which they were and still are influenced by neo-Nazi elements.”

It remains unclear why the panel believed the line needed to be attributed to Russia, while offering a Ukrainian counter position would have only amounted to adding false balance, in the absence of any real evidence Azov had renounced its fascism.

‘One-sided, politically coloured and unbalanced’

The panel’s main scrutiny was directed at reporting, as uncontested fact, the Maidan events as a US-backed coup that had sparked a civil war and had led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea after a referendum.

I argued that, although I had not attributed this context to the Russian position – alongside Reuter’s ‘Maidan Revolution’ US-aligned narrative which I had instead removed – in mitigation the paragraph did not contain misinformation. It contained key historical antecedents to the Russian invasion.

Yanukovych was removed from office by a Parliamentary vote that the Ukrainian constitution did not allow, a move backed by the US. He had in any case already left Kiev the day before amid violence and threat of arrest, or worse.

The panel continued to listen intently, but with palpable scepticism, as I mentioned the intercepted phone conversion [LISTEN] between the State Department’s Victoria Nuland and diplomat Geoffrey Pyatt, where the two US officials discuss who should make up the next administration, several weeks before Yanukovych was driven from power.

I referred to academic Ivan Katchanoski’s Revelations from Ukraine’s Maidan Massacre Trial and Investigation and Ukraine-Russia War Origins, a peer-reviewed study that presented compelling evidence snipers positioned in hotels controlled by far-right groups killed dozens of protesters and police during a false flag operation at Maidan Square, putting pressure on Yanukovych after he was accused of ordering the shootings.

None of it mattered much. In its report, the panel found the edits to the June 8 story flagged by the New York commentator were “one-sided, politically coloured and unbalanced.” The finding came as no surprise.

I maintain this instead accurately describes Reuter’s original copy, not the version I edited. The logic by which the panel reached its conclusions seemed to dictate that anything contested by the Western powers cannot be stated as fact, regardless of the evidence.

‘Unhelpful in maintaining public trust’

On the other hand, the panel did show commendable fairness. It found many of the stories flagged by RNZ’s audit had not been edited inappropriately. It also took on board my reasons for not “referring up” to management when making the edits – that my managers lacked expertise in world news and that I had been siloed in a dysfunctional editorial system. They were scathing of the organisation’s structural inadequacies.

The report found no evidence I set out to introduce misinformation or disinformation, “never mind run a Russian propaganda campaign.” It was also highly critical of RNZ management for alarming the public. It found language used by the broadcaster “unhelpful in maintaining public trust” in that “listeners and others may have believed the editing had been a deliberate and orchestrated exercise in propaganda.”

The report stated: “We consider that had RNZ’s own language about the incident been more restrained, the resulting coverage might have been too.”

In response, RNZ board chairman Jim Mathers promised to implement its recommendations, which included a major restructure, improved editorial systems and the establishment of an editorial “standards” enforcer.

There were signs that RNZ was not happy with the findings over my editing. Its flagship programme Morning Report wheeled out a belligerent mainstream media figure to reassert the discredited view the edits were in fact pro-Kremlin garbage, while an RNZ manager in an article falsely reported that the review panel had “said the ‘rogue actor’ would not have gotten away with it had RNZ’s systems and oversights been up to scratch”. The report explicitly rejected the suggestion I was a “rogue actor.”

‘Frightened, compliant censorship’

The panel’s inquiry gave me some closure, while putting to bed New Zealand’s fears of Russian disinformation. I was thankful for that.

But it did not address the deeper systemic malaise within RNZ and the wider corporate media ‘eco-system’. Although it questioned the veracity of the RNZ’s audit, it did not see it for what it was. That was left to veteran journalist John Pilger, who called it “frightened, compliant censorship.” His comments were echoed by others, like Joe Lauria at Consortium News and Max Blumenthal at The Grayzone [WATCH].

It was also a striking example of error amplification within a homogenous media landscape.

Should we expect it any other way, given the societal role critics like Noam Chomsky assign to media – a place where stenographers to power, gatekeepers of what can be considered reasonable discourse, shape public opinion?

My attitude had always been at the very least we should be held to our promise of balance, fairness and accuracy and be pushed to express a preferential option for peace and justice in international news reporting. I believed approaching international news copy critically to address potential issues of bias and accuracy to be an integral part of the editorial process at any public news service.

Unfortunately, the review panel’s position supported RNZ’s view stated during the inquiry process – that international wire copy should be treated as sacrosanct. Yet, when Associated Press journalist James La Porta last November used an unnamed “senior US intelligence official” to falsely point the finger at Russia after a Ukrainian rocket crossed into NATO country Poland killing two people, he demonstrated the dangers of this position. There are numerous other examples.

Just because a story is written and edited within a well-resourced, professional international news body does not mean it is accurate or balanced, particularly as war rages and that organisation’s country is a party to it.

RNZ’s new editorial standards enforcer will presumably oversee an uncritical publication of this copy, conflating editorial standards with narrative control. In my view, it will not be to benefit a public that RNZ’s charter states the broadcaster is duty-bound to supply with “comprehensive, independent, accurate, impartial, and balanced regional, national and international news and current affairs.”

Most seriously, this position will not benefit informed, much-needed debate about the supposed ‘threat’ of China, as the spectre of proxy war looms ever more clearly over Asia-Pacific.

In the words of Julian Assange, if wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth. It is incumbent on journalists that they seek the truth and that wider society offers them support and protection to do so. However, given the structural constraints on journalists and the apparent chill factor around questioning narratives of power at present, it will undoubtedly remain difficult to do so within New Zealand’s legacy media.


First published by Consortium News October 7, 2023

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