If truth is the first casualty in war, then truth-seekers are surely next.
Radio New Zealand (RNZ) Digital Editor Mick Hall has been suspended for what are called ‘inappropriate edits’ to foreign-sourced materials, mainly from Reuters. RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson said that “It’s so disappointing that this pro-Kremlin garbage has ended up in our stories” and promised to tighten control over staff. To that end an ‘independent panel ‘of ‘trusted individuals’ has been established by RNZ board chairperson Jim Mather. The terms of reference of the panel make clear its function is to ensure that staff toe the line, and its composition indicates the nature of its independence. The first term establishes its focus and the limitations of its scope while the others are concerned with control mechanisms:
- To review the circumstances around the inappropriate editing of wire stories discovered in June 2023, identify what went wrong, and recommend areas for improvement. This includes reviewing the handling of the complaint to the broadcasting minister from the Ukrainian community in October 2022.
The panel is thus not concerned whether the edits added truth and context to the wire stories or falsity. There is no mention of the public’s right to access to information, and certainly not to any that has not been selected by higher management. It is presumed that sources, such as Reuters, chosen by management provide citizens with, in that fashionable cant phrase, ‘all they need to know’. The composition of the panel suggests that while it may be independent of RNZ as an organisation it will not stray far from the remit of ensuring management control of information dispensed to the public. The chair (Willy Akel) and another member (Linda Clark) are Kiwi lawyers and the third is Australian, Alan Sunderland formerly Editorial Standards Director at the ABC. Sunderland in his 2022 book The Ten Rules of Reporting makes clear his fealty to corporate media:
Fake news and disinformation are spreading across social media.
Despite that, the best reporters continue to do what they always have – provide fair, accurate and reliable coverage of issues that matter most to us.
Truth lies in the bosom of the ABC, and by extension RNZ, and they will protect us from the lies prevalent in the unregulated social media and, by implication, any media not sanctioned by the state.
That is the official line, but what is behind it all? There are two strands here.
The first is the interview mentioned in the terms of reference. This was conducted by Mick Hall in 22 May 2022 with two prominent New Zealand peace activists – Mike Smith, former general-secretary of the NZ Labour Party and Matt Robson, former minister in Labour-led governments. The article was noticed that day by management who stepped in quickly to provide ‘balance’. This is the common technique of bringing in people who are described as authoritative experts to discredit heterodox opinions which, for whatever reason, have to be published. Such balance, of course, is not required for opinions which conform to the official position. The interview with Smith and Robson also led to a letter of protest to RNZ and to Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson orchestrated by Michael Lidski, ‘representing the Ukrainian community’. The letter has not been made public but its general tenor can be ascertained from interviews with Lidski in the media, in particular one entitled Why warnings about Russian propaganda were ignored published 17 June 2023. Although the opinions of Smith and Robson were based on an assessment of the situation consistent with those of internationally-recognised experts such as John Mearsheimer and Jeffrey Sachs, they were dismissed by Lidski as untruthful ‘Russian propaganda’. Hall himself was castigated as a ‘useful idiot’ or a spy, assertions which were accepted uncritically by the journalist. Lidski is labelled Ukrainian in the NZ media but in an undated, but presumably pre-February 2022 article on a photography website (he seems to be a very talented photographer) he says he was born in ‘Kiev – the Mother of Russian cities…I am Russian by language and culture’. He left the USSR when ‘it was falling to pieces’, going to Israel where he lived for 15 years. Not fitting in, he moved to New Zealand in 2004. It appears that he has never lived in independent Ukraine.
The second strand is Hall’s ‘inappropriate’ editing of wire stories. He was a digital editor and it is not clear whether ‘inappropriate’ is anything other than an ex post-facto political judgement. He has been reported as saying that he had been subbing articles in that way since he joined Radio NZ five years ago and “…nobody has tapped me on the shoulder and told me that I was doing anything wrong.” It may well be that it was not the editing of the stories as such that was the problem but the politics.
At the time of writing, Radio NZ has identified 37 articles which it has decided need to be ‘corrected’. It seems from notes about these corrections that Hall’s edits were factually correct and provided some context and balance. To take just one example:
An edit to this story,
“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.” was made.
The story has been restored to Reuters copy,
“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.” [emphasis added]
The Yanukovych government was indeed elected, the Maidan revolution was violent, there was a referendum in Crimea in which the population voted overwhelming to return to Russia, and his description of the Donbas war is more informative and accurate than Reuter’s. The uncritical acceptance by NZ media and politicians of the description of these edits by RNZ management as ‘pro-Kremlin garbage’ is indicative of a deep malaise within New Zealand.
Both truth and Mick Hall are likely to be casualties in the short term, but there is reasonable hope that both, in time, will be victorious. The battle is continuing.