Tuesday, May 21

Fake news goes mainstream as RNZ probe of ‘inappropriate editing’ widens

The revelation late last week that a sub-editor at RNZ had made inappropriate edits to several wire service stories relating to the Ukraine-Russia war was an unwelcome shock to the national radio broadcaster.

Chief Executive Paul Thompson moved quickly on Monday to apologise for the “serious breach” of the organisation’s editorial standards which he described as “really, really disappointing”.

Thompson told Checkpoint, “I would point out that it is confined to one area,” noting that the audit had not yet found examples of inappropriate edits outside of Ukraine-Russia stories. Yet within 24 hours of that interview, the scope of the audit had dramatically expanded as further examples came to light on social media of RNZ publishing international wire stories relating to other highly contentious topics with “one-sided” edits.

By the time the Board of RNZ met on Tuesday night to discuss the terms of the review, it had identified 22 stories with suspect amendments relating to China-US tensions, China-Taiwan relations, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Syrian civil war and North Korean missile launches. All highly charged geopolitical situations.

However, already it is clear that there are additional stories relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict, amongst other topics, which are yet to be added to RNZ’s list. At least another five Israeli stories (9 in total) have been identified after a rudimentary search in the limited time available, all of which illustrate a very strong anti-Israeli sentiment.

In an article from August 2022, a Reuters article reported “Nearly 600 Palestinian rockets” which the RNZ article halved to “Some 300 Palestinian rockets”.

In February RNZ republished a BBC article relating to an exchange of fire on the West Bank which removed the one paragraph that set out the Israeli Defense Force’s comments about striking a Hamas military compound.

An article republished by RNZ in April gives a dramatically different account from that set out in the original Reuters article regarding a clash between Palestinians and Israeli riot police at the Al-Aqsa mosque.

Another RNZ article in April concerning West Bank violence contained a number of edits including the removal of the reference to a Hamas rocket hitting an Israeli house which was included in the original Reuters article.

And earlier this month, RNZ edited a BBC article to refer to the Red Sea resort city of Eilat as being Egyptian when the BBC article had correctly referred to it as being Israeli.

Each of these stories have been amended in a manner which changes, not only the tenor and tone, but also some of the basic facts. However, when one considers the cumulative effect of the changes across a number of articles, it is really quite staggering.

Inevitably, the number of edited stories will grow over the coming days and the topics will widen. It is already evident that stories concerning transgender issues and women’s rights have also been altered although they are yet to be added to the official list of edited articles by RNZ.

For instance, RNZ substantially rewrote a Reuters article from March titled, Nashville school shooting: six shot dead by former student which related to a school shooting by a transgender person. RNZ’s edits included attributing a direct quotation to a Nashville Police Chief that didn’t appear in the original article.

RNZ has also appeared to have inappropriately edited a number of BBC articles relating to the British cycling ban of transgender women from competing in the female category, and relating to efforts by UK Ministers to block a Scottish gender recognition bill.

All of this is deeply concerning and suggests a widespread culture within the RNZ digital team of editing wire service stories with their own reporting, including by adding their own inherent biases. It will be the task of the independent review to determine the extent to which this practice has been endemic within RNZ and its underlying causes. However, it unquestionably reflects, at least to some extent, the mindset of certain younger journalists in the industry who bring their ideologies to their work, as well as a lack of sufficient editorial oversight from senior management.

There are an estimated four to six sub-editors within the RNZ digital team, each of whom can process in excess of 100 wire service stories in each shift. It will therefore be a substantial task for RNZ to review online articles published by them over the last several years.

Edits to wire service stories are routinely made by sub-editors but they are typically limited to adding local content and stylistic changes which do not alter the meaning. Wire service articles for online publication are not usually edited for length, although it is common for longer articles to be “sliced and diced” so that the article can be released in sections over the course of the following day.

However under no circumstances is it acceptable, nor indeed permitted by the terms of the user agreement, for RNZ to make substantive edits to a wire service story. And despite RNZ’s online content being run separately from its news department, it all falls under the responsibility of the broadcaster’s editor-in-chief, Paul Thompson. For some in the media, that means that, ultimately, Thompson’s position will become untenable.

Ironically this crisis has emerged only weeks after the government announced a public consultation to discuss proposals to regulate online services and media platforms in New Zealand. Whilst the thrust of those reforms are intended to modernise media regulation to take account of the growing influence of social media platforms, ironically it is the country’s national radio broadcaster that now finds itself under intense scrutiny.

A Cabinet Paper from May 2021 which set out the case for reform of media regulation stated, “there is also a considerable level of long-standing frustration from industry and public stakeholders over a range of perceived abandoned attempts to reform the system.” Great care will, therefore, need to be taken to ensure that RNZ’s failings are not used as an excuse by government to double-down on these proposed reforms which already have been identified by some as a concerning expansion of content regulation on the internet.

Indeed, as Chris Trotter quite rightly pointed out in his article on Monday, “if we strip away the high-emotion with which all communications from Russia and Ukraine are received, the edits of RNZ’s re-writer may be interpreted not only as a cri de cœur against the current ‘one-side-right, one-side-wrong’ reporting of this particular news story, but also a doomed appeal for the reinsertion of critical distance, nuance and balance to the journalistic enterprise.”

Trotter’s commentary was written when it seemed that this was limited to Russia-Ukraine stories but it nevertheless quite nicely summarises the frustrations, not only of journalists, but also of the public. Trotter describes these revelations as giving, “some appreciation of the oppressive effect of a single, state-determined ‘line’ asserted endlessly by the emoting mannequins ‘official’ news-readers have become.” That is the bigger problem that RNZ’s indiscretions have revealed.

A small and underfunded group of media players who have been cowed into repeating the received wisdom on each topic of note without question. The irony, of course, is that much of the wire copy is produced by international outlets that already have some (mostly liberal) inherent biases but stories, particularly relating the Israel-Palestine conflict, have been edited by RNZ to strengthen those biases even more.

And not only is this an issue of unauthorised edits being made to wire service articles. There are a number of contentious domestic topics, such as gender and race, where alternative viewpoints will not be acknowledged by the media. Digital news operations are considered by some experienced commentators to be notoriously restrictive in that sense.

A recent example of selective editing of domestic stories came immediately after the Posie Parker rally in April. In the aftermath of the event, RNZ published a story titled: Police urge rainbow community to report threats, violence in wake of Posie Parker visit. But when journalists checked the story with Police, it became clear that the Police had made a general call to report violence and not one aimed specifically at the rainbow community. That prompted RNZ to amend the title of their story to: Police urge anyone including the rainbow community to report threats, violence.

Nevertheless that article included statements from Shaneel Lal and Disinformation Project researcher Dr Sanjana Hattotuwa, and omitted to include any comment from Kellie-Jay Keen or any of the women that had gathered in Albert Park for the Let Women Speak rally.

It seems inevitable that this scandal will only exacerbate the declining trust in the media – a point acknowledged by Thompson in his public statements on Monday. A recent study conducted by AUT found that general trust in news has declined in 2023 from 45% to 42% with RNZ itself suffering a 14.5% decline over that period.

The study noted that in 2022, RNZ was the most trusted news brand followed by the the Otago Daily Times and TVNZ. This year, at least until these revelations, the trio were equally regarded as the most trusted news brands.

With this scandal deepening by the day, David Seymour was right to call on Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson to commission a fully independent inquiry into RNZ given that early assurances from Paul Thompson have regrettably not held up. Whether there is any political will to act is another story but Jackson’s hand may be forced if edited stories continue to appear. With a general election fast approaching, RNZ will need to act quickly to restore trust and demonstrate that they deserve to be at the forefront of New Zealand media.