TVNZ's spectacular own goal - and what should happen next

1 NEWS
Reports on Sunday said at least one woman in the newsroom had complained about Kamahl Santamaria’s inappropriate behaviour.

Alison Mau is a senior writer at Stuff, and editor of the #MeTooNZ project.

OPINION: In all the reporting on the departure of Breakfast host Kamahl Santamaria this week, there's been little detail about the complaint or complaints allegedly laid against him during his brief time at TVNZ, or the staff who may have done so.

Some have assumed this is the media looking in the wrong direction, leaving any potential survivors unacknowledged.

It is not that. Until or unless that person or persons decide of their own free will to speak, no-one can force them to do so. They may never do so, and that’s OK too. It's their story to tell, or to not tell.

READ MORE:
* Kamahl Santamaria's Breakfast resignation: What happened and why does it matter?
* 'I apologise': TVNZ CEO sorry for claim Kamahl Santamaria quit over 'family emergency', head of news on leave
* Top Al Jazeera boss addresses staff after revelations over conduct of TVNZ's Kamahl Santamaria

In the meantime, TVNZ has created plenty of drama off its own bat. In the early part of this week, as pressure built in the newsroom, a journalist explained to me why their bosses' failures over the Santamaria debacle cut so deep.

"I became a journalist to pursue the truth. But they are trying to muddy the truth."

It was delivered in despair and amazement at how the leaders of one of the strongest news organisations in the country could have got things so wrong.

TVNZ's head of news and current affairs Paul Yurisich is now on leave.
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TVNZ's head of news and current affairs Paul Yurisich is now on leave.

You can understand the journalist's frustration - particularly as CEO Simon Power and head of news Paul Yurisich have, twice and very recently, fronted news and current affairs gatherings and promised a transparent, open and safe newsroom.

Those pledges have been made within the past few months, I'm told, and pre-date the Santamaria debacle; they were promises made to shore up morale in the face of dismal staff satisfaction surveys.

Power and Yurisich must think their journalists have very short memories.

For an inordinately long time, TVNZ stuck with the line that Santamaria - who has since been the subject of allegations of inappropriate conduct - was absent dealing with a "family emergency".

Days passed with nothing but silence from management, while their own 1 News journalists and those from other outlets made efforts to get to the truth.

TVNZ CEO Simon Power promised newsroom transparency.
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TVNZ CEO Simon Power promised newsroom transparency.

Eventually, Power apologised to the troops, admitting the company had been "wrong" to describe Santamaria's exit that way. A start.

And much better, sure, than story production and operations general manager Andrew Fernie's scolding of staff for leaking emails, where he claimed they were "wilfully" destroying the brand.

And yet even after Power's mea culpa, many questions remain.

Perhaps the disastrous decision to frame Santamaria's exit as a "family" matter wasn't Power's or Yurisich's call. If not, who made that decision? Who signed it off? And how will TVNZ do things differently in the wake of Power's apology? How will they restore trust within their own newsroom, and with the New Zealand public?

These are important questions, not least because TVNZ is state-owned. Power's apology cannot, and must not, be the end of it.

The review they've promised won't do it. Even the premise - to review recruitment policies and processes - is too narrow, but let's examine it for a minute anyway.

The Breakfast hosting team with Kamahl Santamaria at left.
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The Breakfast hosting team with Kamahl Santamaria at left.

Power said it was his view that recruitment policies had not been followed consistently and needed to be reviewed - a feeling he shared with Broadcasting and Media Minister Kris Faafoi.

On the surface that sounds OK - until you realise TVNZ (along with most television operations) has relied on shoulder-tapping as a hiring practice going back decades. Santamaria was by no means the first and probably won't be the last. To examine only Paul Yurisich's actions in his 18 months as head of news and current affairs would be manifestly unfair.

So, how far back will the review go? What were the policies and processes in previous decades, under previous regimes?

Crucial here, will be the review's terms of reference. No matter how good a job employment lawyer Margaret Robins does, she can only work within the boundaries set for her.

And if I'm allowed a moment of cynicism, I can tell you that terms of reference for such reviews are often very carefully crafted to uncover as little as possible. Those boundaries at TVNZ are yet to be finalised and there's no guarantee they'll be publicly shared (although they certainly should be).

Late this week we found the answer to at least one question. It’s the TVNZ Board (which has remained tight as a clam despite a slew of media requests for comment this week) which will set those terms, with no requirement for input by Minister Faafoi. TVNZ wouldn’t answer when asked whether they’ll release the ToRs publicly, so I guess that’s a “no”.

“The outcomes of the review will be shared with TVNZ staff when it is completed,” the organisation’s spokesperson said. That’s less than full public disclosure, but given there’s a very nimble newsroom on that staff list, I’m sure we will at least hear about it on 1 News.

Through its own actions, the TVNZ executive has made questions like these more pointed than they might have been in other circumstances. How, in light of the sleight-of-hand they tried to pull off this week, can the viewing public trust them? How can their staff?

In the absence of leadership this week, newsroom staff have turned to each other for support. Anger has built, and so has resolve.

One staffer told me there's a growing consensus that another, separate review should be commissioned - this time into how and why TVNZ chose to mislead them and the rest of the country.

Who knew what, and when, is still clear as mud.

Those are the answers needed next, if TVNZ is to repair the damage from a brutal week's events.