In today’s Herald on Sunday, in a piece headlined ‘Lynch Mob’, the paper’s ‘gossip queen’ Rachel Glucina reveals that Close Up reporter Kate Lynch has been ‘unceremoniously demoted’ by TVNZ from her senior reporting role on the prime-time programme and transferred to the channel’s off-peak, late-night news show Tonight. The remarkably well-briefed Glucina goes on to reveal that Lynch ‘insisted that producers at Close Up knew what she was doing and approved of it.’ ‘However, Spy understands the findings of the [TVNZ] investigation suggest Lynch was found to have acted alone.’ Glucina goes on: ‘Sources say Lynch will be expected to work on Tonight for a period of three to six months before her role is reviewed. It is likely she will make her way back to primetime news, though she will not be offered another position at Close Up.’
And, in case we missed the seriousness of Lynch’s demotion:
‘”It’s like being dumped from Cabinet to the electorate office as secretary,” said one inside mole. “It’s effectively the most junior role you can get. All new reporters cut their teeth on the late-night news shows. It’s a start-in position.”’ This story raises some disturbing questions about TVNZ’s handling of this affair and whether Lynch has been fairly treated. First, it is clear from the detailed description of the arrangements between Lynch and TVNZ, so precisely laid out in the story, that formal terms for her continued employment were negotiated with her employer. Such terms will certainly have included a non-disclosure clause binding both parties. Thanks to Glucina’s ‘one inside mole’ – there were apparently several – TVNZ must now be in breach of that agreement. Lynch has now not merely been demoted by TVNZ but humiliated by the release of the terms of that demotion, either by someone in TVNZ’s senior management or, more probably, by one of her former colleagues in Close Up.
She has, in a nutshell, been hung out to dry. Which brings me to the question: has she been made the scapegoat for a failure of oversight by TVNZ itself? Let’s deal first with the TVNZ investigation allegedly having concluded that Lynch had ‘acted alone’. Anyone who knows anything about how a magazine programme like Close Up is put together will tell you the idea that a story could be filmed, let alone put to air, without its content and treatment having first been discussed with the programme’s producer, is utterly preposterous. Equally preposterous is the idea that a producer would put to air an item they had not already seen and approved. If Lynch did indeed ‘act alone’, then her producer should have been demoted with her or possibly fired. That Lynch had not ‘acted alone’ was in any event made patently clear by TVNZ’s initial response to Ana Samways’ revelation that the Close Up item was a virtual clone of an ABC America original:
Close Up has been running a series of investigative stories called Made in NZ after seeing what a huge success our affiliate network, ABC America, has had with Made in the USA. We have done four stories so far. The editorial concept for the first three originated in Close Up. The idea for the one we ran last night came from ABC America World News. It was a clever concept that illustrated the point visually therefore perfect for television. However, it would not have worked to run the American story here. It would have been completely irrelevant to a New Zealand audience, which is why we reversioned it. We found a Kiwi family and conducted the same experiment here, as we are perfectly entitled to do under our affiliation agreement. Like ABC America, Close Up has had an incredible response from viewers on our Made In series and have several other stories planned. [My italics and emphasis] No suggestion there of Lynch having ‘acted alone’.
And no suggestion either of the network (or her) having done anything improper or wrong. TVNZ tells us, ‘… we reversioned it. We found a Kiwi family and conducted the same experiment here, as we are perfectly entitled to do under our affiliation agreement.’ ‘Reversioning’ is a well-known term not only at TVNZ but in most television networks. It happens all the time in news and current affairs programmes, most commonly by substituting a local voice-over for the original in an overseas report. But the key words in TVNZ’s statement were ‘as we are perfectly entitled to do under our affiliation agreement.’ That was the network’s position at the time the Close Up item was broadcast. It follows that no-one at TVNZ – neither management, nor her departmental head, nor her producer – could have advised Lynch that her understanding of what ‘reversioning’ meant was unacceptable. They cannot have done so, since at the time they clearly did not think it was. Unless, that is, they want us to believe that literally none of Lynch’s superiors in the organisation had seen the item before it went to air.
If that were the case, other heads should be rolling. I don’t believe it for a moment. I would be astonished if the programme’s producer and director were not shown the rough-cut of Lynch’s story, were not sent a detailed rundown of the final cut, and had not received a copy of the to-camera and voice-over script. And not a peep from anyone! What’s clear from all of this is that Close Up and TVNZ both thought the idea of ‘reversioning’ the ABC America concept was great. And both Close Up and TVNZ were delighted with their audience’s ‘incredible response’ to the series. But after Samways’ exposure the picture changed. There was flak from the public. The ‘P-word’ was mentioned. As we’ve seen, TVNZ at first decided it had done nothing wrong and issued a media release saying so. But later it changed its mind. That in itself raises some interesting possibilities – that ABC America had expressed some displeasure about one of its items being ‘cloned’, that the Corporation’s dozy lawyers had started biting their nails or that widespread public and media disapproval of what had been done – much of it ill-informed and unfounded – was raising the temperature in Hobson Street to unbearable levels.
What to do? Why, follow Rule One of New Zealand broadcasting PR – ‘When in the poo, find a scapegoat.’ In this matter, it’s extremely hard to see Kate Lynch in any other role. What this entire debacle reveals is an appalling lack of oversight at all levels in the organisation. Lynch may have made an error of judgement, but against a background where her employer and her immediate superiors considered what she had done was something she and they were ‘perfectly entitled to do’. And no one, either in management or in the Close Up office, expressed any reservation to her, either before or immediately after the item went to air. TVNZ’s handling of this affair, from go to wo, has been an absolute scandal. And only Lynch has paid the price. I should reveal that Judy and I know Kate Lynch well. She is one of a number of reporters who received training from us when she was at TV3. On this matter her editorial judgement failed her. But she can hold her head considerably higher than her faceless lowlife former colleague/s who seized an opportunity to hurt her further by talking to the tabloid press.