After the Herald revealed a convicted paedophile had worked on a taxpayer-funded children’s television show, officials flew into damage control. Newly released documents reveal the story’s immediate fallout, including who knew what about the cheerleading coach’s disturbing background before the scandal broke.
TVNZ was reprimanded after the Herald revealed the state broadcaster knew a convicted paedophile had worked on kids’ TV show What Now but failed to ‘fess up for more than 12 months.
NZ on Air boss Cameron Harland sent a terse “please explain” letter to TVNZ boss Kevin Kenrick in July last year over TVNZ’s handling of the scandal.
Newly released correspondence also shows TVNZ prepared a contingency media statement in 2019 in case anyone asked about the sex offender’s employment but kept quiet when no one did.
TVNZ only admitted knowledge when approached by the Herald in June last year.
The correspondence is among a screed of documents released under the Official Information Act, shedding light on the fiasco involving disgraced cheerleading coach Nikola Marinovich, who is now back in jail on serious child abuse material charges.
The freelance cameraman was hired on What Now by production company Whitebait Media despite having served time behind bars for abusing underage girls.
The company, co-owned by entertainer Jason Gunn and his wife Janine Morrell-Gunn, later admitted failing to carry out a police vet and apologised for putting children at risk.
Whitebait Media receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding from NZ on Air and is contracted to make What Now by TVNZ.
The documents show TVNZ was alerted to Marinovich’s background in an email by a What Now producer after he was arrested on the set of a rival’s production in May 2019 “by Customs and a lot [of] police officers that looked like SWAT”.
The email confirmed police had seized Marinovich’s home computer during an early morning raid and that after googling his name, crew had learned about his previous child sex convictions.
And though the sexual predator had access to at least 10 schools and children’s homes through his What Now contract, neither TVNZ nor Whitebait Media alerted their funder NZ on Air or education officials to the potential health and safety risk.
Internal TVNZ emails show a senior communications employee prepared a draft statement “in case we’re asked any questions”. No one did so the statement was quietly shelved.
“Given we did not receive any media enquiries at the time, this was not used,” the TVNZ staffer wrote amid fallout from the Herald’s exclusive story last year.
“It was ultimately discarded and reworked a year later when the Herald journalist made us aware of what the charge in front of the courts actually was.
“My assumption was that Whitebait informed NZ on Air, much like they informed us.
“For this assumption we can of course apologise.”
Another TVNZ employee put it this way: “Going forward … we are certainly more vigilant [sic] about asking appropriate questions of any of our productions who work with children.”
A month later, in July 2020, NZ on Air boss Harland wrote to TVNZ boss Kenrick to express dissatisfaction with the broadcaster’s inaction, despite TVNZ having known about the sex offender’s identity.
“My Board, at our recent meeting, asked me to write to you expressing our disappointment that this issue was not immediately communicated to NZ on Air. To find out about this issue from the media was obviously disappointing, but more importantly, our ability to improve health and safety processes has been delayed.”
Harland said both organisations were now working with Screensafe to implement “more rigorous” vetting policies to protect children.
He sought confirmation that any similar issues involving NZ on Air-funded programmes would be immediately notified.
Kenrick replied three days later.
He confirmed on behalf of TVNZ that the company learned of Marinovich’s arrest and historic child sex convictions a year earlier.
“Based on this information, TVNZ agreed with Whitebait Media that the individual should never have held a role working on a children’s television production,” the letter says.
TVNZ had worked with the production company to ensure more stringent vetting processes were implemented. It was committed to “ensuring our productions do not place tamariki at risk”.
TVNZ conceded it “could take a more active role” in health and safety reporting.
“Going forward, we’ll be proactive in informing and ensure open lines of communication so we achieve the desired outcomes.”
The Herald asked TVNZ why it had not been upfront.
TVNZ said it worked with independent production partners when concerns came to light “to understand how they are managing the situation and offer support where we can”.
“In this situation we are satisfied with how the production company has and is managing the issue.
“Following a request from NZ on Air, we have committed to advising it when we become aware of potentially serious concerns relating to productions it is funding, rather than relying on NZ on Air’s direct communication with the production company.”
Behind the scenes
A day before the Herald story’s publication, Harland issued an internal email about a “distressing issue” that would appear imminently in the media regarding Marinovich and What Now.
“We have only become aware of this yesterday as a result of the journalist’s enquiries.
“I want to assure all staff we are acting as swiftly and firmly as we can on this.”
NZ on Air quickly alerted staff in Education Minister Chris Hipkins’ office, warning that the Ministry of Education has also been approached for comment as the cameraman had access to schools.
The day before the story broke, a senior NZ on Air employee wrote to Morrell-Gunn expressing concern at learning about the scandal from the Herald.
“For the record, NZ on Air would have expected to have been informed of this situation shortly after you were aware of it, due to the H&S implications for your cast, crew and participants.”
Morrell-Gunn was also asked what investigations had been carried out into Marinovich’s actions, and whether any “unwelcome” or “risky” behaviour” had been reported.
A few days later, Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft wrote to Harland reminding him of minimum vetting requirements under the Care of Children Act and stressing that any organisation working with children should “demonstrate a high duty of care”.
Harland responded five days later, saying his agency was “deeply disturbed” by the Marinovich revelations and that work to overhaul vetting procedures was being prioritised to protect tamariki.
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