The investigation was announced after Herald enquiries. Photo / 124rf
Social Issues reporter
It is notoriously hard to get into, has a star-studded list of graduates and boasts strong industry hiring connections.
For those wanting to be a TV star in New Zealand, it’s where you’re told you have to be.
But as allegations of serious misbehaviour emerge from the New Zealand media industry, the New Zealand Broadcasting School is being accused of breeding some of the same “toxic” behaviours.
Last week, the Herald revealed a review is under way into the broadcasting school’s practices following reports of an alleged incident.
However, some former students believe the root of the problem is much deeper.
One former student alleges they were told to change their foreign accent, others claimed bullying wasn’t addressed, and two said women weren’t allowed to have natural hair on camera.
In a statement, the school said, if accurate, the issues raised by the Herald were “completely unacceptable”, the review would be paused and an external investigation would be launched.
“The issues raised by the Herald, if accurate, are completely unacceptable to Ara, including the NZ Broadcasting School. The wellbeing and safety of Ara students and staff is our prime concern,” a spokesperson for Ara – the vocational training institute of which the New Zealand Broadcasting School is a part – said.
“As a result of the allegations made, Ara will immediately commence a comprehensive investigation, led by an independent external consultant. This process will be transparent with current and previous staff and students invited to participate.
“This process will be transparent with current and previous staff and students invited to participate. Outcomes of the investigation will be made public.”
One man who studied there said the at times troublesome culture within parts of the broadcasting industry was established inside the institution.
“It seriously stunted my development as a person. Quite serious depression and anxiety from that place. And not because of the work but because of the school’s culture.”
He said in his opinion a lot of the issues highlighted in MediaWorks’ Dew report, regarding sexual harassment and bullying, start at the school.
During his time there, the man claimed they attempted to placate the issues students raised by saying they were just preparing them for the industry.
“A lot of bullying goes on, a lot of bullying, and [you’re] expected to be the adults, and the bullying can be from tutors as well as peers.”
When he did find the strength to talk to a school leader about the way one tutor was acting, he claimed it was “brushed off completely”.
“I was laughed at.”
Behind closed doors, the man claimed students were told they “wouldn’t look good on TV”, and he thought “the whole place is completely outdated”.
The man claimed the process gave him post-traumatic stress and made him not want to go into an industry that used to be something he “really, really” wanted to be in.
“I don’t believe anything’s going to change it’s so outdated and I don’t think they understand what it’s like for students, [and] if they do, then that’s torture.”
Alongside an intense schedule of 9-to-5 classes with assignments on top, he said students were in a “toxic” social and educational culture where people will “talk s*** about everyone” because “everyone thinks they’re going to be someone”.
The atmosphere of excessive competition, along with a peer review section of the course, was echoed by other former students spoken to by the Herald.
Professional Practice, the peer assessment, is worth 20 per cent of the student’s total grade, and is judged by the very classmates the student will compete with for jobs.
Things that can be marked down, the Herald understands, include clothing, presentation, tardiness and attitude.
“I mean, people were told to go and get changed because they weren’t dressed professional enough. Like, they’re poor 18, 19-year-old students moving out of home for the first time.”
Knowing his peers were watching and marking how he interacted with others – and how he looked – gave him “massive paranoia”.
“It’s affected a lot of people’s private lives, I believe.”
New Zealand TV presenter Adam* shares similar concerns, and also claims allegations he made about bullying were met with inaction and dismissal.
“The ethos at Broadcast School is this is what the industry is like and we want to create a space where it’s exactly like the industry is.”
Parallels between some aspects of the situation at the school and the picture painted in Maria Dew’s report into culture and misconduct at MediaWorks aren’t hard to come by.
On top of a system of divisiveness, competition and bullying, Adam also spoke of sexism within the faculty.
Adam said at one point a tutor joked, in response to an ongoing sexual harassment case, that he shouldn’t “knock it [harassment] til you try it”.
“It was something that always stuck with me, just thinking ‘far out, what is your problem?’ And he thought he was being funny.”
Workload was also a significant issue for him, with an expectation students should work until the early hours of the morning, and push themselves too much, if they wanted a “good recommendation” for internships.
“The fact that they said, ‘hey, this is what the industry is like,’ is just a total lie. It’s not.”
The Professional Practice grading was what affected Adam the most.
“They make it very clear at the start, your peers and your class are also not your enemies, but you know, we’re all vying for a scarce amount of jobs. So these people are your competitors, but they’re also the ones that can dictate whether or not you make it through to the next year.”
This meant things became like a “personality contest” according to Adam, who said if you didn’t get on well with someone they could mark you down for no reason.
“For instance, in my class, there were two people vying for an internship and one of them just marked them down because they were a competitor and that person got a low grade.”
The man believed the tutors were aware that this was a flawed way of marking but it continued nonetheless.
“It’s quite sad looking back on it, because it’s not a cheap course, either. It’s like 10 grand a year. And you can complain or ask for advice from your tutors. But the common response was, this is what the industry is like, and we’re setting you up for that.”
Links between the school and industry partners run deep. On the school’s website it advertises their internships lead to jobs in “about 95 per cent of cases”, making falling out of favour with tutors risky for those needing help.
Another on-screen TV worker, who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity, said the first year at the school was truly the “best experience” but there were multiple issues in the second year.
During one voice test, they said the man taking it asked if it was their “real accent”, in regard to their foreign accent. He then said they needed to relax their vowels because “Kiwi audiences won’t like that”.
They said this was the first inkling they felt that people wanted them to fit into a certain box.
“I can’t fix that part of myself. But I’m just gonna have to work extra hard at the other things that I can control, which is sort of like, the mentality that most immigrants grew up with anyway.”
At the time, they told the Herald they hadn’t grasped just how “terrible the system was” in relation to the Professional Practice assessment.
“I genuinely wasn’t keeping track of like, who was coming to class, right on the dot, and what they were wearing, and what their test scores were. And if they were paying attention to the news.”
They said by the second year it felt like they were being judged on what they looked like, and not on their work.
“You’re always pitted against each other by the teachers, which is freakin’ weird.”
Women’s hair was a bone of contention, they said, and students were expected to have straight hair during their training broadcasts and if they wore skirts, it had to be below the knee with black tights.
If tutors didn’t like you, they said, you wouldn’t be put forward for certain internships, even though it’s on the student to apply for them.
Another former student said she was told not to pursue journalism after her Professional Practice review as she “didn’t have the right personality”.
She said the worst part was that it wasn’t a reflection on her work, or work ethic, it was “literally a personality rating”.
“She said that, compared to the other classmates, my personality wasn’t strong enough, I’d get lost in the noise. And she doesn’t see a career for journalism for me.”
This was “awful” for the former student, who said she had wanted to be a journalist for her whole life and was already two years deep into the programme.
“My grades were fine. I was, I would say, a good student. I’ve never struggled, that sort of thing. And literally she said that I didn’t have the personality.
“It seemed like they sort of wanted to foster like, the fun-loving outgoing, like perfect journalists that you see on TV almost. And for me I just probably wasn’t, obviously according to her, bold enough.”
Following this incident she became rattled. It wasn’t just a critique on her grades, it was a judgment on her “as a whole”.
The Professional Practice was, again, an issue in her opinion, and she said because they were all fighting for a certain amount of internships so some people would want to be strategic in their marking.
“So people that you’d see as a threat, I didn’t do this personally, but I’m sure people would have rated them lower on certain aspects because, obviously those results are reflected in all your interview opportunities.”
She too said she was told curly hair wasn’t allowed in front of the camera, and when she tried to go on camera with her natural hair the teacher was annoyed.
As the industry becomes more aware of certain behaviours and how people should and shouldn’t be treated, she said it was about time the school had a review.
“And see if they’re actually producing the most efficient, like mentally stable journalists. And again, they’re probably not at the moment.”
The spokesperson said Ara would not make any further comment on the issue until the terms of reference of the investigation were confirmed.
“We are ensuring that both students and staff know how to access immediate support if required.”
The investigation was announced after Herald enquiries. Photo / 124rf