In the wake of the understandable fuss and nostalgia accompanying Geoff Robinson’s retirement from Morning Report, I have been thinking a little bit about RNZ’s sleepier and gentler Afternoons show, shortly to be revamped itself with the addition of Simon Mercep. I’m hoping a little bit of substantial change might be coming, I really am. Not, I hasten to add, that I entirely dislike the current offering.
Jim Mora’s Afternoon’s show over the past few years on Radio New Zealand National has often provided the backdrop for my working afternoons. From ‘The Best Song Ever Written’ to the Feature Album of the day, to the New Zealand reading, Jim’s affable manner and the range of non-famous and non-expert voices on his show provides enough of a background murmur that I leave the radio on, rather than switch to something more urgent, or demanding of my attention. I actually like hearing people I know nothing about talking about things of interest to them and describing events of their local area, or topics of local interest. I prefer this groundedness, and can find such voices quietly compelling, if I actually focus.
My blood temperature usually rises, after 3.45, however, as Jim introduces the members of the Panel for the next hour, and the rise of the end theme leading into the 5pm news will sometimes see me in a bit of a lather. The strangled ejaculations that might be heard coming from my office usually reveal a theme. “For crying out loud, what the hell does he know about it? The man’s never met a real live Māori in his life!’ ‘Why the hell don’t they have people on that bloody show who know something about the topic!’ and the evergreen ‘Oh for F***’s sake! That’s it, I’m never listening to that crap ever again.’ Now to be fair, I need to make a disclosure or two. I have asked Jim (unsuccessfully) by email a couple of times over the last few years to be interviewed on the show about some of the work I’ve been doing (well, hey, easier than driving round the city with a loudhailer, right?) so I could be accused of sour grapes of the ‘I-would-be-so-much-better-than-that-total-ignoramus’ variety. Maybe that’s all there is to it. But I am a listener too, and although the aforementioned apoplexy is not a common occurrence (maybe once a week or a fortnight) it happens often enough, and I see enough Twitter commentary to ask myself: “why do I have a problem with the Panel, and why the hell do I keep it on?”.
There are a couple of main reasons for my allergic reaction to the Panel. One is the obvious and persistent lack of cultural variety. Another is the lack of voices from varying socio-economic perspectives. Yes, those two points are certainly related. Looking back over all episodes of The Panel this year only one consistent Māori voice has appeared (twice) -Chris Wikaira’s. Only very rarely are other Māori commentators or experts drafted in to the show for their views on presenting issues. Diversity, of course, does not just require Māori voices, but those of other cultures, other perspectives, even. I had a quick look over all the Panels held so far this year, and there are well over 50 individual panellists, with a few of those having or or three appearances since the beginning of the year. There are some pretty recognisable names among them; Jane Clifton, Mike Williams, Sir Bruce Slane, Bernard Hickey, Garry Moore, Mark Inglis, Josie Pagani, David Slack, Peter Elliot, Tim Watkin, Rosemary McLeod, Finlay McDonald, Jeremy Ellwood, Michelle Boag, Brian Edwards, Gary McCormick, Mai Chen. Some commentators are not as well known to me, but still have significant public profiles due to the work or activities they carry out. Ali Jones. Megan-Nicol Reed, Fa’amatuainu Tino Pereira, Sapna Samant, Most of these names are affixed to people I enjoy listening to, or paying attention to, in their ‘other lives’ as commentators, journalists, writers, television personalities, politicos. All of them have interesting lives, interesting backstories, interesting things to say. I have no axe to grind with any of them. It’s just that the parade is so unleavened by difference or perspectives from outside New Zealand’s cultural and middle class mainstream. Completely acknowledging that I may inadvertently be excluding someone here out of ignorance, it seems to me that the burden of representing (for example) the cultural differences of Asia, Pasifika and Māori are carried by Chris, Tino Pereira, Sapna Samant, and Mai Chen. A heck of a burden that, to ‘represent’ such a broad and heterogenous range of people.
Of course, a counter argument that one might raise (in the absence of knowing how the Panel is actually chosen) is that the Panel members are surely chosen for their listenability (if that’s a word..), for their engagement, for their lively interest in matters New Zealand. Why saddle such individuals with the burden of representing an entire culture? Yep. I totally get that, and the idea that one person can ever be the Pasifika Voice or the Māori Voice, or the Poor Person’s Voice is cringeworthy indeed. I have experienced moments, when, in a room full of nice Pākehā (no, not an ironic nice) I’m asked asked for my opinion because apparently I represent ‘How Māori Think’. I’m not fond of the sight of heads swivelling in my direction just on the basis of my putative cultural credentials. So I’m reluctant to impose that kind of expectation on anyone. But to use that reasoning as a basis upon which NOT to seek out people from all kinds of backgrounds seems, to me, short-sighted.
Of course, I’m not privy to the conversations engaged in between the producers and Jim about the composition of the Panel.
Actually, I quite admire what seems to me to be the thinking behind the creation of the Panel. Bring together a different couple of engaging and thoughtful people every day to throw around some issues of the day and see what happens. Panel members are not usually ‘qualified experts’ in anything, although they may have public profile and have reached dizzying heights in their individual professions. They are reasonably intelligent people with life experience, and something to say. The Panel, it seems to me, tries to strike a functional balance between excluding one kind of risk posed in talkback radio (relatively unmediated public input that can tip over into small-minded prejudice all too often) and the risk posed by modern thirst for expert commentators. The world has quite enough blimmin’ experts, and it is one of Jim Mora’s strengths (and Afternoons’) that they are committed, it seems to giving a platform to ordinary voices, thereby charting a middle path between the two extremes mentioned above.
It’s not that laudable apparent intent I take issue with. It’s the irredeemably narrow definition of ‘ordinary’ that gets to me. The Panel, by and large (and not exclusively), is comprised of middle class people who are either salary earners or self employed. Most of the people on the Panel do not ordinarily hang out at a local marae, or footy club. They don’t (most of them) speak more than one language (so therefore are unlikely to bring to the job some of that freshness that comes from understanding the world through a different vocabulary), they don’t punch time-cards, they are not at risk from the downturn in the manufacturing sector. I’d be surprised if more than a few are religious. I don’t think the Panel is elitist, and I’m sure they would be horrified at such a charge (so just as well I don’t make it). They are what they are, and that’s all they can bring to the table when issues of culture, race, or something else beyond their ken arises. That’s all anyone can bring, and they have just as much right to opinions about those things as anyone else. I have no problem with men talking or writing about women’s experiences. Nor do I have problems with Pākehā or Chinese talking about Māori culture. I just prefer some familiarity or effort put into understanding those things which we were not raised with before we pronounce upon them. The image in my mind’s eye that explains the gap between the Panel’s expressed perspectives and those of the other swathes of ordinary people that don’t get a look in is that of a small gathering of people in a corporate box peering down on a sportsfield. The group is interpreting the action for the like-minded people around them. Except sometimes the game they are talking about is rugby union when what’s actually being played is soccer; they just don’t know it. I hope the changes at RNZ sets the scene for a broader definition of ordinariness. I’m not, however, holding my breath. And yes, I still listen to Afternoons.