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Shane and the Dragon: the risks of appealing to difference

It’s very tempting to believe, as a Māori, that I have some kind of connection to an essential cultural truth that is just a little different, and a little bit better than others around me without that connection. The feeling might occur in unexpected moments; in a joke shared in the reo, in singing a song at a tangi, in an offhand comment at the supermarket, in catching Pūkoro on Māori TV after school. As someone who has had to learn to be Māori, I’m quite conscious of being privy to something greater than myself. Fortunately for me those ‘connection’ moments are far more common now than in my more culturally tentative 20s.

This feeling of special connection, as well as whakapapa connection, is useful, after all; it can be a bulwark against the torrent of all the other messages I might receive over the course of my adult life, the ones about how being Māori is a passport to the bottom-of-the-heap statistics. But it is not much of a leap from this sense of being ‘set apart’ culturally, to a sense of playing by a different sets of rules in other ways. So these words leapt out at me from an RNZ Manu Korihi report yesterday in regards to the report released recently on Shane Taurima’s activities at TVNZ:

The panel members were particularly interested in [Shane Taurima’s] response about how he managed conflicts in the Maori world.
He told them that Maori journalism was different.
He said instead of reporters having topics to cover, such as health and business, tangata whenua tended to be assigned to tribal areas from which they come from.
Mr Taurima said Maori journalists were challenged by whanau and friendships everyday.
But an advisor to the board carrying out the investigation, the former correspondent Chris Wikaira, rejected the explanation.
He saids basic journalism such as balance as fairness, was universal and did not change because of a person’s ethnicity.

http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/te-manu-korihi/244163/maori-journalism-excuse-rejected

The report itself fleshes Shane’s observation out a little more: (available at: http://www.3news.co.nz/Portals/0/images/TVNZ_independent-report.pdf):

The world of Māori broadcasting and journalism, and particularly Māori language reporting has differences from reporting in the Pākehā world. We are challenged by our whānau and friendship relationships every day, which mean that conflicts of interest and the potential for perceptions are at the forefront of our minds every single day, as we believe those relationships, whilst ensuring that they do not stray into our onscreen or editorial work.”

I find the characterisation of a “Māori broadcasting and journalism world” and a “Pākehā” world of journalism and broadcasting to be interesting, as if there is a veil through which we must pass to operate in either world. I suspect Shane was making an appeal to difference here, that somehow the rules are different in each world. It’s pretty easy for those of us who have ever worked in broadcasting to believe that. But here there be dragons, maybe taniwha, if you don’t know where your ethical waka is heading.

On one level I completely agree with Shane that Māori journalists and broadcasters do have to operate differently just to be able to do their jobs properly, in the same way that Māori lawyers ‘do law’ differently, in the same way that Māori psychologists work differently with Māori clients. The point of ‘doing it differently’ in different contexts is to benefit Māori professionals, Māori clients and Māori in the community generally, to ensure ultimately that Māori are served properly by whatever profession is in focus. At the heart of these ‘different’ ways of doing things is the practice of whakawhanaungatanga, the establishment of common ground and right relationships between the Māori professional and the Māori client in such a way that that client (and by extension the Māori community) gets the right service. It makes complete sense that Māori journalists will have to operate differently in order to have their fingers on the pulse of what is going on in Māori communities, so that those communities will see themselves reflected in the work of that journalist, of that broadcaster, and not some imagined caramel collective with only a passing resemblance. Sometimes, as in the recent Native Affairs investigations, the image that is reflected back to the community may be true (or at least a version of true) but not flattering.

Whakawhanaungatanga is critically important as a way of Māori connecting with each other, discovering and reinforcing whānau, hapū, or iwi ties, or in the absence of those, some other shared identity that makes sense in that moment. Isn’t this mode of practice then at odds with the usual pressure upon professionals, legal, journalistic, or whatever, to create space between the professional and the client, for the professional to maintain disinterest? Not at all, if whakawhanaungatanga is exercised in honesty and transparency. When I was a probation officer (many moons ago) writing reports on offenders it could be essential to spend time with an offender (love those labels) talking about our shared ancestry, where he and I grew up, or whatever else was right for the moment to create that spark of fellow-feeling between us. I might still recommend imprisonment at the end of the process. He knew it, I knew it, but the whanaungatanga was still there, and still necessary, even within the giant monolith of our criminal justice system.

It is, of course, so much harder for someone who was in Shane’s position of being under direct and constant pressure from his whānau and iwi to return to politics to balance the demands of his people with the demands of transparency and accountability to TVNZ. The pressure must have been enormous, but the demand for transparency and honesty in the preservation and exercise of whakawhanaungatanga remains the same. Chris Wikaira’s reported response to Shane’s quote above is also worth quoting in full from the report:

Mr Wikaira reviewed the transcript of the Panel’s interview of Mr Taurima. His view was thatthe basic tenets of journalism, ie balance and fairness, are universal and that a conflict is aconflict regardless of the ethnicity of the person at the centre of it. Furthermore, while he acknowledged that Māori journalists often have more interests to balance (be they familial, tribal or political), the management of these needs to be consistently applied. The potential reputational damage to TVNZ overrides any cultural nuance, and it required Mr Taurima to disclose these activities. He noted that this issue was less about tikanga Māori and cultural nuance and more about a senior manager in a mainstream media organisation managing his political aspirations in a mainstream political party.[99]

I’m sure few of us are blameless when it comes to blurring lines between our professional and private responsibilities. I’m not. But nothing in the Māori rule-book excuses Māori professionals from the other professional demands on us. I don’t have, as a condition of my Māoriness, an entitlement to throw away the rule on client confidentiality, or objectivity. Nor, in legal practice did I have an entitlement to ignore conflicts of interests in that context. In my current job I don’t get to appeal to difference to justify dispensing with fairness in marking my students’ exam papers (much as I dearly want more Māori to be passing those blimmin’ things). If I want to be good at what I do, I have to exercise whakawhanaungatanga in all those contexts, and keep up with those other professional demands. And bear the cost.

For me to appeal to difference, to specialness to justify dispensing with those other professional demands suggests that I might think it’s OK, as a Māori, to engage in whakawhanaungatanga without transparency and honesty (or tika and pono, to put it another way) with all those relationships. For me, that’s a level of comfort that I’m … well, just not comfortable with.

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4 responses »

  1. Being Maori and wanting to be the best I can be, includes times when I need to be whiter than white. To do that, I just need to be brown. Rawe ou whakaaro sis x

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. Really enjoyed your take on this issue Mamari. Useful for interested others to have more detail, greater depth than the 60-90 seconds ‘allowed’ by mainstream media. Issues of Conflict of Interest (CoI) happen at all levels and across narrow & wide social ‘scales’. It’s the managing of these, and the willingness to recognise that they’re there, regardless of one’s affiliation (overt or not) that puts more onus on people acting in some way on behalf of others.

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