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Māori broadcasting & the year of living dangerously

Māori broadcasting & the year of living dangerously

This week there will be yet another one of those end-of year functions. Perhaps you are familiar with such things. Perhaps you have been press-ganged into a few yourself. Or perhaps you have managed (like me) to use your children as an excuse to avoid anything remotely Christmassy/Secret Santa-ish. Well. spare a thought for one of those functions that will be held this week; the break-up, in more than one way, of the Māori and Pacific programmes department at TVNZ.  There will be, no doubt, much kōrero, sadness and reflectiveness as the current staff look back over many decades of service that this department has given in the pursuit of New Zealanders understanding ourselves just a little bit better. Ernie Leonard, Whai Ngata, Mihingarangi Forbes, Stephen Stehlin, Ngaire Fuata, Mātai Smith, Hineani Melbourne, Quinton Hita, Osone Okesene, oh crikey. Need I go on? You get the picture. A whole lot of talent pooled in order to create some damn fine TV over three decades, or near enough to.  As you might be aware TVNZ  announced in October that it will divest itself of most Māori and Pacific programming. In fact, TVNZ announced last week its preferred production companies to take on producing the other shows. but rest assured, TVNZ will still charge those lucky independent programme makers premium rates for the use of TVNZ facilities to make the same programmes. So…effectively this  “cornucopia of Māori production” will be no more (except for Te Karere). Whither now TVNZ’s legislative function that sets out, in s12(3) of the TVNZ Act 2003 that TVNZ  “must provide high-quality content that— […] reflects Māori perspectives” I wonder. I certainly don’t doubt the talents and skills that reside in our young, independent production houses. I wish them all the best for this new, and no doubt, exciting path. But make no mistake, the indefinable something, that collective enterprise that was just big enough to make a change to NZ broadcasting culture, that  trained and welded generations of Māori and Pasifika broadcasters, journalists, technical staff together to create something bigger than the sum of those individuals, will vanish. That job of cultural transformation must not be left to independent Māori and Pasifika vehicles. There must be space for difference within the machinery of the mainstream. More on this later. But for this moment…spare a thought on Thursday night for that sad celebration. Actually 2014 is a red-letter year for Māori broadcasting, it seems to me. For one thing, it was the 10th anniversary of another important source of Māori images and voices: the Māori Television Service, MTS, or better known just as Māori Television. Actually, the most annoying thing Judith Collins ever said, in my view, happened way back in May 2014 at the time of the 10th birthday celebrations.  Now, I get that some people will be somewhat ideologically ill-disposed to MTS. Fair enough. Each to their ideological own. But this reported comment, made with the trademark Collins curled lip,  got my goat and just about killed it:

Mrs Collins said most of the time when she tuned in the station was broadcasting “reruns of things that were running 30 years ago”. “I would like Maori TV to be considered one of our icons but at the moment it is not,” Mrs Collins said. “It’s not dealing with the big issues. And when it does deal with them it is often seen not to be evenly handed in its treatment of them.”

The absolute barefaced untruth of the first line of this comment was easily demonstrated by the most casual perusal of the channel’s programming for that month. So it was quite obvious she had either never actually tuned in to Māori Television more than, you know, that ONE time [at band camp], or she had happened one day upon a repeat screening of Koha or Tangata Whenua on Heartland and thought she was really was lost among the natives. This insulting dismissal of all that MTS has tried to achieve over ten years felt like a punch in the gut to me, and I don’t even work there! Nor do I think the programming is perfect either, but the accusation she makes is one of which that station is simply not guilty. And as far as I’m concerned, her egregious first comment negates what might have been marginally debatable points in the other lines. People who just make things up simply don’t get to be a critic that anyone listens to. But her comment did raise food for thought at the time, and still does. What is it that we expect an organisation like MTS to achieve? And, likewise, what do (or did…) we expect of our more ‘mainstream’ broadcasters such as TVNZ, RNZ and others in regards to promoting Māori content, training new broadcasters and, oh I don’t know, upholding or creating the authentic vision of how we think Māori ought to be portrayed? Let’s just say that there have been some pretty big events this year that are setting the scene for Māori media in this country. I don’t really know how the cards are going to fall, but there is a lot of shuffling going on at the moment. in addition to the gutting of Māori and Pacific programming at TVNZ we also have:

  • MTS in the middle of a restructure, and ‘scoping’ a possible move,  with a couple of its high profile figures (and a few others not so high profile) recently jumping ship; Julian Wilcox and Carol Hirschfeld.
  • Native Affairs (on Māori Television) is still weathering some ongoing ructions about the nature of the programme, and  debate about the future of investigative journalism at MTS. A particular series of examples arose in the election campaign pursued by Hone Harawira and the MANA Movement to highlight what they claimed to be threats  against NA and Te Kāea by MTS and its Board. This series of claims has been running for a few months now, culminating a few weeks ago in Harawira’s accusations about political interference in the content of Native Affairs by Paora Maxwell (MTS Chief Executive) reportedly rescinding an invitation for Hone Harawira to attend the final show of the year (although we only really have Hone’s account to go by). In addition, there are the ongoing consequences from Native Affairs’ investigation into the commercial arm of the Kohanga Reo National Trust,  Te Pataka Ohanga. For all the many admirers of Native Affairs investigative journalism in the Pākehā world (see here, and here for example), opinion is more divided within Māoridom (see the second half of this Te Putatara post  critiquing Native Affairs’ objectivity in that saga, and We Take Manhatten’s account of some of those critiques).
  • The current progress of the Māori Language Bill through Parliament and the forthcoming implementation of Te Mātāwai, a new governance agency that will provide direction on the future directions for te reo Māori, taking control of Te Taura Whiri i Te Reo Maori (the Maori Language Commission) and Te Mangai Paho (the Maori Broadcasting Fund Agency). This new entity will also absorb Te Putahi Paoho, the electoral college for Maori Television;
  • In May this year Māori radio stations received a boost in funding of $12 million, for the next four yearthat has set up a challenge, and perhaps a point of debate and even tension for those stations about how best to use that funding and develop the existing stations and yet still keep a door open for new radio stations to develop.
  • and then there has been the launch, this year of the first modern Māori mainstream newspaperMāngai Nui in collaboration with the Rotorua Daily Post.

Crikey. That’s quite a lot to be going on with. There is always risk in expecting any one organisation to bear the weight of all Māori and Pākehā expectations of what Māori media should be.  One of our problems is that we are not always sure what it is we think Māori broadcasting ought to achieve, so, when big changes are signaled we don’t quite know how to read them. Or at least, I haven’t been sure. Take MTS, for example. What will be the result of the current changes at MTS? It may, actually, be better and more focused on doing what it was set up to do, provide a way and means of protecting, preserving and promoting the Māori language and tikanga Māori. Actually, however much we might want MTS to reflect the diversity and dynamism of modern (Māori) New Zealand, however much we might want it to be THE public broadcaster, it wasn’t set up to do that. The fact that it does those things, and with aplomb, is a testament to its staff and its ingenuity. But make no mistake…it has a legislative job to do. s3 of the Māori Television Services Act sets out the recognition that Crown and Māori together have an obligation under the Treaty of Waitangi to preserve, protect and promote te reo Māori. S8 of the Act sets out the principal function of the Act, which is:

…to promote te reo me ngā tikanga Māori through the provision of a high quality, cost effective Māori television service, in both Māori and English, that informs, educates, and entertains a broad viewing audience, and in doing so, enriches New Zealand’s society, culture and heritage.

In 2009 the review of the Act found that there was an inconsistency between the implementation of ss3 and 8. The reviewers said:

In effect the Act is successful in providing for the promotion of te reo Māori, but is less clear in providing for its preservation and protection.

But legislation be blowed, in on sense. Programme-makers, broadcasters, journalists, writers, presenters..all these people bring themselves into the public sphere in some way and change our cultural landscape even when we don’t know they are doing it. Whatever our Treaty-based, legislative, cultural or emotional expectations of our Māori media in general, and broadcasters in particular, this country owes a massive debt to Māori media in all its forms. This has been the case ever since the beginnings of Māori newspapers in the 1840s. Māori media, with all their faults, and variance and ideologies and truth-constructions,  have helped to foster a sense of connectedness and fellow-feeling between disparate members of Māori communities. They  have reflected Māori back to ourselves, even as we can argue endlessly over what distortions might be writ large in those images, words and sounds. They have given true glimpses of Māori life to those who don’t share that life. And Māori media have, for over 160 years, offered a portal into Māori thinking that is rarely offered within what we now offhandedly refer to as MSM, or mainstream media. Perhaps I had better be clear on what I mean by Māori media. I am not referring only to Māori run organisations independent of larger ‘mainstream entities’. Sometimes Māori media has extended its reach into Māoridom more by way of the Trojan Hoiho technique. Some of the Māori newspapers, for example, were government organs, but letters to the editor, and some editorial material did a pretty fine job of reflecting Māoridom, notwithstanding the intent that such organs be instruments of Crown propaganda. When The NZBC appointed Māori broadcasters in the 1930s and 40s, they were to provide an extraordinary legacy within Māori media (and broadcasting history). As written by one of the towering figures of Māori broadcasting, Henare Te Ua, some years ago:

Who were, these pioneers? Professor James Shelley, Director of early broadcasting, during the 1930s appointed four air-staff Māori, one each in the four main centres. In Auckland, Ngāti Whātua’s Lou Paul a skilled singer and musician, in Wellington, Kingi Tahiwi of Ngāti Raukawa’s musically talented Tahiwi whānau – he died over North Africa while serving with the Royal Air Force, Ngai Tahu’s Te Ari Pitama was appointed in Christchurch, and Wharekauri (Chatham Islands’) Airini Grennel in Dunedin. While not appointed as “Māori broadcasters”, they were bi-culturally adept broadcasters who were Māori, each possessing style and flair and te reo which they used on-air. My opinion is that their personal, outgoing charismas quietly opened their Pākeha colleagues’ insights into te ao Māori – the Māori world – and were at the genesis of Māori broadcasting

I think the second paragraph is very apt. It is a lonely thing sometimes to be ‘the Māori voice’ within a mainstream organisation. But those lonely voices are absolutely vital, in any form of broadcasting or media, and, I would venture, in any organisation with public relevance, actually. The problem with being the lonely voice is that it can more easily, and with relative impunity, be silenced. So. Here’s to both the lonely Māori and Pasifika voices in within mainstream media, wherever they are found, and those voices of other Māori and Pasifika who are able to paddle their own media waka. Kia mau tonu koutou.

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