Stuff’s Pou Tiaki editor Carmen Parahi rallied her troops for what would become the ‘Our Truth, Tā Mātou Pono’ project on a Saturday, and pitched the idea to Stuff’s CEO the very next day. She tells Leonie Hayden about what happened next.
On Monday the media-consuming public awoke to a surprise from Stuff, whose comments section was once synonymous with racism: a massive front page apology for its portrayal of Māori over the past 163 years.
“Nō mātou te hē” “We’re sorry” the Stuff homepage and the front page of its regional newspapers announced, accompanied by a confronting illustration by designer Johnson Witehira showing a red hei tiki being pulled up out of threads of racist text wrapped around it. It’s an unexpected step for one of the biggest media companies in New Zealand, which was bought from Australian media giant Nine by its CEO Sinead Boucher for $1 back in May.
The Tā Mātou Pono/Our Truth project has been three months of hard work and hard conversations, with 20 journalists across the country diving deep into their respective newspapers’ archives to find the earliest and most egregious portrayals Māori, and how that narrative evolved over the years. The results aren’t pretty.
Stuff’s oldest paper, Taranaki Daily News, reckoned with the colonist propaganda it produced in its coverage of the 1881 invasion of Parihaka. A “peaceful victory” it proclaimed of the rape and devastation committed by constabulary troops that day. The Dominion Post looked at its one-sided coverage of the Pākaitore occupation in Whanganui in 1995, admitting: “We inflamed race relations in Aotearoa.”
On top of the big apology and each paper’s archive audit, there are opinion pieces from project leader, Pou Tiaki editor Carmen Parahi, editorial director Mark Stevens, and Stuff CEO Sinead Boucher. There’s analysis of their coverage of child abuse, Treaty settlements, even road death tolls. A series of videos feature prominent Māori intellectuals and activists on how Māori are portrayed by media. A long-form feature and video looks at Tame Iti’s decades-long antagonistic relationship with the press. It’s a huge body of work and it must have cost them a ton. Which considering the precariousness of media right now, seems like a pretty good indication that they’re serious about this.
Carmen Parahi admits it cost a lot. As well as the time spent on creating all the content, she says the newspapers used advertising pages to carry the apology and features, not to mention the potential loss of advertisers and subscribers in response. But she says the cost of doing nothing would have been far greater.
“All of these papers were established by settlers, for settlers. That whakapapa has continued right up until this point, and we have maintained that perspective of always protecting the interests of settlers, and now their mokopuna,” Parahi tells me over the phone from her home. She’s tired after a long day of fielding calls about Tā Mātou Pono, an even longer few months getting the project ready, and longer still the decades spent fighting for Māori in the media.
Parahi has a 20-year journalism career behind her. Prior to joining Stuff she was the producer of the award-winning current affairs series Native Affairs on Māori Television. Before that, she spent many years working as a reporter for Māori Television and TVNZ’s Marae. She knows all too well the feeling of being othered by your own industry, and was about ready to pack it all in.
“I was thinking about leaving the news industry. I’d had enough of being a Māori journalist. It’s been really hard to justify my existence as a Māori journalist to my Māori whānau, who are constantly upset at me about the way Māori are being portrayed in the media. It was either walk, or jump in the trenches and get at it.”
The establishment of Pou Tiaki, a dedicated Māori platform within Stuff, was the first step in the plan. Then establishing positions such as a press gallery reporter dedicated solely to Māori politics, a role now filled by Joel Maxwell. And then – the big audit.
She names Paula Penfold, Eugene Bingham, Alison Mau, Eddie Gay, Torika Tokalau, Joel Maxwell, Jody O’Callaghan, Charlie Mitchell, Florence Kerr, Michelle Duff, Grant Shimmin, Donna Lee-Biddle, Glen McConnell and Mandy Te as the group of fellow Stuff reporters that she initially asked to support her plan.
“I called all those people on a Saturday to ask them to support this kaupapa that I was going to take to Sinead. Every single person I called said yes, I’ll back you. And then on the Sunday I called Sinead, and she agreed with everything I was saying.
“I was so surprised and happy when I got off the phone call I was in state of shock. Because I honestly felt like I was talking to myself all these years. I was so surprised. They’ve done it with concerns and worries, but they’ve done it. They’ve been very brave, to put their skeletons out there for all the world to see. And then recognising that we need to make amends and apologise. And then telling all our newsrooms and editors it’s time for you to get out into the community and talk to Māori. It’s time to hononga.”
— Anna Fifield (@annafifield) November 29, 2020
Parahi says the past few months have meant having a lot of challenging conversations with management and her colleagues. “The team that worked on the project, we had to walk with some of them to help them understand what we see as Māori. To help them deal with the mamae, because a lot of the journalists who worked on this project felt very hurt by what they were reading. They didn’t realise the extent of it.
“But they’ve come out of it with a totally different perspective on journalism, and a greater appreciation of multi-perspective storytelling. Much better journalists.”
She says there’s no process in place yet for journalists writing about Māori to check their work – “we didn’t want to get prescriptive” – but all Stuff journalists should have a better idea going forward about including Māori perspectives, that they get “equal say and representation”.
“Balance, fairness and accuracy from a bicultural perspective. It’s not just us that need to learn that, it’s right across the news media.”
The reactions to the apology from Māori were as varied as you’d imagine, from Jenny-May Clarkson having a tangi on Breakfast, to those calling it a historic day, to the many tentatively acknowledging it as a positive first step. A story published just the day before, titled ‘‘Somebody’s lying’: Anatomy of an Oranga Tamariki uplift”, was widely derided as being exactly the kind of story Stuff purported to be apologising for. Likewise, an upbeat story from the weekend about the rare yellow Pōhutukawa talked about how most are the descendants of cuttings stolen from a Motiti Island hapū, to whom the trees were tapu. The hapū’s feelings about the desecration of their taonga don’t feature anywhere in the story.
Parahi didn’t know about the Oranga Tamariki story until she was questioned by Susie Ferguson about it that morning on RNZ. She doesn’t make excuses. She isn’t the managing editor of Stuff nor did she expect the changes to be immediate and perfect.
“We’re trying to become more transparent… we’ve put our code of practice up, including where people can talk to us. There are a whole lot of people that will now see the queries coming through, so that we can respond to them and actually do something with their concerns. Before people would write in and in might just disappear.
“We’re keeping a list and making notes on those stories where we might have stuffed up. We will go back and make changes to stories where we got it wrong.”
She knows people will be cynical and reluctant to accept the apology, and even expects some backlash. She says the papers went out into different rohe to apologise to specific hapū and iwi, and some didn’t want to hear it. “Kei te pai,” she says. “That’s absolutely fair and understandable.”
“But in the end it really is, for us, putting that pou in the ground and saying ‘OK, that’s our whakapapa, but it doesn’t have to be our legacy’. I was thinking about all the Māori journalists, all the ones that came before, Tini Molyneaux, Wena Tait, Wena Harawira, Derek Fox, that represented Māori and tried to balance that mainstream view for us, for years. And I just thought, finally, we managed to get one of the big ones over the line, ay. Only took 163 years!” she laughs.
“Maybe that’s why I’m so exhausted.”