Following a lengthy review, a government review of the Māori media sector has recommended news be centralised at Māori Television. Many in the sector are deeply troubled by the idea, writes Duncan Greive.
A proposal to amalgamate all the diverse Māori news media into a single entity has drawn a furious reaction, with several industry players viewing it as an attack on the plurality the government has repeatedly cited as critical to the functioning of mainstream media.
The paper, titled “Māori media sector: shift options” and authored by Māori development minister Nanaia Mahuta, is the result of a multi-year Māori media sector review which kicked off in 2018. The Te Puni Kōkiri document seeks to “explore how we can support the way radio, television and online te reo and Māori content programmes will be delivered in the future.” Introduced by Mahuta, it uses the personal pronoun throughout, saying, “I propose that: a single Māori News service be located within the Māori Television Service”.
Senior participants in Māori media questioned the siloing of Māori news within one relatively low-profile organisation, the hollowing out of Māori voices in mainstream newsrooms and the loss of the news whakapapa of multiple shows as being the inevitable byproduct of combining a large and diverse network of shows and newsrooms into a single organisation.
Annabelle Lee-Mather, producer of The Hui and winner of Executive of the Year at the Voyager Media Awards last month, said she was shocked to read of the suggested centralisation. “After months of hearing senior members of government speaking about the importance of plurality in New Zealand’s media, and tens of millions of dollars being spent on achieving that [in April’s bailout of the mainstream media], I couldn’t believe that this was their solution.”
Depending on its scope, the proposal has the potential to wipe out a large number of long running Māori news programmes, including Te Karere, TVNZ’s flagship Māori bulletin, which has run for 38 years and been instrumental in the launch of dozens of careers. One of those is Bailey Mackey, who started there in his early 20s before going on to a career which spanned presenting, production, creating factual formats which have been sold to some of the biggest studios in the world. His company Pango is now contracted to produce Marae for TVNZ.
He believes the proposal is problematic in part because it predetermines the best home for such an operation – particularly given Māori Television’s core remains linear television. “[Māori Television] has a poor track record of innovation over the past 10 years,” said Mackey, who expressed concern at its ability to meet the young skewing Māori audience across diverse platforms.
This was also an issue for Nevak Rogers, commissioner at TVNZ, which boasts what she called “the largest audience for Māori content in the world”. She said she felt blindsided by a proposal presented as a “fait accompli”, rather than being opened up so multiple parties could bid for the right to provide it. She said that were it to be enacted as presented, “it would be the end of Marae, Te Karere and The Hui.”
This loss would not just be confined to the shows themselves, she said, but for the whole organisation. “Te Karere isn’t just a half hour bulletin on a weekday – they bring a matauranga Māori lens to the whole newsroom.”
Commentator Morgan Godfery agreed, saying it would have a destructive impact on the Māori representation within mainstream newsrooms. “It would set fire to all the progress that has been made over the past few years.” He talked about the recent revitalisation of Māori journalism at RNZ. “It’s gone from contracting out its news to Waatea to having one of the strongest Māori newsrooms in the country.”
Godfery was also troubled by what he saw as a continuation of a long-term elevation of television over other forms of media. “There’s a strange inequality in Māori news – television has always been prioritised over radio, and certainly over print. Māori radio is struggling, Māori publishing is struggling, yet there has always been huge amounts of investment in TV.” He saw the proposal as accelerating that trend, despite 2018 research cited in the report itself showing that just 10% of Māori viewed Māori Television on a daily basis – less than a quarter of the reach of TVNZ 1.
Godfery saw part of the problem as being a continued insistence that Māori news perform two duties at the same time – both informing the public and promoting Te Reo. “I don’t think they’re treating news and media on their own terms,” said Godfery. “They shouldn’t be coupled together.”
Lee-Mather agreed. Binding language outcomes to news programming has created perverse outcomes for the funding of Māori news and current affairs, she said. “While the normalisation and the promotion and enhancing the status of te reo Māori is an incredibly important feature of the Māori media sector, so is the representation of Māori views and issues and concerns. And that should be considered of equal value to Te Reo Māori.”
Rogers also saw the emphasis on the language as presenting an incomplete picture of the role of news for Māori, saying “Te Reo can also mean ‘the Māori voice’ – those things go hand in hand.”
Shane Taurima runs the organisation which stands to most benefit from the proposal. The CEO of Māori Television and former executive producer of Te Karere acknowledged that the weight of both delivering news and revitalising a language made its job more difficult – but characterised it as a privilege for his organisation, and one it was hamstrung in performing by the diversion of funds to other media organisations.
He said that while he personally supported plurality in media, he felt that mainstream organisations should not have access to funding meant to support Te Reo. Māori Television was “guided by Māori values and principles”, said Taurima, and was “committed to doing news in a Māori way”, casting doubt on whether the likes of TVNZ could say the same.
He said that if TVNZ wanted to maintain the likes of Te Karere, it should be prepared to wholly fund it itself, rather than relying on Te Mangai Pāho to pay for it. “Why have you depended on Reo Māori money to deliver Māori news?”
The document stresses no final decision has been made. (“The options are not set in concrete. They are put forward to gauge your response on whether they have merit and are worth considering further.”) Nevertheless its sweeping, one-directional approach came as a shock to many in the sector, as did the short time to prepare submissions on proposals that could signal the end for so many operations. There was also a frustration at the lack of specificity, making responses hard to write due to the lack of clarity around scope.
The report is not clear on where the line is between news and current affairs, and whether shows like The Hui, which is co-funded by NZ on Air and Te Māngai Pāho, would be impacted by the proposal. There would be clear tension if NZ on Air were to be directed to cease funding Māori content for mainstream channels, and Lee-Mather believed that The Hui, which airs on a Sunday morning on Three, achieved a far greater impact because of its location on a mainstream service. In addition to its original airing, its stories are clipped and air prominently in Newshub’s 6pm Sunday bulletin. “You put these issues in front of a much broader audience,” says Lee-Mather.
There are also concerns about the independence of the newsroom at Māori TV. Lee-Mather and The Hui host Mihingarangi Forbes left in a firestorm after editorial interference with a series of reports from its flagship investigative show Native Affairs centering on the mishandling of finances at Kohanga Reo. While there have been numerous changes in management since, some have asked whether it will be able to protect its reporters from such actions in future.
Yet the most emphatic sentiment was one of fury and fear at the potential loss of some of Māori journalism’s most sacred institutions. Te Karere in particular was repeatedly cited as a programme which had been fought for and has for decades been central to the development and expression of Māori news and perspectives. The contrast with another recent media controversy looms large for Lee-Mather.
“The government has already shown that they will intervene very quickly when it comes to protecting the cultural taonga of New Zealand’s middle class, such as Concert FM. I hope they show the same speed and resolve when it comes to protecting the cultural taonga of Māori, such as Te Karere.”
The minister’s office has been approached for comment.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.