Some of the stalwarts of Māori broadcasting talk to Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes about the evolution of Aotearoa’s first te reo Māori television programme.
It began as a one-minute bulletin, broadcast right before TVNZ’s primetime news at six. Produced and presented by Derek Fox of Ngāti Porou, the first episode aired on February 21, 1982.
“There was a national movement insisting that Māori language be broadcast on television and radio stations around the country, because at the time there was absolutely nothing,” recalls Fox.
Before Te Karere, iwi documentary series Tangata Whenua(1974) and weekly half-hour documentary programme Koha (1980) had paved the way for Māori content, but in English.
Students such as those involved with Te Reo Māori Society were putting political pressure on the government to recognise the value of and invest in te reo, as a taonga guaranteed under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
For Māori language week in 1981, Fox was given the opportunity to present news in a two-minute slot each night of the week. The assumption was that he would translate English news, but he knew better and went out to gather stories from te ao Māori.
The programme was the result of a discussion between the then minister of broadcasting, National’s Ian Shearer, who Fox says pulled the strings to make it happen. There was resistance from TVNZ, but Shearer made it a condition of funding. (Having grown up in Tāneatua, Shearer would have been heavily exposed to te reo).
Fox called in Whairiri Ngata of Ngāti Porou, and together they began carving a formidable reputation, providing an essential service for Māori around the country.
Non-Māori colleagues weren’t as enthusiastic. Fox recalls one conversation with a TVNZ co-worker at the time: “I asked whether he would be interested in covering a Māori event that was happening, and he replied, ‘I’ve done my Māori story for the year’.”
At the time, TVNZ reporters had to book their camera for the following day by providing a time and topic. Fox and Ngata would reserve the earliest camera crew available, and when asked what the story was, Fox would reply with something vague and simple like “hoiho”.
“The production staff had no idea what we meant. They would ask how to spell it, and I would spell it out for them. Then Whairiri and I would go to the pub and discuss what stories we could pursue the next day.”
They worked overtime, including during the weekends, to progressively build on the stories. Fox recruited Te Purewa Biddle and Wena Harawira, and the fantastic four carried the kaupapa of Te Karere through its formative years.
Restricted to a four-minute allocation for the bulletin, stories would range between one and one and a half minutes, with sometimes time for only one story, depending on the topic.
In the early 80s the music video for ‘Poi E’ was broadcast by Te Karere, and that was the entire bulletin. The song topped the charts and stayed there for four weeks before being knocked off by Stevie Wonder. When it reached platinum, Dalvanius Prime, who produced the music for the song written by Ngoi Pewhairangi, acknowledged Fox for his part in promoting the song when he told him, “Nāhau te hē” – which means “it’s your fault”.
From four minutes, the bulletin was expanded to 10 minutes. The Te Karere reports began to expand to the world, covering a cultural festival in Tahiti and Māori communities in Australia.
The international exposure and growing audience led to pressure to add subtitles. Fox told his producers no.
“We’re here to capture these issues in Māori. You’re asking us to translate them so that you know what’s going on, but we’re already working hard to achieve our daily output, so it’s a big ask for us to cater to you as well. Why don’t you go and learn te reo?”
While Te Karere was set up to broadcast te reo, first and foremost, Fox highlights how it also served as a political mechanism for iwi Māori.
“We covered the fuel plant in Taranaki, who wanted to dump their waste in the pātaka kai of Te Ātiawa. Ngāti Awa over in Waiariki, upon seeing the news item, got in behind their Taranaki relations to support.”
The Queen was visiting Aotearoa later that year, and was due to be hosted in Rotorua.
“Ngāti Awa said they wouldn’t attend the pōwhiri, and withdrew support, if the waste was to be dumped on a customary Te Ātiawa food source. More iwi began to join the call.”
In the end, a compromise of the lesser of two evils was reached, with the waste to be dumped on land rather than in the moana.
“If it weren’t for Te Karere, the country wouldn’t know about it. The people of that region would know, but the country needs to know what’s happening with iwi Māori,” Fox says.
Te Karere soon made its way onto Radio NZ. They covered the Māori Sports Awards. They broadcast Te Matatini. As the kaupapa grew, it employed more Māori to work at the television station, and became a training ground for many leaders within Māori media.
Award-winning broadcaster Tini Molyneux of Tūhoe, a long-time anchor for Te Karere, was one of those who came through to become a pou for Māori media.
She started at Te Karere in 1980s when the kōhanga reo movement was beginning to flourish. Molyneux was inspired and driven by wanting tamariki Māori growing up in immersion education to see Māori faces and hear te reo Māori on television.
She wasn’t alone. Her contemporaries were Rereata Mākiha, Tāwini Rangihau, Waihoroi Shortland, Tukuroirangi Morgan, Pierre Lyndon and Erana Reedy, to name a few.
“Our non-Māori co-workers would be there with their lunch, and we would take in pots of kai, and have a hākari every day. Pork bones, pūhā, tītī, those foods that Pākehā don’t really take to, and the smell would travel through the office. Over time, they began to take a liking to our kai.”
In addition to figuring out how to develop a television news station and fighting politically for a full half-hour slot, Molyneux says they were even challenged by Māori.
“There were many Māori who knew how to speak te reo, but the idea that te reo was of no value had taken hold in the minds of many at the time. On one occasion, a Māori woman at the Auckland airport said to me, ‘You’re the woman speaking Māori on television. Stop that. No one is watching you. We’re embarrassed by you’ – although that was the only time I heard someone disparage te reo,” says Molyneux.
But thankfully for viewers, and te reo, Molyneux was confident enough in herself and her Tūhoe identity to not be deterred in the slightest.
The real battle was in the TVNZ building, where Molyneux says there was a fair amount of racism, based on ignorance towards te ao Māori.
“Staying in the Pākehā world was their goal, nothing more, nothing less. That’s how it was at those times. It was difficult to create relationships with our co-workers, because they didn’t care at all about what we were doing.”
Over the 30-year period Molyneux was with TVNZ, Te Karere’s influence on te reo Māori broadcasting began to sow seeds for new programmes, like Waka Huia and Marae, which Molyneux had a hand in.
The style has changed over the years, but the product remains. And through its presence and output, Te Karere has shifted the culture of newsrooms.
“These days, Māori issues are being pursued by non-Māori journalists, but back then it was just us, because Pākehā weren’t remotely aware of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, of kōhanga reo or kura kaupapa Māori, they had no idea about te ao Māori.”
Te Karere played a major role in the reporting of Waitangi Day, and changing attitudes of New Zealanders towards the commemoration.
Nowadays, when Molyneux watches TV, she sees Pākehā reporters trying to speak Māori or reporting on Māori issues.
“My concern is how long it’s taken us to get to where we are now.”
When Molyneux vacated the position, she was succeeded by the well-recognised face of Te Karere for the last two decades, Scotty Morrison of Te Arawa.
“I was a novice in television. Before [Te Karere] I was at Ruia FM hosting a nightly two-hour show speaking with politicians, athletes, councillors and many others.
“I knew there were 60,000-70,000 people watching. I had to find my news voice – sometimes it was too fast, sometimes too slow, the tonal variation, which words to emphasise – those were the personal challenges I was going through.”
Morrison says it took him two years before he found his flow. The longest-serving presenter is approaching his 20th year in the role and has been the driving force and exemplary champion for te reo.
A second-language learner, Morrison used the show as a way to measure his development.
“One of my strategies when I was learning te reo, I would sit and watch Te Karere and test whether I understood what was being said. Listening to Tini, to Martin Rakuraku, and determining whether or not I was following the gist of what was being said,” says Morrison.
Morrison says that Te Karere remains an important resource for learning te reo, for normalising it, and for distributing it to the country.
“Making it available for everyone, whether they’re watching it or just have it on in the background in their homes, te reo is there resonating within the home. They might not even be listening, but they’re hearing it, physically, spiritually, they’re feeling the different cadences and patterns,” says Morrison.
An early graduate of Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo – The School of Māori Language Excellence — Morrison was given the task by Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, of Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu, and the late Te Wharehuia Milroy (CNZM QSO) of Tūhoe, to revive and breathe life into beautiful Māori words that had fallen out of common conversational use over time.
“That has been one of my primary objectives, to unearth these words and share them. Words from various tribes, and words that have long been dormant. The goal is to enable us to have a plethora of words to describe the depths of our thoughts.”
He didn’t realise that Sir Tīmoti Karetu and Te Wharehuia Milroy were throwing him under the bus.
“When I arrived at marae, I would receive criticism about the language being used on Te Karere, where some would say, ‘Oh that’s not te reo Māori, that’s the language of Te Taura Whiri, we didn’t speak like that when we were kids, where are these words from?’
“That was the strategy of Tīmoti and Te Wharehuia, to reclaim those beautiful words, use them on television where there is great influence, and enable people to absorb them to incorporate into their daily conversations.”
The future of the show has been cast in doubt in recent years, with government suggestions of a Māori media overhaul. Marae and Waka Huia have already been outsourced externally from TVNZ, and Scotty Morrison doesn’t want to see the same thing happen with Te Karere (it is currently funded by Māori broadcasting agency Te Māngai Pāho).
“Te Karere is a tupuna, as is Waka Huia and Marae, they are the elders of Māori media. If we’re thinking in a Māori worldview, we must protect the mana of our elders.”
He wants to see the next generation of journalists and te reo advocates carry it forward into the future and raise it to another level, to continue to grow and progress this hard-fought and much-loved cornerstone of te reo and te ao Māori.
Te Karere airs weekdays at 4pm on TVNZ 1.