Media, Māori and me

A journalist reflects on a career in which the media has felt like a hostile environment for Māori and other minorities.

Most Pākehā couples that applied to adopt in the 70s didn’t want Māori children. Māori boys were at the bottom of their wish-lists. The couple that did adopt me were one of the rare exceptions. I grew up as a mixed-race kid in a mixed-race community during the 70s and 80s. It was a time when New Zealand was often polarised along racial lines because Māori were no longer willing to sit down and shut up.

Or was it polarised? Was the way Māori were portrayed in the media simply racist scaremongering? At the time I didn’t have the language to articulate these questions. I just knew – instinctively, awkwardly – that I didn’t fit into the story that was being told. I didn’t exist. When I did it was part of a group that was denigrated. This was the climate in which I tried to work out my identity.

As a 10-year-old I watched the protests about the Springbok tour and was alarmed as images spilled into my living room of adults beating the crap out of one another. I kept hearing the word apartheid and asked my parents what it meant. I was troubled by the explanation and wanted to know more. I bought the autobiography of the South African journalist Donald Woods, Asking for Trouble. Here was someone who was using words to challenge something that was wrong. But despite the magnetism of the idea of journalism, I could never fully commit to it. The journalism of New Zealand constantly told a story that didn’t reflect anything about the world I was trying to grapple with. It didn’t challenge something that was wrong. It was part of something that was wrong.

When I did finally get a job as a journalist the same misgivings I had as a kid about how the media covered race kept surfacing. Again and again for the next 20 years.

I reached a conclusion about this a long time ago. But now I’m going to say it.

The media in New Zealand is racist. Its newsrooms do not reflect New Zealand. They’re not intended to. Media companies have made no significant efforts to either increase the diversity of their newsrooms or to raise standards when it comes to covering issues around race, whether that is Māori or other ethnicities. Like Don Brash, deputy prime minister Winston Peters and plenty of other politicians, they’ve been quite happy to peddle racism because you know there’s a market and audience for it. They’re ill-equipped and/or unwilling to seriously tackle the racist crap they traffic in because it’s basically on the same page. Many of the stories are filtered through the assumption that your core audience is white. So your coverage is always about pleasing that audience and playing to its worldview, however narrow.

As the demographics of Auckland and New Zealand as a whole have changed in recent decades, media companies have not adapted or responded. Pākehā will soon be less than 50% of the population in Auckland, and yet you wouldn’t know that from the coverage by mainstream media outlets or from walking through their newsrooms.

What does mainstream even mean when you don’t reflect half the population or even pay them any attention? How can media companies whinge to the Commerce Commission that their businesses are in trouble because of Big Social Media when they have ignored half the potential market for years?

There has been a lot of coverage about the way the terrorist in Christchurch disseminated his heinous crimes, but there has been relatively little coverage of the way numerous journalists, columnists and media outlets have disseminated racism for years. The major media outlets – and I have worked for a number of them – have in my view made next to no effort in the time I have been a journalist to address straight out unprofessional coverage of issues related to race.

The education system has failed to educate children in New Zealand’s history. The media has perpetuated and amplified that failure by not informing the adult public about people who are not white. Not only has the media failed to inform people, in many cases it has actively used its power to create and maintain a negative attitude towards people who are not white, whether they be Māori or other ethnic groups. There’s an inability to interrogate white racism because there’s an inability to understand what it’s like to be subjected to it.

No one bears responsibility for the horrific crimes committed in Christchurch but the individual who carried them out. However, leaders of media companies do bear responsibility for the tone and content of a great deal of the public conversation. It’s unlikely that leaders of media companies have had to bear the negative consequences of their dereliction of duty. There’s an arrogant belief that words and images which portray people negatively simply because of their race are just ‘different points of view’ and ‘opinions’ or ‘robust debate’. You’ve probably never been on the receiving end of that racism and don’t know how destructive it can be.

Being Pākehā does not make you inherently racist. But it does not make you neutral either. The writer Patricia Grace once said to me that Pākehā don’t have to be bicultural, but Māori do. The media can’t even be bicultural, let alone multicultural.

If your response is, “but we’re hiring Māori/ethnic journalists,” sorry, that’s not enough. I was that journalist. To be honest it can be exhausting working in an environment where managers are completely unaware of their blinkered assumptions and don’t like to have them pointed out. There’s an unwillingness and reluctance to confront and refute the false assumptions of a predominantly white audience, along with a willingness to give a platform to an individual simply because they’ll provoke a controversy (and clicks), regardless of how uninformed or racist their view is.

The list really does go on. There’s ignorance of New Zealand history, even though the media is supposed to be writing the first draft of history. Ignorance is acceptable when reporting on Māori issues that wouldn’t be acceptable if that journalist was working on business or sport or any other round. Injustices and inequalities are ignored if they affect Māori or other ethnicities but comparatively minor problems facing Pākehā are given front page and ongoing treatment. Pākehā journalists and editors are the ones that decide on the news value of a story about Māori and how to cover it and you’re constantly wondering if you’re being oversensitive or whether you should be speaking up and run the risk of being perceived as difficult.

I’ve been that journalist who is expected to “get the story” in a way that is palatable or exciting to a white audience. I’ve seen Māori journalists turn into a brown version of their hectoring Pākehā counterparts as they try and meet newsroom expectations of how Māori are portrayed and their stories told. Or they simply become compliant and invisible.

I sat at the Canon Media Awards in 2017 and shook my head in disbelief when it was announced that an official complaint about a racist cartoon had been dismissed. It wasn’t the announcement that astonished me. It was the drunken cheer that went up from the table where Fairfax journalists were seated. These are the best journalists in the Fairfax stable and they were cheering for racism. Charming. Journalists from Māori Television were sitting at the next table.

The tagline “Our Loss of Innocence” is an example of framing a story in a way that is soothing for a white audience but dissonant for those who have been subjected to racism on a regular basis, including those Muslim communities so harmed by this event.

We are not innocent or untouched by racism. It is a deep and persistent part of our history and our present. Your bland calls for unity and peace and love reek of hypocrisy when in the past you have been happy to stoke racism or failed to call it out. You’ve done this, whether deliberately or otherwise, because you instinctively know there’s a market for it. Or because you lack the empathy to consider what that might be like for other people who aren’t like you.

Stop calling it white nationalism, far-right extremism, as if it’s limited to skinheads and nutters on the fringe. It’s simple – it’s racism. And it’s an attitude that is held to varying degrees by a huge swathe of white middle class New Zealand. It pervades every level of our society partly because you as an industry aid and abet it. Pretending otherwise is an insult to the victims. And it’s insulting to many people who have been challenging that racism in the media and society for years, only to be dismissed as “politically correct”. Translation: I’m allowed to be racist. So there.

Media leaders have failed. Failed by the standards of balance, fairness and truth. You’ve given a platform for your ‘talent’ to spout racist bile and promote them as ‘telling it like it is’ all in the name of clicks and ratings. Those on the left aren’t a whole lot better. At least the bigots make themselves known. Many liberal-leaning journalists are no more qualified to cover stories outside their bubble.

Do I expect contrition or humility? Hardly. Racism is a collective narcissism and narcissists are not known for critical self-reflection. Media love to portray themselves as the ones who power to account. And yet this institution which has so much power is unwilling to hold itself to account or tolerate anyone who tries.

Let the self-justification begin. I expect a catalogue of individual achievements to be wheeled out to deflect attention from the systemic failures, and then congratulate itself on making progress. I expect organisations will run around trying to find a brown person in your organisation and put them up as a brand ambassador to hide behind (suggestion to the cuzzies – don’t do it. Let them face the music on their own instead of delegating the shit job to you).

Sorry, you don’t get to assess your own performance in this area. You’re not qualified to.

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We’re a country built on colonialism, another name for white supremacy. The media in the 19th century encouraged and supported the Land Wars against Māori. One of my ancestors was killed in those wars, fighting not for his land but against a Crown that was violating its promises of equal citizenship. The media of his day didn’t think that citizenship worth protecting. The media of today still doesn’t.

The language in those 19th century newspapers might seem crude in hindsight. But the same basic assumptions are still there in the media coverage of Māori and other communities today.

Related:

Shilo Kino wrote earlier about being a Māori journalist starting her career in a mainstream newsroom 


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