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Where are all the Māori print journalists?

All week the Spinoff Review of Books is examining and taking inspiration from A Moral Truth, an important new book about investigative journalism in New Zealand. Today: Former Mana editor Leonie Hayden, now of The Spinoff, considers the lack of Māori newspaper reporters.

It’s alarming when you realise that the world is starting to be run by people your own age. Jacinda Ardern and I are the same age (please, continue to go on about how young she is). They’re becoming millionaires and Silicon Valley futurists (whatever that is) and Hollywood directors.

And they’re becoming agenda-setting journalists. My not-Gen X, not-quite-a-Millenial generation of in-betweeners are creating big, meaty hunks of our media. Matt Nippert, Kirsty Johnston, Olivia Carville, Paula Penfold, investigative reporting geniuses all. Corporate shill Duncan Greive of The Spinoff is an old school pal. He owns all of the media, and is paid quite well by Labour and National for it, I hear.

It’s still true of Māori journalism; Mihi Forbes, Annabelle Lee, Oriini Kaipara, Renee Kahukura Iosefa, Scotty Morrison, Maiki Sherman, Kanoa Lloyd, Piripi Taylor, Rahia Timutimu, and a hundred more smart and capable journalists are breaking stories and challenging the status quo, effortlessly folding indigenous perspectives into contemporary worldviews.

But they’re all broadcasters. I’m sick with longing for Māori writers. My kingdom for Māori print journalists. Kei hea koutou? Nau mai!

As has been repeated ad nauseum, the NZ Herald has been without a Māori affairs reporter since James Ihaka left in 2014. He spoke to Steve Deane in February last year about the scope of the role: “You’re expected to have contacts in pretty much every field — like in sport, the Māori business world… You’re expected to have contacts in all the different marae and iwi throughout the country. The Māori affairs reporter covers pretty much every round. It’s just got Māori in front of it.”

Therein lies the problem. While its possible for every conceivable news story to have an indigenous angle to it, no one person can possibly have the expertise to write about all the things and add a Māori perspective. Cue the old adage about about doing it backwards in heels.

Wanna see something depressing?

I’m proud to say we did a lot of it during my time at Mana magazine, sadly now deceased RIP. We stuck our sticky beaks into drug legislation, infertility, Māori youth suicide, language loss, racism, the housing crisis, rugby league recruitment, various iwi settlements, private security, the justice system, the education system, party politics. My editorial policy was that if a story was tackling an issue that seemed hopeless, then we made sure to include a person or a group that were contributing positively to the issue. I edited many incredible writers during my tenure, but can only point to one as having consistently done the mahi of an ‘investigative reporter’.

I’m ashamed to say that Aaron Smale’s February 2016 story for Mana looking at the problem of Māori homelessness was the first story to talk about families living in their cars, predating the headlines that eventually dominated the news cycle by about four months. I’m ashamed, because the story didn’t get the reach it deserved, and because Aaron has never been given the credit for breaking it.

The problem with a niche title is it comes with a niche audience. ‘Māori’ according to the Magazine Publisher’s Association Awards are ‘special interest’. Not quite Poultry World News but certainly not eligible for entry in the ‘current affairs’ section. We are a small demographic. We are a small talent pool. But we are a crucial part of this country’s national identity and our unique cultural perspective has the ability to prompt new conversations about subjects that have been visited a thousand times before. The readers are out there, they just don’t know it because Māori have never been given the same platforms.

Aaron finally found his audience when he broke the story about Ngā Mōrehu, the survivors of institutionalised state abuse that went on to form our gangs and fill our prisons (the name Ngā Mōrehu, ‘the survivors’, was gifted to them later by The Hui. Producer Annabelle Lee told me: “We wanted to give them a name that was uplifting and defined them by their resilience rather than their abuse”). They are still waiting for their apology. It’s a story he worked on with the utmost care, applying the principles of tikanga to protect vulnerable people who were understandably mistrustful of Pākehā power structures, the media included. He formed relationships with the men he wrote about, and checked up on them regularly after it was published. I believe these intrinsically Māori values were felt rather than recognised in the final published pieces, and I’m happy to be able to acknowledge them here.

Aaron Smale winning awards for his work investigating the survivors of state abuse. Photo: Canon Media Awards

One of my standard replies to ‘men’s rights activists’ is to ask them how they’re helping LGBTQ men, incarcerated men and disenfranchised men, or if their only kaupapa is crying about women. Despite my facetiousness, Aaron actually does care very deeply for Māori boys and men. He cares that they drop out of school in record numbers and languish in the justice system, and that care shows in his work. That we could all make such a meaningful contribution! Annoyingly, Aaron was let go by Radio NZ because his contract ran out, to our detriment as a country.

So I look to the new generation. Māori storytellers are all moving in droves to TV and radio, and I know that makes sense because of our incredible oratory tradition. But we need you to write too, because there are eyeballs there and we need to be in front of them in order to have our lives and values validated.

Donna-Lee Biddle, Jason Renes, Brooke Bath and Te Ahua Maitland are the names of young Māori journalists who are already impressing those watching, and Te Aniwa Hurihanganui was the recipient of the inaugural RNZ Henare Te Ua Māori Journalism internship. There is also a plan in the works for a group of Auckland print publications to offer three paid internships for Māori and Pacific writers to work over a year across all of the publications.

Read them, hire them.

Are you a Māori journalist or writer with a great pitch for a story? Homai ōu whakaaro, email me at leonie@thespinoff.co.nz


A Moral Truth: 150 years of investigative journalism in New Zealand edited by James Hollings (Massey University Press, $45) is available at Unity Books. The book is launched at the 2017 Investigative Journalism Conference held this weekend at AUT, with guest speakers Simon Wilson, Anabelle Lee, Steve Braunias and others.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.