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Bailey Mackey has his day in court (Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)
Bailey Mackey has his day in court (Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

BusinessApril 30, 2024

How a High Court showdown between two Māori culture giants flared and faded in a day

Bailey Mackey has his day in court (Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)
Bailey Mackey has his day in court (Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

Above the Fold: On Monday, the biggest Māori screen production company faced down the biggest funder of Māori content at the High Court. It was an incredibly tense moment – then, just as quickly, it resolved. Duncan Greive breaks down a strange day in the screen sector.

Yesterday morning, Māori screen production giant Bailey Mackey sounded tense but determined. He spoke exclusively to The Spinoff in the moments before heading into the High Court in Wellington, applying for a judicial review of the way the government’s Māori content agency Te Māngai Pāho dealt with funding applications. Mackey described it as “unfair, inconsistent and lacking in transparency”. It was an extraordinary situation, less for the allegation than the parties involved.

Within the Māori screen sector, it’s hard to imagine a more high stakes clash. Mackey is a presenter turned production mogul, a savvy operator who has spent a decade building his business Pango into a giant of Māori storytelling. Its slate is vast, including commercial hits like Match Fit, original reality TV franchises like Sidewalk Karaoke and a holy grail of Māori current affairs in TVNZ’s Marae. He’s also a long-tenured board member of both Ngāti Porou-East Coast and NZ Rugby, owner of popular Auckland bar Groove and close with sometime-collaborator Taika Waititi.

On the other side: Te Māngai Pāho. It’s a crown entity, one which has survived for 30 years under successive governments “dedicated to the sustained regeneration and promotion of Māori language and culture”, essentially an operating redress to treaty breaches around Te Reo Māori. It has a similar approach to NZ on Air, overseeing a contestable fund for content, tightly focussed within te ao Māori, largely for television. Its recent briefing to the incoming government noted a budget of $62.6m, making it by far the biggest player in Māori cultural funding. 

“Make no bones – this is an issue of mana motuhake,” said Mackey on Monday morning, before heading into court. “The reality is, it’s still a process that’s controlled by the Crown, through its agency Te Māngai Pāhō. My thing is, how do we empower the storyteller? How do we get to a position that actually enhances our ability to tell stories in this country? 

“We’ve now got a legacy of great proposal writers, but not a legacy of great screenwriters.”

Bailey Mackey

‘I’m happy to walk away’

That legacy line will surprise many in the screen production sector, because in recent years Mackey and Pango have been among the most successful production companies at playing the funding game, receiving millions of dollars from Te Māngai Pāho to create shows for TVNZ, Three and Whakaata Māori. Some within the Māori screen sector perceived this High Court review as a big fish hungrily asking for more. Mackey acknowledges that – but argues that his record makes him the best possible person to push for reform of an institution he and others believe can be opaque and impenetrable in its decision making. 

“Over a period of time, we have been fortunate – but what people don’t see is we are probably the most-declined production company too,” he says. He also says that his international success – his shows have run on Amazon Prime and been bought by global giants like Banijay and Fremantle – allows him to stand up to Te Māngai Pāho in a way other smaller operators couldn’t dare, due to a power imbalance one operator described as “extreme”. 

“I am a product of the system,” says Mackey. “I’m now in a position to bat and be proactive internationally. I’m happy to walk away or move away from the system. But actually, I don’t believe [the current system] is geared to help the next generation of storytellers.”

Mackey’s core frustration is that when Pango sends a proposal to Te Māngai Pāho, it only ever finds out whether it is accepted or declined. He and others in the sector believe that prevents them from discovering how their declined ideas were received and where they fell down, thus losing any chance of improving. This frustration is widely held within the screen production sector. Journalist and producer Annabelle Lee-Mather agrees, but says it is endemic within contestable funding. “These issues are not unique to the Māori production sector, especially in these challenging times. We’ve been waiting for change for a long time, so we’ll be watching the outcome of this case with interest.”

Mackey echoes that sentiment, saying a lack of meaningful feedback is also an issue for NZ on Air, and that he hoped the court appearance was understood as a “warning shot” by that agency too. NZ on Air declined to comment for this story, as did Whakaata Māori, the channel where much of Te Māngai Pāho’s funded output airs. Still, the action will have been closely observed by all within broadcasting and beyond, given its potential to change the posture of a cluster of contestable funding agencies, including arts funding agency CNZ and NZ on Air. 

Talking to Mackey, there was a sense of him aware this action could be seen as him burning down his place in the local system, one which is close-knit, and where production companies and platforms are wary of being seen to critique the funders, let alone see them in court. Mackey operates on a different plane than many local producers, and spoke in a recent series on The Spinoff of looking “a lot more globally”. He acknowledged that the High Court action would likely “ruin my relationship” with his biggest local funder.


‘Resolved in a mana enhancing way’

With this much heat, the clash looked set to be one of the screen sector’s most bitter and public in some time. Mackey took the stand first to lay out the issues, before Te Māngai Pāho’s witnesses responded, ahead of a scheduled break for lunch. I reached out to Mackey for an update after the morning’s session, and received an unexpected response. “In mediation!” he replied via text. I asked whether that would drag on a while. “Na mate.” 

So it proved. Within 90 minutes, a joint press release arrived underneath the logos of Te Māngai Pāho and Pango alongside one another, saying the organisations were “pleased their differences of opinion over the 2023/24 General Audience funding round one have been resolved without the need for determination by the court. Te Māngai Pāho acknowledges the process with Pango Productions will strengthen its funding and assessment process.”

At least on the face of it, this was a shockingly cordial end to a charged court process. Far from alienating Mackey and Pango, it has the outward appearance of only further cementing their power within the sector. Under the terms of the settlement, Mackey has refused further comment, but it’s hard to read the words of Larry Parr, Kaihautū of Te Māngai Pāho, as anything but a win for Pango. “I am pleased that this matter has been resolved in a mana enhancing way,” said Parr in a statement. “I am confident that Te Māngai Pāho and Pango Productions can continue to work constructively to deliver the best outcomes for te reo Māori.”

How that is achieved in the era of Netflix and TikTok is a more complex question than ever before. Where historically, agencies like Te Māngai Pāho and NZ on Air viewed their scope as tightly defined by New Zealand’s geographical bounds, Mackey’s vision for Pango is “taking Māori content to the world”. There’s an open question about how the New Zealand funding agencies carry out their work in a globalised content sphere. 

With TVNZ cutting teams and Newshub shut down entirely, Mackey believes the solution has to involve local funding creating content that works for more than just Aotearoa. Yesterday’s settlement seems narrowly focussed on transparency, but there is potential for it to signal a sea change in the power balance between producers and the content funding agencies – particularly potent with a new government and brand new minister in charge. Just how consequential this very brief time in court proves will only really become clear as future funding rounds close, and the feedback opens up.

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