RNZ boss: why we’re dedicated to the use of te reo

Use of te reo by the national broadcaster has come under fire this week from leading New Zealand thinkers including Dave Witherow, Don Brash and John Drinnan. The debate shows how far we have come as a nation – and how far we still have to go, writes RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson.

RNZ’s small but significant move to encourage staff to use Māori language as a natural part of their work has been generally well-received by audiences and most commentators.

Staff have risen to the challenge, with each setting his or her own pace and weaving it into their journalism and current affairs.

While none of this has changed the world, and there is still lots to do, we shouldn’t underestimate the signal the national broadcaster sends when it normalises and socialises the use of te reo.

The ripples that are created spark discussion and will gradually shift some people’s thinking about the status of one of Aotearoa’s official languages. But for others it will, of course, have the opposite effect.

Some of the commentary in the past week again aggravates a raw spot in the nation’s consciousness. It is the same itch that Don Brash scratched so effectively while he led the National Party from 2003-2006.

Business leader Sir Bill Gallagher inflamed it again last week with ill-informed comments on the Treaty of Waitangi that he has since recanted.

It is also often present whenever an acquaintance begins a sentence with the words, “I’m not a racist but …”

Theirs is a world view that seems deeply uncomfortable with any shift in the pecking order and the rise of new sources of power, mana and cultural and intellectual authority.

Those who are discomfited by the rising currency of te reo will express their dismay in different ways.

Some will write incendiary opinion columns that read like satire. Or they will find fault in the quality of the pronunciation or pace of delivery, as if this is merely an issue of execution and not of deeply-held opposing principles.

Others will genuinely feel upset that they cannot understand what is being said and will switch radio stations, vainly seeking a source of unadulterated New Zealand English.

These are all legitimate responses and are views that should be aired, tested and discussed. Indeed, one of the good things about RNZ’s use of te reo is the way it has been a catalyst for this conversation, almost as if we are all at a marae frankly debating an issue of contention and trying to reach a common understanding.

RNZ has a statutory duty set out in its charter to “reflect New Zealand’s cultural identity, including Māori language and culture”. That is why we adopted a Māori strategy last year. We are having a crack at using the language usefully, without thinking we have to be perfectly fluent before doing so. And we will keep working hard to get better.

This seems a fairly basic undertaking for a public broadcaster that wants to reflect all that is unique and important to a nation of many parts but with a single destiny.

As the whakataukī (proverb) says: Nāku te rourou nāu te rourou ka ora ai te iwi. With your basket and my basket the people will live.


First published at RNZ 

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