Māni Dunlop in the RNZ studio (Photo: RNZ)
Māni Dunlop in the RNZ studio (Photo: RNZ)

MediaFebruary 6, 2021

On air and on fire: Māni Dunlop on reo, racists and taking on the old guard

Māni Dunlop in the RNZ studio (Photo: RNZ)
Māni Dunlop in the RNZ studio (Photo: RNZ)

Less than a decade ago, Māni Dunlop was censured by RNZ for using Auckland’s Māori name on air. Today, she’s leading the public broadcaster’s coverage of Waitangi Day as its Māori news director. She talks to Michelle Langstone about how she got there.

Māni Dunlop sweeps round the corner of the recording studios in Radio New Zealand’s Wellington HQ in a flame-orange sundress, wide skirts rustling. She wraps me in an enveloping hug the moment she sees me, bright and warm as if we hadn’t just met, but had been friends for years. 

She’s got a busy energy – moving at pace, checking in with half a dozen of the people who work on her show, talking through ideas at such speed I can barely keep up, and all the while offering me water, and finding a chair for me to perch on. 

When she settles in the booth ahead of Te Pūrongo o te Poutūtanga: Midday Report, the show she’s anchored for just under a year, she barely slows down; eyes darting from monitor to monitor, she’s listening furiously through the headphones, her face rippling with expressions from amusement to irritation. She’s fast, and the show is fast. 

In the control room her team constantly feed back to her, making adjustments to scripts and running orders, and cueing her on the changes. She makes her own adjustments too, advising she’s changing “kuia” to “kaumātua” in a script, explaining why it’s more correct in te reo Māori, and asking for 30 seconds to acknowledge academic Dr Mānuka Henare whose tangi was earlier in the day. It’s a full show but her producer Denise Garland moves things around to make room for her. Her impromptu eulogy in English and then in te reo is heartfelt, and the studio seems to fall silent for a moment when she finishes, before being swept up in the energy of the 1pm bulletin. 

In the control room they’re surprised at the lack of scornful comments coming in over text. Usually the criticism of the use of te reo Māori is comprehensive, and lately, the one-hour midday news show has been accused of being too tailored to Māori. Someone in the room says, “Are the racists on holiday today or something?” and everyone cracks up. While met with the humour intended, Dunlop says the criticism can be pretty relentless, though things are shifting. “A lot of the messages we get in now are getting less worried about the reo now, they’re getting more worried about the coverage, which I’m kind of taking as a compliment!” 

Dunlop and her team are talking about this year’s Waitangi Day coverage, which is being adjusted slightly to take in concerns about the Northland Covid-19 community case. As they discuss it, Dunlop speaks fast, throwing in the odd “bro”, quick to burst out with an opinion, quicker still to admonish herself for her mistakes. With the Iwi Chairs Forum moving online this year, some of the spontaneous on-mic chats with kaumātua who wander up to the RNZ tent will be lost. Dunlop grins when she describes the way the elders will pull up a seat and just start to chat away in te reo, something that appears to annoy listeners every year. She screws up her face and throws her head back. “Give us one fucking day!” she exclaims in mock outrage, before breaking into peals of laughter. 

When Dunlop laughs, which she does often, it’s in tumbles of deep giggles. Across the hour that we speak, both in the studio and on Wellington’s waterfront, it becomes clear that laughter is how she breaks the tension of a job that can be disheartening at times. She’s staunch about how she’ll push to include more te reo when challenged, and how she sees it as her mahi for her people. When I ask her about the times it really gets to her, she initially cracks a joke: “Probably when I’m tired or I have my period!” But after a moment she softens, pursing her lips and squinting into the afternoon sunshine. “The personal ones do get to me. When they contact you on your personal phone and those sorts of things, that can be really hard.”

When I watch Te Pūrongo o te Poutūtanga go to air it’s the same day Oranga Tamariki minister Kelvin Davis appoints a Māori advisory board to oversee the investigation into the ministry’s operations, and about a week since Grainne Moss, the chief executive plagued by child uplift scandals and mismanagement, resigned. Dunlop has extensively covered Oranga Tamariki on her show, and I expect her to be a little more enthusiastic about the appointment of the board, but she’s circumspect about the efficacy of advisory roles. “The people on those boards and panels, all they strive for is change. They dedicate their whole life to making that happen, but they can’t decide how that ministry may take on those recommendations, or how that minister will implement those. It’s a hard one, because you always want to see it work, again, and benefit our people, but we will just have to wait for the recommendations and how they’re taken on.” 

If you’ve heard Dunlop on Oranga Tamariki and the child uplifts and failings of the agency, it’s evident the subject is close to her. At times on her show the emotion is evident in her voice. She’s been interested in child welfare since she began in journalism: “I remember always having this interest in this kaupapa from when I was an intern and I did my first ever deeper look into CYFS at the time, where I followed a social worker around Manurewa, and got to see day to day the whānaus that they were dealing with, and the mothers and the parents that they had taken the children off. They were really intense and raw experiences, and they have always stuck with me.” 

Dunlop, whose daughter Pikiarero turns three next month, says some aspects of being a mother have brought home the disparities in treatment of Māori in a more personal way: “I remember when baby was a newborn, and having a newborn you’re not exactly well kept sometimes! You’re rocking around, probably breast milk all over you, and looking like shit, and people are searching your pram for no reason, people are following you around a bit more. Women constantly giving you unsolicited advice about how you are doing things in public.” 

Dunlop tilts her head to look at the sky, holding her long hair to her chest against the wind with arms illustrated with bird and flower tattoos, and gives the only weary sigh I hear from her in the whole time we speak. “You are seen as the stereotype, and that is how the world treats you – because of the way in which we’ve been perpetuated. So it’s now time to flip that on its head and change that, ’cause I’m fucking over it.” Her face brightens and she throws me a smile and a laugh, and brushes away a confused bee who has landed on the flower tattoo on her calf.

māni dunlop and Julian wilcox
Dunlop is leading RNZ’s Waitangi Day coverage with Julian Wilcox (Photo: RNZ)

At just 29, Dunlop is at the top of her game. Not only is she Māori news director at RNZ, but she’s the first Māori journalist to helm her own show on the station. It indicates the significant shift in attitude within RNZ that she occupies these twin roles, given that when she interned at the station at age 20, an internal complaint was made when she referred to Auckland as Tāmaki Makaurau as she signed off on a piece. It’s also a pretty impressive trajectory for someone who never really thought she’d be a journalist, though she concedes, “There was always something in communication – I’ve always been a talker! Although I didn’t start talking until I was about four. I’m not too sure why. Mum took me to someone like a child psychologist to check if I was OK. So I’m just making up for lost time I guess.” 

Dunlop was into drama at school, and performed in plays after she graduated. She considered being an actor, and walking beside her down the central Wellington streets it’s not hard to imagine her in a spotlight like that. As we walk to the waterfront on a brilliantly sunny Wellington afternoon, Dunlop’s dress is like a flame that’s escaped a lamp, and she walks with self-possession and confidence that draws stares, though I don’t think she’s aware of it. 

Teaching was something she also considered, coming from a long line of wāhine educators in her Northland Ngāpuhi whānau, women who were nurses, teachers and community workers. Her nana was a Māori district health nurse, and moved south from Te Tai Tokerau, eventually falling in love with a Pākehā man and settling in Wellington, where Dunlop’s immediate whānau still live. Growing up in Newlands, her aunty and cousins all lived on the same street. At age 10, the whānau made the decision to send Dunlop up north to Kaikohe, to spend a year in a kura kaupapa where her aunty was the principal. 

“Mum and Dad had always really encouraged my sister and I to learn the reo at school when we could. They took me out of my Catholic primary school and put me into a public school because they [the school] refused to speak te reo or teach kapa haka. They fought it and fought it, so they decided to move me out, and then that’s when it was decided by the whānau to send me up north to go to kura for a year.” 

Dunlop’s whānau didn’t speak te reo at home; her father’s side are Scottish, and her mother grew up without the language because Dunlop’s nana wasn’t allowed to speak it to her children at all. “Just part of that generation,” Dunlops says, shrugging her shoulders. “It was just that time; the reo was no help, and so they just didn’t have it.” 

But Dunlop and her sister were part of a younger generation that saw the resurgence and regeneration of the language. It can’t have been easy at age 10 to leave her home and go to stay with whānau she was only used to seeing at tangi or baptisms. The memory of driving north with her mother is still vivid: “I remember driving through Hamilton or something and being like ‘Mum’ – I’m a city girl through and through – ‘how big is Kaikohe, is it like this city?’ and she was like ‘Oh no bub, it’s not like this.’” She laughs painfully, and tells me how her mother found it too hard to say goodbye and had to go, instead leaving notes around the house for Dunlop to find. 

Despite initial difficulty, Dunlops says it was a defining year for her, a year that gave her a strong base in te reo and taught her about her whakapapa. “It’s definitely given me very early on a real strong sense of identity and sense of the importance of having our voices heard.” It’s also taught her to live with a kind of duality she says is the reality for many Māori who didn’t grow up close to their marae that perhaps they are not engaged enough, or don’t do enough for their community. 

It’s something she comes back to later in the interview, worried she’s said the wrong thing. “I was worried I was complaining about being a bad Māori! I think that’s always what you kind of have this fear of, all your aunties and cousins and uncles who are home going, ‘Oh here we go, here’s the show pony’, you know? Because that’s how it can be perceived, and I’ve always had a complex about that.” 

I say I’m sure her whānau must be proud of her, and she acknowledges that briefly, but is quick to knock herself back, saying she’s still not fluent, and the work is ongoing. 

Dunlop says her mahi at RNZ is to uplift Māori voices, and consider stories through a Māori lens at all times. “For me it’s like 16% of the population is Māori, so what you have to keep on remembering [is] in Aotearoa we are a partnership, so therefore everything should be half and half. The general news gets so much coverage, so therefore it should be 50/50 in my mind. That’s kind of why I always have so much Māori content within our show.” She gives a wry smile and adds, “With, obviously, contribution from the producer, who I’m probably brainwashing!” 

Dunlop refers to her producer Denise Garland often, and it’s clear their relationship is one of deep trust. Dunlop is self-effacing with what she says are her weaknesses as a presenter – including sometimes making statements instead of asking questions – and she relies on Garland to rein her in. You can see their dynamic when you watch the two of them work: Dunlop impulsive, with a bit of a fiery streak, Garland calm, quiet, and direct. 

When I speak to Garland she is equally effusive about the working relationship. “I come from a completely different background to Māni: I am Pākehā and on a lovely learning journey with Māni as well. Having my eyes opened up to approaching stories from a Māori or minority point of view has really helped me grow as a journalist.” Garland says Dunlop’s influence has been felt all across RNZ in the decade she’s been there. “I think RNZ has changed a lot since Māni started, and a lot of that has to do with her presence, and her perseverance and willingness to help us all learn, and jump on that journey alongside her. She’s not even 30 and she’s our Māori news director and she is killing it in that role.”

Dunlop is learning all the time too, and not just about her presenting role; she admits to being proven wrong in some of her assumptions. “I had to check myself when I was naming my daughter. I was really reluctant to call her Pikiarero because of how people would mispronounce it, and I didn’t want her to go through life constantly having to deal with correcting people or getting her name butchered.” Dunlop, whose parents shied away from calling her Parani for the same reason, was gratified to see that kids, no matter what school they go to or who they are, pronounce Pikiarero’s name perfectly. 

“They’re taught it in school, and we are in a different time, where you’re frowned at if you pronounce it incorrectly, which is beautiful and gives me so much hope, and you hope that translates into how we think and how we approach things as a society. And I think we are seeing that – we’re seeing that with our government, we’re seeing that reflected in a lot of companies in a really meaningful way.”

Dunlop says she’s also seeing shifts in the way Māori news stories are being reported in the media, because of the rise in the number of Māori journalists in mainstream reporting. Waitangi Day coverage is beginning to change because journalists like Dunlop and her colleagues are actively fighting the old narratives. “For me it’s always making sure that we stay away from making it what the media has done for years, in making it look like there’s a whole bunch of protesters… protesting and activism has always been a key part of Waitangi celebrations for good reason. But it’s the way it’s been portrayed that has been the problem.” 

Dunlop says the media coverage of the Ihumātao occupation has gone some way towards creating a new frame of reference for discussions around land settlements. “This particular deal with Ihumātao has set a precedent for how the government, the Crown and Māori can engage in tikanga-based processes, and those are the discussions I think it’s really important to have.” While some of the media headlines around Ihumātao made Dunlop raise her eyebrows, she thinks criticism of the media went some way towards holding the reporting to account. 

Dunlop loves the unpredictable nature of Waitangi celebrations. “What I’ve always known about Waitangi coverage is you can always go in with a plan, and the most extensive plan in the world, but stuff always gets changed and what you feel and what is said on the paepae, who ends up being there and who’s not there will really help determine where you go. It’s just about picking up on all of those nuances.” 

This year the Mana Wāhine Kaupapa Inquiry pre-hearings are kicking off just up the road in Kerikeri, and Dunlops expects she’ll leave her team in charge at Waitangi and head up the road to follow the stories there. Waimate North, where her whānau are from, is nestled to the west of Kerikeri and Waitangi, so in a way this time of year is a bit like going home, and you can tell from the enthusiasm in Dunlop’s voice that she loves it. 

No doubt it’s also a chance to reconnect again with her whenua, something that Dunlop, a self-confessed “urban gal”, says she needs. She became “obsessed” with rongoā, traditional Māori healing and medicine, during her initial internship at RNZ in Auckland. “Sometimes in the city you can feel a bit lost around who you are, and you’re not being brought up on your marae but you are inherently Māori, and so that was my little hononga, my connection with that side of my Māoritanga.” 

She became interested in native trees and plants, taught herself to identify them, and enlisted the help of a kaumātua to guide her, eventually taking a course to deepen her knowledge. She’s not bashful when she explains these things to me, but she’s definitely gentle. “Our rākau, and this sounds a bit airy fairy, but our rākau are ancestors, and they hear you and they speak to you, and you can speak to them. And all our rākau have a whakapapa so they’re all part of a genealogy, and they all link to our atua. So understanding that on a deeper level made me way more connected to our whenua. As tangata whenua that’s very grounding – no pun intended.” 

Though the pace of Dunlop’s life means she has less time to make tinctures and salves, she still gathers plants where she can, stopping on the side of the road to pick kūmarahou on recent Christmas holidays, to dry and eventually make into tea. It feels like a private part of Dunlop that she keeps close, an innate connection she fosters in her ongoing journey in carrying her whakapapa with her in everything she does. 

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