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MediaFebruary 12, 2016

“I have no time for the ‘Māori with a job’ story” – An interview with Mana Magazine’s Leonie Hayden

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The venerable Mana magazine has undergone a rude second act lately, under the sharp eye of its newish editor Leonie Hayden. Duncan Greive had lunch with her, and asked how she did it.

Leonie Hayden was appointed editor of Mana magazine in June of 2014, 21 years and 117 issues after its founding by broadcaster and entrepreneur Derek Fox. The magazine had just been taken over by Kowhai Media, publishers of New Zealand Geographic and Pro Photographer magazines, on something which resembled a lease. It was a bold and brave move by a Pākehā publishing company, one they doubled down on by recruiting Hayden, whose background was in music media, to take over such a revered publication, one which carried so much meaning within Māori media.

Both parties obviously understood the magnitude of the responsibility though, and Hayden and Kowhai’s Mana is a revelation: smart, inquisitive, restless and above all modern, all wrapped up in a design as strong as any contemporary New Zealand magazine.

As large an impact as she’s had on the magazine, the magazine has had at least as profound an effect on her. I’ve known Leonie for over half my life – we met as teenage dirtbags, when I was working at the Warehouse Newmarket with a friend of hers. We were colleagues at Real Groove and Groove Guide, and have stayed close for near on 20 years.

While she was a very capable editor of Groove Guide, it seemed a job and not a calling. Mana though has proven transformational: have never seen her so driven, so determined and with such a sense of mission as she’s had these past couple of years. As a friend (and office-mate – Kowhai are The Spinoff’s roomies at our Britomart offices) it’s been revelatory to watch her so quickly become one of the most interesting and funniest voices on Māori political and social life.

It’s been a beautiful thing to watch an old friend find a job which has imbued her life with so much meaning. I wanted to know how it all happened, and how it felt. So on Tuesday she and I went out for lunch and talked about Mana, her family life (she was adopted and only recently reconnected with her birth family) and the state of Māori, media and Māori media in New Zealand today. She’d just returned from a trip Waitangi, so that’s where we started.

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Leonie Hayden at a TPP march (photo: Yule Maloney)

Duncan: You’ve just absorbed all media coverage of and around Waitangi Day [ahead of a Mediawatch appearance this weekend]. How was it?

Leonie: After reading all of this media about Waitangi I’ve become convinced that the people that object to protest and activism are quite literally the most comfortable people in our society. They’re older, rich, Pākehā men with a level of celebrity, who are always the loudest about how awful protest and activism is.

Because it’s an uncomfortable thing. The rest of the world are kind of used to discomfort. It’s interesting to us; if you want everything to be all happy and tickety-boo all the time and not challenge you in any way, then it’s really, really offensive.

I guess if the New Zealand that you see at all times is fucking great – it’s places like this [gesticulates to Britomart] and boats, and nice cars and all the rest of it – then anything which suggests that there’s something wrong with that, you’ll find offensive.

That’s right. Like, this year it’s Mike Hosking. 2014 it was Cameron Slater. A couple of years before that it was Paul Holmes with that New Zealand Herald column, which was easily the most racist thing I’ve ever read in my entire life. He basically implied that all Māori people beat their children, and then when the Press Council upheld the complaints against him, he changed that to mean, no no, only Waitangi protesters; I wasn’t talking about all Māori, I was just talking about Waitangi protesters.

That’s the thing that they have in common – they all occupy this strata in our society of pure and utter comfort, and privilege. And so of course it’s annoying to them, and uncomfortable for them, because this is not their experience of New Zealand; this is not their New Zealand. So how dare anyone else get up in arms about anything. And you just sort of start to find these common threads amongst people that have similar opinions.

Tell me about your time up at Waitangi.

It was my first time at Waitangi on Waitangi Day. I missed most of the day prior actually, because I was stuck in traffic trying to get there, so I missed most of the political korero. Went straight to the official opening of the Waitangi Museum, the new museum, which was full of Ngāpuhi kaumatua and National MPs.

The main impression I took away from [that day] has to do with media misrepresentation, because like any other Māori gathering or function, you have to talk a bit, the bit where you discuss and debate and disagree; and that’s followed by hongi and harirū, where you shake hands, and you meet the person you’ve been disagreeing with for the last few hours face to face. And then you eat together, and then you sing and laugh and hang out.

Those are all the bits that you don’t see in the media; you just see the protests and the disruption, and people feeling angry about historical issues, contemporary issues, whatever. But I feel like that doesn’t just misrepresent Waitangi and Waitangi Day, but I think it misrepresents Māori culture as a whole because I don’t think you can get more civilised than those proceedings, in order to discuss a subject.

I mean John Key didn’t come because he felt like he was being gagged. But to be honest the real Māori thing to do would be just to show up and talk about whatever the hell you wanted to talk about anyway, you know? He should’ve just stood up and talked about whatever the hell he wanted to talk about; that’s what everyone else does at Waitangi.

I really feel like it just got used as an excuse not to go. And if the actual excuse was he was, like, scared of bodily harm I would respect that because I can’t in all honestly say that he wasn’t at risk, because people are really angry. And it would only take one very angry protester with maybe not as much self control as is desirable to lash out. So I’m not saying he wasn’t under any physical threat, but he should have acknowledged that and not just used his ‘I’m being gagged, I can’t go’, as an excuse, because I feel like that’s quite cowardly. And poor old Steven Joyce had to take one in the face instead of John Key.

It was a beautiful moment, one which we should remember for future generations. Maybe that can be the national day for Mike Hosking and all those guys; the ones who can’t handle Waitangi Day.

That can be their national day – Dildo Day for a bunch of freaking dildos.


So Waitangi Day itself – how was it?

It was fun. We got to Te Whare Runanga, which is the carved meeting house on the Treaty Grounds – not Te Tii Marae where all the talking goes down – for the 5am dawn ceremony. Which is very religious but it’s non-denominational, so they have basically a representative of every church and every political party, and a few of the military branches; they all offer up a prayer.

Which for the most part is all goodwill for the future of Māori and Pākehā relationships, you know; there’s nothing contentious or disruptive about the official proceedings of Waitangi. And they raise a flag, a bishop blesses everybody, and they go about their day just enjoying the festival itself, which is just food and entertainment and Kapa haka performances. I think the irony of it is if you actually go to Waitangi on Waitangi Day, like all the things that people bemoan should happen on Waitangi Day are literally happening at Waitangi.

It’s crazy. “It should be a day of celebration” – it fucking is!

I wonder if [Mike Hosking] has been up there?

I’m willing to bet an entire year’s salary that Mike Hosking has never been to Waitangi on Waitangi Day.

Seems like a pretty good bet. Tell me about your background in journalism and writing prior to Mana.

Well, let’s be honest, my background in journalism or writing or whatever is bullshit. I didn’t do anything of any note whatsoever before 2014. Music journalism is cool or whatever, but I can’t seriously point to anything that I wrote during that time that made any difference to anybody, that challenged me intellectually in any way [laughs]. I don’t really feel like I started writing even in the fledgling, learning sense of the word, until I started working at Mana, which is probably not ideal. Like, becoming the editor is probably not a great time to start learning how to write.

But that is exactly how I feel. A lot of it has to do with my publisher, James [Frankham, New Zealand Geographic editor and publisher at Kowhai Media], who is a very good editor, and edited me right from the get-go with as critical an eye as an editor can. Which as you already know improves your writing in leaps and bounds so quickly.

And just before that time I never really saw myself as really being that skilled a writer, but it turns out that it’s not so much how you say it but what you have to say, I think. That’s another lesson I’m learning, that, like, journalism students probably learn in their first year or whatever. I’m a slow learner, but I get there in the end.

So when you saw the role advertised did you know immediately that you were going to go for it? Were you excited or was there a process of assimilation?

I didn’t see it advertised. James more or less headhunted me for it, which at the time felt ridiculous. For so many reasons – I had been made redundant from two publishing jobs in quite quick succession; I had vowed I would never go back to publishing. So when I saw that email come through for him I laughed out loud; quite literally in front of my computer, laughed at the ridiculousness of his offer. And then also the way Mana had been going, it was quite hokey design-wise; like, the last issue I’d seen had probably been five or six years earlier; I’d never seen it since.

So everything led to ‘no’; all things pointed to ‘no’. Until I met with Mark and James and that was like, ‘holy shit, these guys are actually incredible and know what they’re doing, and this might be a version of a publishing company that actually works really well’. And I was right.

Was there any trepidation coming into it?

I was terrified. But pretty much everything I’ve ever done I thought I couldn’t do, so I did it anyway, because I just assumed I’m talking bullshit to myself. Which tends to be a similar story to anyone who’s ever done anything of any note, that they didn’t think they could do it, and they just blagged their way through it, or whatever. So sometimes you’ve just got to trust that if someone else tells you you can do it, then maybe you can. So I just did it, and learnt.

So where Mana sat in your head when you were first approached was this kind of stale publication that probably once had a lot of meaning, but maybe had lost its way a little. How did you find it when you arrived and what was your vision for making it relevant again?

I probably didn’t give Mana enough credit when I came on board, and I think it had purely to do with the design aesthetic, which was very much still stuck in the past; and so I don’t think I did give it enough credit for its content. A lot of the content was quite dry and advertorial, disguised as editorial. But aside from that it’s a really comprehensive, contemporary Māori history. Like, as a whole body of work, the Mana archive is just absolutely incredible, and I don’t think, as someone who’d casually read an issue here and there over the years, I don’t think I really gave it enough credit for that.

So when I started I basically just began by diving into the archive. And our version of the archive isn’t actually even complete, so there are issues of Mana that I’ve never read. But I figured, as most Māori projects, they need to have a basis and history, and tikanga; you can’t just come along and burn it down and build something in its place without paying respect to what came before it. So I basically just tried to take all the threads that gave Mana its mana, by being of Māori and for Māori and from our unique perspective, and just tried to build those up, rather than reinventing the wheel. Because it didn’t need to be, it just needed a coat of paint. It needed a coat of paint, it needed some new voices.

Aside from the writers, what are the other challenges that you’ve experienced? I find your social media commentary of… like periodically there’d be a little eruption of insight into your job which is deeply and blackly funny.

Yeah, funny and tragic. I think one of the biggest challenges in editing Mana is how other people perceive what a story that is interesting to Māori is. As with any other media outlet you get pitched a lot of stories from like, publicists. It might just be a matter of them just doing their jobs, but I get pitched stories by people who think that such-and-such would be an interesting story for Māori just because it has a Māori in it.

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It doesn’t make it an interesting story. I have this utmost distaste for the Māori with the job story, i.e, you should do a story on my friend, he’s a lawyer, and that’s the pitch. It’s like, you wouldn’t pitch that to Metro, just, “I’ve got a friend who’s made a lot of money.” That’s not a story. But somehow, from an outsider’s perspective, like every single successful Māori is somehow an interesting story for other Māori. And we do place a lot of emphasis on providing inspiration and aspiration for Māori, but it has to still be creative and it has to still tell a story.

Obviously we at the Spinoff like to think that we’re a good PC-gone-mad organisation that tries to consider issues of gender and sexuality and ethnicity, and yet a couple of weeks ago we just somehow stumbled into publishing a list of the 100 greatest works of New Zealand non-fiction; it was very funny and very intentionally quarrelsome…

…And unintentionally quarrelsome [laughs].

Totally! It had almost no Māori on it at all – a situation you graciously helped us amend and apologise for. But, not wanting to sound too arrogant about it, if we can do it it must happen quite a lot. What’s your perspective on the kind of state of Māori representation in New Zealand media?

Well, one of the items on that ultimate list that we provided to you guys was Ranginui Walker’s column in The Listener in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and Syd Jackson’s column for Metro. And that prompted a discussion on Public Address over the last couple of days about where Māori columnists are, where Māori opinion is being printed and published. And it was interesting; the sorts of people who were asking the question – I think the Twitter discussion was prompted by Russ Brown, and he’s a fairly on-to-it guy, he’s got a show on Māori television, so he’s not at all out of touch with Māori media – but he was very genuinely asking the question.

But it was being answered for him by people who work in the Māori media, like Mihingarangi Forbes, with just literally the names of 20-odd Māori writers and columnists. So we’re still weirdly operating in like this shadowland of ultimate media where, because we’re in it, it’s all around us and it all seems like… these are big names in Māori media so therefore to us they must be big names in media, but then it turns out that these people who are quite savvy to these things still haven’t heard of these people, don’t read these people.

At Mana we publish incredibly savvy people that operate in mainstream business and finance, and media commentary; they’re not living in a forest or in some kind of rural Māori community, they’re writing about urban Māori issues, and they’re everywhere. So I don’t know; I don’t know why that visibility doesn’t exist. I don’t know why more people don’t watch Māori television, because even if you’re talking about non-Māori content like the films and documentaries that they programme, are better than literally every other television station. Is it the fact that it’s got the word Māori in the title that stops people from turning over? I don’t know.

This is the cover of the latest issue of Mana. You should buy it!
This is the cover of the latest issue of Mana. You should buy it!

More personally, as someone whose known you over half my life, I’ve found it amazing and inspiring watching the way your confidence and assertiveness has grown in this really quite profound way since you’ve taken on the Mana role, to a point where I think you’re almost emblematic of how you kind of can embody a magazine as its editor in the same way that Simon Wilson did at Metro. How has the magazine, the position, affected you personally.

I think honestly nothing I’ve ever done in my life has affected me so profoundly as taking this job, and having this job, and having these responsibilities. I don’t feel like I’ve changed since I took this job but more… I feel like I became a bit more myself. I feel much more confident. Confident [in] every part of my life.

Because it’s weird, like we’ve been talking about these alternative lives and worlds and whatever, and I guess my Māori side was also like an alternative for me. Like, I loved Kapa haka and I loved all that entailed when I was at school. And obviously I was hanging out with you guys on the weekends and listening to Nirvana and drinking Lion Red or whatever; but those worlds didn’t touch each other. And there were other people that I shared that side of myself with; it wasn’t like a solo endeavour, I had lots of Māori friends. But yeah, those two sides of my personality weren’t, like, one. And now they very much are, and that sort of makes me feel, well, I guess more like a whole person I suppose.

And then a large part of that is also, just before I took on this job – it was pretty uncanny timing actually, I also reconnected with my birth family for the first time, and so I had not only this world of Māori news and media and intellectualism and writing and photography and art and all of that opened up to me, but also very much just how Māori families work; I just got sucked into one at the same time as I started writing about being a Māori. And those two things happening at the same time.

It was pretty extraordinary, because we are about as typical a Māori family as you could get – large and messy, with a difficult history, and still with all sorts of problematic relationships, and relationships to health and poverty; all of that kind of stuff. So there’s writing about a subject and then there’s living it, and given the chance to do that at the same time has completely changed my life.

It’s like suddenly this amazing force of personality and this kind of laser-like focus, an ability to cut through all of the bullshit and state something in this very unambiguous way. I was like, is this just sitting in you the whole time?

I think it’s just a matter of finally finding a place that I’m comfortable in that is somewhere in the middle. My Mum told me when I got offered this job that it’s the perfect job for me because I’m a bridge person; I bridge people. And I was like, well, a) that’s a very Mum thing to say, but b) it also it kind of made sense to me. I spent my life wandering over the Bridge as it were, sometimes literally, grew up on the Shore, my friends were all in fucking Epsom, and I spent my time choosing different sides of the Bridge. But now I feel more comfortable just being the bridge, rather than like having to choose a side.

I talked about the things that were problematic about being in a big Māori family, but – the one thing that you don’t get in, I guess a more middle-class family environment is just this massive capacity for forgiveness, because smaller families, when people wrong you, you can hold onto that for a very long time; hold it close. Feel bad about it, get counselling, whatever.

But my whanau have had a lot of struggles. My Mum’s generation were flung far and wide, raised by various other relatives, or in care; and so there’s a lot of hurt in their history. And so I’m nothing but amazed all the time by how much everyone just really loves each other, and works really hard at being good, and a good family, and good to each other; there’s regular working bees and everyone has like an account that goes towards paying for things for the family, and trips and family occasions.

I mean, some of the things in the stories in our family would have destroyed a lot of families; you know what I mean? But that’s just how it works; whanau is whanau on the strength of that. It’s astounding to me. It’s stronger than I actually ever thought a human relationship should be; it’s crazy. Because it’s so layered and there’s so many people involved. Like, my mother had 12 siblings, so I have roughly 40-odd first cousins or whatever, and twice as many nieces and nephews. And so it’s sort of like this unbreakable thing because it’s so massive. You can damage one of the links but it’ll be fine. It’ll come out in the wash.

The latest issue of Mana came out last week. Like the magazine on Facebook for a window into the excellent work they do.

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