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February 25, 2008 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Maoridom on the telly

When Judy Bailey first uttered the words “Kia Ora” on live television news the phone lines ran red with complaints. Victoria Universitiy’s own Sue Abel, a top researcher in media representations of Maori, puzzles over the resistance, saying “I don’t know why some Pakeha get so angry” at the thought of Maori language and values being on television. Abel puts this anger down to “ignorance of history” and a hostility nourished by the image of “Maori privilege that exists in New Zealand.”

In 2007, TVNZ CEO Rick Ellis was quoted saying to a Parliamentary Select Committee meeting that the TV2 programme Police Ten 7 helps fulfil TVNZ’s Charter obligations by providing a Maori perspective on television – presumably because a number of brown people are shown in the back of police cars. Maori Party MP Hone Harawira characterises Ellis’ comment as “shameful” and unhelpful, not only for Maori “but all New Zealanders.” Sue Abel concedes that Rick Ellis’ comments may have been taken out of context, but “all the same,” she believes he showed his ignorance by not knowing that it would “be a bad move to make politically.” She also acknowledges that although TVNZ gets a lot of flack, the inclusion of minority programming is sometimes “out of their hands as their funding for such things is limited.”

Hang on – isn’t something called the ‘Charter’ supposed to guarantee funding for quality Maori programming? In discussion with Hone Harawira, Salient Features Writer Jenna Powell asks just what quality Maori programming is, how successfully the networks are delivering it, and how far should we go to improve the situation.

The Charter

In recent years the TVNZ document known as the Charter has been referred to frequently when discussing Maori presence on the small screen. TVNZ is owned in majority by the government, and has two agendas to fulfil: commercial and Charter. The Charter lists social responsibilities TV One and TV2 are compelled to take into consideration. In the case of Maori, TVNZ is to “ensure in its programmes and programme planning the participation of Maori and the presence of a significant Maori voice” as well as include “programming that has Maori language and culture.”

As well as the Charter, TVNZ has to make programming that will be profitable. TVNZ’s commercial imperatives cause minority audiences, such as Maori, to feel that their reality – Te Ao – is not seen on mainstream television. It is estimated that around seventy per cent of New Zealand’s television audience is Pakeha, making Pakeha the most commercially viable audience – a fact which can get in the way of TVNZ’s chater obligations.

The Television New Zealand Act 2003 states that the TVNZ Charter must be reviewed every five years. The most recent Charter ‘suggested redraft,’ headed by Workers’ Party chair and media academic Peter Thompson, took 286 public submissions into consideration. Thompson’s report found that the public largely feel TVNZ’s Maori and diverse programming is poor. The suggested redraft will be put forward for review in a Parliamentary Select Committee by end of February.

Hone Harawaira, whose portfolio responsibilities include broadcasting, believes reviewing the Charter “is all well and good” if TVNZ and the government “puts all the talk into practice.” Harawira considers TVNZ and New Zealand media in general to have a “majority rules mentality” that lacks social responsibility. He explains that placing importance on all minority programming “will have tremendously positive effects on New Zealand’s society and culture.” Harawira is adamant that even the inclusion of “a more accurately spoken” Maori language would ensure “the positive cultural growth of our nation.” “The government has the power to enforce the Charter and Maori language” he argues. The inclusion of Maori language is “cost effective and relatively easy” but he does not accept that cost is the ultimate reason why Maori perspectives are not included in mainstream television: “If it is the cost, why not promote Maori language?” Harawira thinks TVNZ is clearly “going after the money” and “are saying to hell with the Charter.”

Backlash, Control and Media Segregation

Several features and editorials in major New Zealand newspapers including the New Zealand Herald and the Waikato Times have defended Rick Ellis’ commercial interpretation of the TVNZ Charter, citing that it is difficult to mix profit with the cultural needs of New Zealand. Kerre Woodham, a columnist for the Herald, expressed the opinion that relying on Maori TV to convey Maori perspectives is sufficient. “I don’t know why the government just doesn’t hand over all funding for Maori programmes to it.”

Such separatist notions will not solve any problems as far as Sue Abel is concerned. Abel argues “that this would make Maori even more absent from a mainstream audience and gives the message that Maori, as a people, are not relevant.” Maori broadcasting funding agency Te Mangai Paho was seriously considering shifting its funding to Maori Television due to its discontentment with TVNZ’s “lack of fresh ideas” and “pepper pot” scheduling of Maori programming.

The TVNZ Charter and Maori Television are two responses to the lack of indigenous presence in broadcasting. Where the Charter advocates regulation to bring Maori content into the main/white stream, Maori Television has opted for independence. Both responses have their benefits, yet both have flaws – independence can marginalise; regulation can stifle.

Whichever solution (or combination of solutions) we opt for will have significant consequences. Harawira insists that the power of the media to influence culture and perceptions “should not be underestimated.” He points to the influence of American rap culture: “you see heaps of kids dressed like little niggas with their pants hanging down their arse, calling their girlfriends bitches…all that crap.” He argues that the psyche of the nation could be changed easily through government intervention and monitoring of images. But are we marginalising minorities through caricature by adhering to the Charter? In the case of Maori, Harawira believes “it is possible” not to marginalise “as long as people who truly understand Maori culture and people… are employed at TVNZ.”

Dump it on Digital

In 2005, TVNZ’s then-CEO Ian Fraser sent a memo to the TVNZ board which was leaked to Green MP Sue Kedgley. This memo detailed three possible options which he believed would make TVNZ a more “genuine” public service broadcaster. They were: make TV One a fully funded channel “delivering Charter values” whilst making TV2 a completely commercial channel; making TV One semi commercial; or adding two new public service digital channels.

TVNZ appears to be using a combination of those suggestions, but is spearheading its public service broadcast with the introduction of TVNZ 6. TVNZ 6 is described on the TVNZ website as “New Zealand’s first fully public service broadcasting channel, without advertising breaks.” However you need a “Freeview approved” digital receiver and a satellite dish to be able to watch it “for free.” An average “Freeview approved” digital receiver retails between $250 and $300, and satellite dishes range from $200 to $230. Although there are promises to include over seventy-five per cent of New Zealand homes under URL aerial by April, a significant portion of New Zealand homes will not be able to view the “public service channel.” Even with TVNZ 6, diverse programming satisfaction is still low.

New Zealand Drama – What is a Maori character?

Sue Abel absolutely disagrees with the popular notion that New Zealand dramas such as Shortland Street are meeting Charter obligations. Abel’s opinion is that although Maori characters are portrayed on New Zealand drama, shortcomings lie in how such characters are portrayed. Abel said that a young boy she once discussed this matter with said “he felt sick when watching a Maori on television with his Pakeha friends” because he felt like they were judging him from what they saw.

According to Abel, what should happen — and sometimes does — is that drama should attempt to portray Maori characters not solely as “Maori characters,” but as fully-rounded individuals, while at the same time not ignoring their ethnicity: “It should be there as another facet of New Zealand life, not just added in tokenism.” Maori MP Pita Sharples said to Parliament that just because a programme features a Maori saying “kia ora bro,” it does not mean it is Maori programming. Abel argues that Maori characters in New Zealand drama, particularly Shortland Street, carry “the burden of representation,” because Maori are so absent from mainstream television and writers take such pains to show them as Maori characters that their actions often represent “problematic” Maoridom. This idea of burden of representation is clearly seen when Rick Ellis lists Game of Two Halves as a programme that fulfils Charter obligations – seemingly only because Maori comedian Mike King is in it. This begs the question: is part of this burden our demand for more Maori on television?

TVNZ vs. CanWest

TV One seems to be TVNZ’s Charter cornerstone with programmes that include not only Maori language but a more multicultural perspective. These gains have been largely watered down by the length and time slots allocated to diverse programming. This can be seen with programmes such as Whanau, a Maori-language soap opera which screens at 4:45 p.m. and is five minutes long.

Past and present TVNZ CEOs have expressed the belief that “TV One and TV2 are obviously much closer to the public broadcasting end of the spectrum than our commercial competitors.” This can hardly be taken seriously when despite having no legal obligation comparable to TVNZ’s Charter, CanWest (an entirely commercial broadcaster) has more Maori programming. TV3 has a working “receptacle agreement with Maori television” to share footage and programming. It also includes several Maori shows, aimed mainly at children, in its programming schedule such as Pukana and Tu Te Puehu, two general entertainment shows on Sunday morning – the same time Maori and Pacific Island shows are scheduled on TVNZ. Regardless of this self-defeating scheduling conflict, TV3 were awarded the supreme award in the Maori language awards for featuring Te Reo Maori in mainstream news in 2005 and won the media award for Maori language in both 2006 and 2007. However Harawira and Abel are both in agreement that the main problem with both networks is their news media.

New Zealand Television News

United Nations Special Rapporteur Rodolfo Stavenhagen visited New Zealand in 2005 to observe the human rights element of the Crown’s relationship with Maori. In his report, Stavenhagen warned that the treatment of Maori people and issues was of special concern, and highlighted “a systematic negative description of Maori in media coverage, an issue that should be addressed through the anti-racism provisions of New Zealand’s Human Rights Act.”

He recommended that “public media should be encouraged to provide a balanced, unbiased and non-racist picture of Maori in New Zealand society, and an independent commission should be established to monitor their performance and suggest remedial action.”

In a speech to Maori tertiary students in 2006, Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia referred to a report made by an independent foreign journalist, Andrew Coxhead, on the treatment of Maori in the New Zealand news media. The report showed that often the news media portray Maori as unfairly having benefits that are denied to others. It also showed that the potential Maori control over some significant resources is conveyed as a threat to non-Maori people. Another reoccurring image is the portrayal of Maori as “poor managers, either corrupt or incompetent.” While a number of Maori organisations have been involved in fraud, they are given proportionately more coverage than similarly fraudulent non-Maori organisations, and their Maoriness is always emphasised as a factor.

Harawira says this negative media bias is “all just a ratings game and positive stuff just does not sell,” but he adds firmly that “Maori people and other cultures – even people who are just different from the boring old mainstream – suffer because of this media game.” He believes the sort of representation Maori get on mainstream news “is hugely damaging to Maori people,” especially when “gangs and killing kids” are frequently seen by viewers and positive things are often not. “I know it’s important to show the negative things but what I criticise is how TVNZ especially do not counter those images with positive events in Maoridom.”

“What about the Maori development business awards?”

Harawira challenges. “The good Maori news often is only seen on Maori television,” he adds. “Maori people find it hard to draw a sense of pride in themselves and their culture from the way they are portrayed on commercial news.” Sue Abel agrees, recalling the time a Siberian tiger was broadcast rather than an important event in Maoridom.

However, Abel believes the most obvious effects of this representation of Maori are on Pakeha people and their preconceptions and attitudes: “More research has to be done on to what extent it affects Maori but it is clear it affects Pakeha.” On the other hand, Abel notes that “we are not all drones that process television news in the same way.” She believes the most important goal for both TVNZ and TV3 is rising to the challenge of producing news which is “culturally diverse in its form and content.”

Walk About

Hone Harawira was in the news last year for his infamous “walk about” from a government-paid Native Affairs conference to visit with Aboriginals. Although Abel does not agree with Harawira’s means of getting to his destination, she reminds us that “No one asked how the Aboriginals felt about Hone’s visit.” In fact, despite directly concerning them, an Aboriginal perspective of the story was entirely absent from all New Zealand and even Australian mainstream news reports. “It didn’t surprise me at all,” Harawira exclaimed when Salient asked him about the mainstream coverage. Harawira says he went to Alice Springs to “put a spotlight on issues that were affecting the indigenous people,” and he argues that he became “the focus of media attention” rather than “the real issues.” Aboriginal media painted an entirely different and favourable picture of his “walk about.”

Maori Activists? They Must Be Dangerous!

Abel asserts that research shows that “in times of crisis,” news stories fall back on ethnocentric views of “good Maori” and “bad Maori.” We see this in the first coverage of the “terrorist” raids in Ruatoki: a TV3 news reporter suggested you can’t be a “high profile” Maori activist as well as a community leader who contributes a lot to the community. Sue Abel suggests it’s the way in which the reporter chose to say it which reveals an underlying assumption about Maori activism. The 3 news reporter said: Tame has been described by a judge as a community leader who does a lot for his community “but he is also a high profile activist.” The “but” in this case is a loaded word which assumes activism for Maori sovereignty is a criminal activity.

Improvements and Progress Made

Sue Abel concedes that there have been some improvements, particularly in TVNZ’s news media, “especially since people like Tini Molyneux have been employed.” Molyneux did a news story about Willie Apiata being awarded his VC in 2007. Abel believes that this story had what she cautiously calls “Maori values” at the heart of it. Molyneux went to Te Kaha and interviewed Apiata’s whanau and locals. This is becoming a more frequently-used practice in current affairs involving Maori. But the remnants of past unfair treatment can be seen with news footage such as that of a Maori women requesting a Pakeha journalist to leave.

“They trust Maori media” Harawira explains. Abel says one of the main problems is “the lack of Maori journalists,” who in the majority “like to work for Maori media” due to “ethnocentric” state of newsrooms.

While Judy Bailey may have been criticised for her kia ora, a general acceptance of Te Reo Maori’s relevance seems to be apparent among Radio New Zealand’s listeners, as the state-owned station received ninety per cent positive feedback during Maori language week.


TVNZ will be reviewing their charter but Harawira will “not be impressed” until Maori people are not stereotyped negatively on television and a “true Maori perspective” is evident on the small screen. Abel says “we make progress” stating that all New Zealand media in general are becoming more aware of the importance of Maori culture, language and perspectives .


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