Friday, August 6, 2010

Mike Butler: The colonised Maori and the news

Too much negativity about Maori in the news -- a senior lecturer at Auckland University says she wants to hear MORE of “the specific voice of Maori as colonised” in the news rather than that of “a Maori scientist in a news item about wind farms”?

Dr Sue Abel, who lectures in the departments of Maori studies and film, television and media studies, spoke on “A question of balance” in that university's winter lectures on journalism. Her notes were published in the New Zealand Herald on August 3, 2010.

Abel lamented a “dearth of stories about the Maori world” in mainstream news, and said there was an “absence of Maori as sources” for news stories. She would prefer Maori sources “to articulate a distinctively indigenous worldview”, they have to have “different cultural values and priorities to those of the Western world”, but they “also have to be “informed by the processes of colonisation”.

She cites Broadcasting Standards Authority criteria for controversial issues, that say “broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest”. Based these criteria, Abel asks “why Maori are not seen as having a significant point of view to contribute to the public sphere.”

Although there have been few complaints to the BSA about coverage of Maori issues, the BSA thinks there is a problem in the way that Maori are being presented in broadcast news. The BSA commissioned a study by the Media Research Team at Victoria University in 2003 that said: “The standards as currently framed do not adequately reflect Maori realities, concerns and interests". Abel quoted that study. She also refered to session of a 2006 BSA symposium called "Maori programming: is 'balance' a Pakeha concept", in which a two-world broadcast standard was advocated, that “should reflect a world view that mirrors both Maori and Pakeha realities.”

Abel also notes “the absence of historical context” in reports on things Maori, and looks especially at media treatment of three news stories -- Waitangi Day; the police raid on Ruatoki, and John Key's decision to remove Te Urewera from the negotiations between the Crown and Tuhoe.

She says that the “absence of historical context feeds into ideas of "Maori privilege", a lack of any understanding for the reasons so many Maori are on the negative side of our social indicators (as indeed, are indigenous people around the world), and the lack of any understanding of Treaty settlements as just some small recompense for what iwi have lost in the last 170 years.”

Abel provided case studies on media treatment of Waitangi Day, on the police raid on Ruatoki, and on John Key's decision to remove Te Urewera from the negotiations between the Crown and Tuhoe. Her recommendations show that what she really wants is a Maori activist slant on mainstream news.

The whole nine yards of her lecture is available at

So what is a colonised Maori? Abel did not provide a definition, so I refer to Wikipedia, which describes colonialism as a process whereby sovereignty over the colony is claimed by the colonising power and the colonists change the social structure, government, and economics within the territory of the colony, bringing a set of unequal relationships, between the colonising power and colony, and between colonists and the indigenous population.

Therefore, the colonised Maori that Abel wants to hear more of is presumably the victim, or loser, in this unequal relationship. The problem for Abel is that after 170 years of intermarriage, the supposed victim of this unequal relationship is a mixture of Maori and Pakeha, in most cases more Pakeha than Maori. New Zealand society is multicultural, and many New Zealanders are multi-racial, as was revealed this week when Nga Puhi leader David Rankin helpfully shared that even leading Pakeha basher Hone Harawira had a Pakeha grandfather and that his family name was Hatfield.

In fact, the colonised Maori that Abel wants to hear more of is everywhere, and news reports involving these people are gathered as reporters cover police, fire, ambulance, local and national government. This net catches the part-pakeha part-Maori individuals, some of whom contribute to this nation’s woeful crime and deprivation statistics, which in turn makes academics like Abel complain about the negative portrayal of colonised indigenous victims.

Regarding balance, fairness and the BSA, it is difficult to succeed in a claim of lack of balance and fairness, even when you can demonstrate the exact extent of the unbalance in terms of time spent articulating opposing viewpoints. I found this out in a series of complaints relating to TVNZ’s lopsided treatment of global warming stories.

Abel seeks a separate standard of balance for Maori news, and this would perpetuate the two-standard treatment of all things Maori that started when the British Colonial Office sent Governor William Hobson with specific instructions to protect the vulnerable Maori inhabitants from rapacious English settlers, rogues, and escaped convicts. A softer requirement for Maori behaviour and responsibility arguably is one of the factors that has resulted in welfare dependence and crime that, once reported, prompts Abel to complain about negative news treatment of colonised Maori.

Regarding historical context, I would agree with Abel that adding details of the colonial and more recent past would improve news reports on things Maori, but knowing the history would not necessarily bring us both to the same conclusions.

History tells us that Maori leaders in 1840 signed into a deal with the most powerful empire around at the time to benefit from the riches that deal would bring, and 170 years later we know that the poorest New Zealander is better fed, clothed, housed, and entertained, and has more security, than the wealthiest chief back then.

History also tells us that you get what you pay for. Once successive governments offered cash for grievances, claimed grievances proliferated and tribes throughout the nation set up grievance nurturing committees to benefit from this new flood of riches from central government. Grievances have brought wealth to tribal leaders who don’t see that it is their responsibility to do anything for their people that the Department of Work and Income is already doing.

Numerous television and radio reports would be improved by the addition of historical context, which can be done usually in a single sentence that shows that the reporter has checked some overview to see where his or her story sits. Often the reporter is fresh out of university and is eager to report what he or she has just seen or heard without too much reflection and without sufficient life experience to know that there may have been numerous other stories on this issue over decades. Newspaper reporting suffers from the same problem, but to a lesser degree because more column centimetres may be available to include background.

Around 25 years ago there began a push to have Maori reporters report all things Maori. The first problem was that there were few Maori journalists, so the quality of the reporter became less important than having a Maori reporter covering the Maori beat. Maori news sources could believe that a Maori reporter could be more sympathetic, and that reporter could tacitly overlook more rocky aspects of a story. Maori issues were treated more softly, with less rigour, and therefore ceased being hard news.

Quaint and old-fashioned, Abel’s lecture is an interesting amble through unsourced claims and racist victimology. I suggest that what Abel is reaching for would be attained by better-trained reporters and editors, a single clear and enforceable broadcasting standard, and finally, an acceptance that race is only skin-deep, that our humanity is more fundamental than our race.


Unknown said...

Maori are not indeginous and at only 15% of the population are grossly over represented.
It is time ALL the citizens of this country 'man up' to the issue. The Maori issue is dragging this country down. The sooner that we accept that whatever your ethnicity you are a citizen of New Zealand and should look to the greater good of all not just a priveleged minority the better off we will all be.

Hori R Heta said...

Dr Sue Abel should watch Crime Watch,that gives a true and fair representation of Maori. A minority that well out performs the majority in crime stats across the board in N.Z. Maori must take a good long hard look at themselves, they can do much better if they would just try to improve their image.

Anonymous said...

How is crime watch 'true and fair?' I think we need to take a more critical view on the media, why dont we stop and ask ourselves why in mainstream media are Maori almost always potrayed as being criminals, underachievers, health risks or unemployed? Who gains the most from those images of Maori people? Who stands to loose the most? What are the political stakes embedded in those images?