Saturday, August 3, 2019

Karl du Fresne: On Ihumatao, child uplifts, the media and a few other things

We live in excitable times. It’s hard to recall a time when politics was more febrile and overheated.

I don’t mean in Parliament, where it’s more or less business as usual (in fact surprisingly civilised, considering the intensity of the debates raging outside), but around the fringes – in the mainstream media, and more particularly in online forums – on issues that include race, gender, sexual identity, equality, climate change, women’s rights, freedom of speech, immigration and poverty.

For this we can blame several factors, all of which are inter-connected and feed into each other.

One is the sheer multiplicity of voices clamouring to be heard, which is a direct consequence of the digital revolution. For evidence of this you need only look at the daily online summary of political news and comment compiled by Victoria University political scientist Bryce Edwards, which has grown to the point where it’s almost indigestible. New commentators and hitherto unknown online platforms seem to emerge by the day.

Some people welcome this as true democracy in action, since access to public platforms is no longer controlled by a handful of gatekeepers as in the old “legacy” media. But it’s a very raucous, divisive form of democracy, and I question whether it’s representative of society as whole, since the loudest voices tend to represent extremes of opinion. We should never make the mistake of assuming that the voices given most prominence in mainstream and online media reflect what most New Zealanders are thinking. By definition, it’s the zealots who are most motivated to promulgate their ideas.

Another factor is the polarising effect of computer algorithms that herd people into online echo chambers on both left and right, where they reinforce each other’s prejudices and are comfortably insulated against competing ideas.

In the process, the middle ground gets lost. The moderating function of the old “broad-church” mainstream media, where people were exposed to a range of opinions that could sway the open-minded, has greatly diminished.

A third potent factor is the ascendancy of identity politics and neo-Marxist ideology which magnifies minority grievances and promotes a view of society as bitterly divided between privileged classes (typically white, older and male-dominated) and disadvantaged minorities demanding redress. This corrosive, Marxist-influenced view of society as a competitive arena where interest groups are intractably at odds with each other is hardly new, but it’s only in recent years that it has become a dominant narrative in public discourse.

On top of all this, we’ve seen a profound change in the character of the mainstream media. Many journalists no longer see themselves as dispassionate chroniclers of events and disseminators of opinions held by others, but as active agents of political, social and economic change in their own right.

The professional scepticism that journalists once cultivated has largely vanished as older hands have retired or been purged. The younger journalists who have succeeded them are like blotting paper, uncritically absorbing fashionable ideological views. The more emotive the cause and the more passionate the rhetoric of its advocates, the more eagerly it’s embraced.

The explanation for this change is simple. It dates from the time several decades ago when the media industry decided that the training of journalists – previously done “on the job” – should be handed to tertiary education institutes, many of them staffed by ideologues who saw the media as part of the capitalist power structure and therefore ripe for subversion. Journalism students were encouraged to think their primary purpose was to challenge that power structure. The result – not immediate, but gradual and insidious – was the politicisation of a profession that previously took pride in neutrality and balance.

In this homogeneous environment, certain things are accepted as given. It’s assumed that anyone with a shred of intelligence or morality despises Donald Trump and his knuckle-dragging supporters. Commentators demonstrate their impeccably woke credentials by the vehemence with which they attack Trump, never pausing to think that they are preaching to the converted or that the message loses its potency with constant repetition, no matter how florid the denunciation. Meanwhile, ironically, a second Trump term looks increasingly likely as his would-be Democratic Party challengers tear each other apart.

Brexit is another touchstone of fashionable political sensibilities, being generally portrayed as the last desperate flailing of fossilised British reactionaries rather than as a legitimate attempt by a country to re-assert sovereignty over its own affairs.

Media bias is all-pervasive in print and electronic media but reaches its peak on shows like TV3’s The Project, whose smug, self-reinforcing groupthink and fondness for carefully selected, like-minded guest panellists verges on nauseating. But pockets of resistance remain, and they are mainly to be found in commercial radio.

I have no doubt that hosts such as Mike Hosking, Sean Plunket and Heather du Plessis-Allan are more in tune with mainstream public opinion than the left-leaning commentators who tend to prevail in most media outlets. Opinion polls and general elections consistently show, after all, that New Zealand generally leans to the centre-right – something a visitor from another galaxy would never guess from a sampling of media opinion.

One casualty of this bias is the old-fashioned idea that there are two sides to every story. If it looks like an injustice, it must be one. If an aggrieved party presents an emotionally compelling story, it should be accepted as true. No need to dig further.

We can see this in the overwhelmingly sympathetic media coverage of the Ihumatao occupation and Oranga Tamariki child uplifts, where the voices of those bold enough to defend the status quo have largely been crowded out.

It took quite some time for the media to acknowledge that the lawful Maori owners of the disputed land at Ihumatao were happy with their deal with Fletcher Residential and wanted the proposed housing development to proceed. That fact was conveniently obscured.

Ihumatao is not another Bastion Point or Moutoa Gardens, where the protesting occupiers wanted to reclaim land that was historically theirs but had been taken away. Many, if not most, of the protesters occupying the Ihumatao site appear to have no direct ancestral link with the land (busloads came from Northland and Taranaki) and can be seen as be usurping the rights of the Maori owners. NZ First’s Shane Jones derisively referred to them as “yoga pants” protesters and said they didn’t speak for the mana whenua. Yet it seems to have suited the media to characterise the dispute as a contest between greedy developers and dispossessed iwi, which it’s not.

The narrative has largely been dictated by the articulate and media-savvy young Maori lawyer Pania Newton, leader of the protest occupation. You had to feel sorry for poor Te Warena Taua, spokesman for the land’s owners, who barely got a look in. No one seemed terribly interested in his protestation that Te Kawerau a Maki, the iwi authority that owns the land, supports the development, or that Fletcher had given back eight hectares and made special provision for Maori housing. These facts got in the way of a much more appealing story about racism and injustice. (That Taua happens to be Newton’s uncle demonstrates how tortuously tangled these affairs can be.)

And now, to complicate what was already a messy but essentially intra-Maori schism, Jacinda Ardern’s government – panicked by all the negative coverage and unnerved by demands that Ardern get involved – has clumsily crashed into the dispute and in doing so, has undermined the Treaty settlement process, property rights and the rule of law.

As with Ihumatao, so also for the emotive and largely one-sided media coverage of the uplifts issue. Oranga Tamariki’s practice of removing mostly Maori newborn babies from situations where their safety was considered to be at risk has been portrayed as cruel and culturally insensitive. A protest rally at Parliament, with angry denunciations of supposedly callous, racist social workers, led the 6pm news on TV3.

But hang on. Earlier that day on Duncan Garner’s AM Show on the same channel, Northland GP Lance O’Sullivan, a Maori and a former New Zealander of the Year, said he supported uplifts and moreover believed that Oranga Tamariki deserved more resources. He recalled being traumatised by the death of a two-year-old girl killed by her mother and insisted that children must be safe, “whatever that takes”.

“When I had this child die in Kaitaia two years ago I would have loved to have a rally,” O’Sullivan said pointedly. “I would love to have had a hui and had all the leading names of Maori come along to protest and cry out about the death of another Maori child, [but] there was no such thing.”

It was a clear rebuke of those organising the march on Parliament. But again, no prizes for guessing which opinion got maximum prime-time exposure. O’Sullivan was seen only by the relatively small breakfast audience (and then largely by accident, since he had gone on the show to talk about something else).

Winston Peters also supports Oranga Tamariki. He told a press conference that three Maori children had died since the uplifts controversy flared in May. “I don’t see many headlines about that and that’s a tragedy.”

Even Peters gets some things right. Yet the media continue to highlight emotive and misleading phrases such as “Our babies are taken” (1News) and “stolen children” (Reuters).

There was another reminder this week that child uplifts might not be altogether a bad thing. A story in the New Zealand Herald revealed that 16-month-old Malcolm Bell, who died in Starship Hospital after being admitted with suspected non-accidental injuries, was one of six children and that all his older siblings had been taken from his mother, Savanna Bell.

The story didn’t specifically mention uplifts and it wasn’t clear whether Malcolm was in the care of his mother or his wider whanau when he died. (A man has been charged with his murder.) But it did reveal that Oranga Tamariki had received calls from people who were concerned about the little boy’s welfare. The Herald also disclosed that Savanna Bell is the sister of the notorious murderer William Bell, who killed three people while robbing the Mt Wellington Panmure RSA in 2001.

Add all this together and it seems plain that Malcolm was born into a high-risk family. People say uplifts are racist, but the statistics show that Maori children are grossly over-represented in abuse statistics. Savanna Bell kept having children despite obviously being considered unfit as a mother. In such situations, uplifts would seem to be the safest, if not the only, option. It has been shown too often that faith in the nurturing care of the whanau can be tragically misplaced.

As for those terrible abuse statistics, we’re repeatedly told that they’re a consequence of colonisation – another claim uncritically parroted by credulous journalists. There’s never a mention of the horrific endemic violence practised in pre-colonial Maoridom, or acknowledgment of the manifold benefits that colonisation brought.

Journalistic balance is what’s missing here, but balance is no longer the editorial requirement that it used to be. That was never better demonstrated than when Stuff announced last year that it would no longer give space to the views of climate-change sceptics.

Is there an over-arching ideological agenda here? That might be going too far. I don’t believe there are neo-Marxist cells in newsrooms. But it’s fair to ask whether the purpose of much alarmist journalism and overheated media comment is to induce a mood of national anxiety and shame, and thereby to soften the country up for the radical social and political change favoured by noisy activists. We can only hope the public is smart enough not to fall for it.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of the Dominion-Post. He blogs at


Unknown said...

a well thought out and well written article which will probably be derided as wanton racism by the people he writes about.

Anonymous said...

Former Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Chris Finlayson has told Magic’s Sean Plunket that the treaty negotiations covering Ihumatao are "full and final.”

Following extensive negotiations between the Crown and Te Kawarau a Maki, a full and final settlement was arrived at of all the tribe’s outstanding Treaty grievances. This was given effect to by Act of Parliament in the Te Kawerau a Maki Claims Settlement Act 2015.

Finlayson was explicit in stating that this settlement was full and final. He also made it clear that the same Green Party now supporting the Ihumatao illegal occupiers backed the Te Kawerau a Maki Claims Act into law at the time.

Under the Treaty Settlement process, private land cannot be used to settle Treaty grievances. This derives from the legal principle that one injustice cannot be remedied by creating another, since the current owner of disputed land purchased it in good faith from an earlier legal owner, regardless of how it came to be alienated from Maori customary title in the first place.

This explains why redress under the Treaty settlement process typically involves a cash payment, transfer of surplus Crown land in a tribe’s rohe, and options on further Crown land that may become surplus at some point in the future.

What we have at Ihumatao is a raggedy-arsed band of illegal occupiers prepared to ignore Te Kawarau a Maki’s full and final settlement; squatting on private land and preventing Fletchers from going about its lawful business. They should be ordered by police to leave, then batoned to the ground and dragged off to jail if they won’t go.

Even had there been no full and final settlement, there is reasonable doubt that the disputed land was in fact confiscated after the Waikato War of 1863 as the protesters and their supporters today assert.

Protest leaders need to explain why the land claimed to have been confiscated does not appear on a map of post-1840 government confiscations. That map on the “Confiscation” page of the Government’s Te Ara Encyclopaedia at shows all confiscation areas in the North Island.

Ihumatao, which is to the west of Auckland Airport on the Mangere side of Manukau Harbour, is far away from the confiscation line that extends only to the southern shore of that harbour.

Someone clearly doesn’t have a leg to stand on here.

Anonymous said...

The Kingites and their affiliates claim that Crown land confiscations and the Crown's "invasion" of the Waikato in the 1860s were "illegal."


The Treaty of Waitangi was not with a collective "Maori." It was with tribes in a constant state of war with one another and inhabiting two main landmasses. The was no country until the English came and created one under the sovereignty vested in Queen Victoria by the Treaty of Waitangi.

Some 512 chiefs signed the TOW, and a substantial minority in the centre of the North Island (Tainui, Tuhoe, and Tuwharetoa) refused to, meaning there were probably around 600 of these individually insignificant groups.

Under the legal doctrine of privity of contract, only the parties to an agreement are bound by it, or can claim its protection in the event of a breach. Tainui never signed the Treaty, so the Kingites should never have been included in the Treaty settlement process.

Back in the day, the Kingites loudly proclaimed that because Tainui didn't sign the Treaty, they could organise as they saw fit on their own land, including electing a 'king" to govern themselves.

I'm inclined to agree with that view.

However, all that changed once the Kingites started projecting power outside their rohe.

They began a series of escalating provocations that led Governor Grey to first issue strongly-worded warnings, then move into the Waikato to put the Kingites in their place.

Followers of the self-anointed Tainui upstart ‘king’ were either aggressive challengers to the Crown’s sovereignty (tribes who hadn’t signed the Treaty of Waitangi) or rebels (Treaty signatories who’d repudiated their undertaking by mobbing up with the Kingites).

The Kingites and their allies refused to accept the legitimate government, had tried to set up a rival kingdom, and to force Europeans out of their territory. They’d fought against the Government in Taranaki, threatened Auckland, and murdered settlers.

Anonymous said...

After war, some of their land was confiscated. This was legitimate under law -- as well as according to Maori custom -- and the Kingites had been forewarned.

Only about 4 percent of NZ's land area was eventually – and quite rightly – confiscated from tribes who'd challenged the Queen's sovereignty and lost. They had been warned in advance this would happen if they didn’t pull their heads in.

When conflict was brewing in 1863, Governor Grey made this crystal clear:

“Those who wage war against Her Majesty, or remain in arms, threatening the lives of Her peaceable subjects, must take the consequences of their acts, and they must understand that they will forfeit the right to possession of their lands as guaranteed to them by the Treaty of Waitangi.”

Here’s Sir Apirana Ngata on this matter:

“Some have said that these confiscations were wrong and that they contravened the articles of the Treaty of Waitangi. The [majority of the] chiefs placed in the hands of the Queen of England, the sovereignty and the authority to make laws. Some sections of the Maori people violated that authority. War arose from this and blood was spilled. The law came into operation and land was taken in payment. This itself is a Maori custom—revenge, plunder to avenge a wrong. It was their own chiefs who ceded that right to the Queen. The confiscations cannot therefore be objected to in the light of the Treaty.”

Once peace was finally made, the Kingites were treated as British subjects, a far more benevolent fate than they'd have suffered if conquered by another Maori tribe, and indeed considerably better treatment than the Tainui tribes had meted out to others during the Musket Wars of the 1830s.

Coker said...

All very true. Well, almost — describing Brexit as "a legitimate attempt by a country to re-assert sovereignty over its own affairs" is, while certainly reflecting the Brexiteers' mindset, surely a one-of-a-kind euphemism.

Anonymous said...

Here’s how Tainui invaders conducted themselves in the Taranaki at the sacking of the Puke-Rangiora pa:

"It is said that twelve hundred of Te Ati-Awa and their allied hapus were killed or captured in the final overthrow of the pa. The greater part of the prisoners were women and children, and these were driven back into the pa to be killed or tortured at leisure. That day Waikato glutted themselves on the bodies of the slain lying in gore around the pa.

"The next morning the prisoners were brought out, and those amongst them whose faces were well tattooed were decapitated on a block of wood, with the view of making mokaikai, or preserving them, as trophies to be taken back to the country of the Waikatos. Others, with little or none of this decoration, were immediately killed by a blow on the skull. It is asserted that Te Wherowhero [the first Maori ‘king’] — the head chief of Waikato and principal leader of the invaders — sat in the gateway of the pa, and as the prisoners were brought to him he killed one hundred and fifty of them by a blow on the head with his jadeite mere named 'Whakarewa,' and that he only desisted because his arm became swollen with the exercise. The headless bodies were thrown across a trench, which was dug to carry off the blood lying in pools about the plateau on which Puke-Rangiora stood. Others, less fortunate, were killed with every conceivable form of torture; some again were cast into the ovens alive, to the amusement of their sanguinary foes. Young children and lads were cut open by incisions made hastily down the stomach, enviscerated and roasted on sticks placed round large fires, made of the palisading of the pa.”

Interesting to note that more Maori were killed by other Maori in this one massacre, than in all the fighting between Maori and colonial forces between 1840 - 1885.

Grey was entirely justified in putting down an increasingly aggressive foreign power on his doorstep that threatened the peace and security of the colony. As victor, the Crown was entitled to deal with the vanquished Kingites as it saw fit, including taking land off them as punishment for picking a fight.

Let it be said again: the victor dealt remarkably mercifully with the vanquished.

If the subject land was in fact confiscated from Ihumatao Maori in the 1860s -- something nobody has done more than assert without providing proof -- the Crown was fully within its rights in asking them to take a loyalty oath to establish their peaceable intentions.

Nothing "illegal" about that either under the Treaty of Waitangi or outside it.

It would have been military suicide to leave a group of potentially hostile fifth columnists to the rear of the troops, astride their line of supply, and close to an undefended Auckland.

Anyone refusing to take a loyalty oath and electing instead to retire to the Waikato and stand with the Kingites made their bed and got to lie in it, I say.

Alan said...

In some small towns CYFS are feared and loathed. They take too many children, the wrong children, for imaginary reasons, and break them.
CYFS never lose. They will spend $100,000 and delay a defended hearing for 2 years. The ex parte interim order made by the Court on first uplift is no protection.
Yes, there are children that need saving from Mum, and I have seen good results. I have seen many children and parents broken.

Lianne said...

Again a good argument for abusers, offenders and look ng term beneficiaries to be sterilized.

Kit robbins said...

Absolutely agree. The noise being created by the liberal politicians ( AOC etal ) and liberal journalists is deafening. As those of a liberal persuasion do seem to carry a predisposition to needing to be heard it is notable that they are now becoming so voluminous in number and loud in decibels that they are actually sabotaging there message. The upshot is that Trumpy will remain fixed to his ideologue, pick up a heap of confused middle voters akin to myself, and walk yet again through the doors to the White House, this time held open by the dumbstruck liberals who still, just don’t get it.

In fact it could be suggested that the ease with which the supposedly disenfranchised and downtrodden can spill their bleating on the internet, may in fact assist the middle ground in realising that much of their rhetoric is hot air, unrealistic and plain stupid.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to the author of this clear, well-written article. A lot of wisdom in this refreshing piece. The role of journalists today is something that troubles me deeply & the influence they hold over many people who take their comments at face value is indeed concerning.

Anonymous said...

It's all about money . The legacy media are losing readership and to keep them have become tabloid papers pushing controversy for reader interest. It is a grim fact of human nature conflict makes money, look at any "reality show" or "Fairgo"

Geoffrey said...

Thank you. Some common sense, well expressed.

Anonymous said...

"In 1991 I enrolled in Rob Steven’s New Zealand Politics, and found there the first glimmers of what I had been looking for – neo-Marxist critique. Rob was an outstanding teacher - his lectures were insubordinate and his tutorials were defiant. We would crowd into his office, sit on the floor and ‘share’ our stories of political oppression while Rob would weep (I think he was going through a marriage break up at the time). This nebulous and indefinable sense of my own construction within a white political narrative was finally given some definition and shape, and Rob was a sympathetic teacher who enthusiastically welcomed my burgeoning, uneasy, halting, and awkward politicization. I was on my way."
To a PhD in Media Studies 

Philob said...

Good post.
No need for cells of neo-Marxists in newsrooms any more Karl. That is now the dominant idealogy. The cells will now have to be of their opponents.