Māori Television: The First Ten Years
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
The birth of the Māori Television Service in March 2004 coincided with nationwide protests against the Labour government’s plan to entrench, legislatively, Crown ownership of the foreshore and seabed (in response to a Court of Appeal decision legitimising prospective claims based on Native Title). A 13-day hikoi beginning in Northland arrived in Wellington on May 5. Over the same period, Tariana Turia announced that she would oppose the legislation and resign her ministerial portfolio. The formation of the Māori Party two months later appeared to signal a political resurgence of the pan-Māori Te Tino Rangatiratanga principles which had been advanced through the language and land rights struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, and by the Mana Motuhake Party in the 1990s. In this context, the establishment of a Māori Television Network was an historic accomplishment. The New Zealand “colony-to-nation” myth, which had informed mass-mediated constructions of national identity, could now be openly contested. Māori journalists, broadcasters, and programme-makers could foreground and develop their own cultural knowledges in contradistinction to assumed monoculturalism.
This story is well-detailed in the first chapter of Jo Smith’s Māori Television: The First Ten Years. She recounts how the fight for Māori broadcasting “directly linked to strategies of language and cultural revitalisation and to issues of equitable Māori representation as a partner to Te Tiriti”. The reader is introduced to Hana Jackson’s 1972 petition for Māori language in schools, the New Zealand Māori Council’s proposal for a weekly television programme addressing Māori and Polynesian affairs and a Māori radio station, and the establishment of the Māori Production Unit at TVNZ featuring Koha and, eventually, Te Karere (the first ever regular Māori language news programme). The 1987 Māori Language Act, which made Te Reo Māori an official language of New Zealand, strengthened the case for a Māori broadcasting presence within the New Zealand media landscape. Smith observes astutely that, as Māori television gained legitimacy during the 1990s and early 2000s, TVNZ was restructured and commercialised, as a State-owned Enterprise from 1989 and as a Crown-owned Company in 2003. Concurrently, the emergence of TV3 and Sky Television as transnational corporate competitors for audiences, ratings, and advertising revenue, undermined the general principles of public service broadcasting.
Given these circumstances, one can better appreciate the inherent quandary of Māori Television. According to the 2003 Māori Television Broadcasting Act, the network must protect and promote Māori language and cultural practices and attract a “broad viewing audience” in order to “enrich New Zealand society and heritage”. Smith explores the various complexities of this quandary through five frameworks: historical, tikanga, programming, audiences, and the politics of culture. The research, undertaken between 2012 and 2015, included audience focus groups and one-on-one interviews with Māori Television staff, board directors and Te Pūtahi Pāoho electoral college members, media producers, funders, language advocates, politicians, media commentators and academics. What results is an informative overview of the unfolding debates concerning Māori Television’s funding mechanisms, governing structures, programming priorities and engagement with communities.
From within the politics of culture framework, the very contentiousness of Māori news journalism is well explained. From one perspective, as Mihingarangi Forbes insisted, all journalists must hold powerful elites and organisations to account, within Māoridom and beyond. Thus, the Native Affairs story “Feathering the Nest”, concerning administrative shortcomings at the Kohanga Reo Trust (October 2013) was perfectly defensible. The critical testimonies of three women from Mataatua and Tauranga Moana were legitimately expressed in the programme. From another perspective, it was argued that the ensuing controversy reinforced Pākehā prejudices about Māori ineptitudes. On principle, therefore, the indigenous broadcaster should be wary of investigating Māori organisations. This debate signifies fissures within the politics of culture as such. They are not discussed in the book, so allow me to digress. Hone Harawira’s resignation from the Māori Party and subsequent leadership of the Mana Party (in April 2011) signified an emergent “flaxroots” conception of Te Tino Rangatiratanga. At the Bruce Jesson Foundation Lecture six months earlier, Annette Sykes traced the rise of a Māori elite within the process of litigating, negotiating and implementing Treaty Settlements. As encapsulated by the National Iwi Chairs Forum, they were described as
active sychophants of the broader neoliberal agenda which transfers a limited subset of publicly owned assets and resources into the private ownership of corporations to settle the injustices that [had] been inflicted upon hapu and iwi Māori.
Sykes further declared that
the Iwi Leaders model must be rejected and an independently resourced secretariat established to convene a series of constitutional hui and forums to discuss the future of our nation that engages meaningfully with all Māori communities and reports back to them.
The mandate should derive from “the Declaration of Independence 1835 and Te Tiriti o Waitangi”. These developments must be acknowledged when evaluating the subsequent restructuring of the Māori Television Service during 2014. At the time, the dis-establishment of the senior executive roles performed by Julian Wilcox and Carol Hirschfield, and the appointment of Paora Maxwell as new CEO, raised concerns about Māori Television’s independence from iwi authorities. Smith’s book alludes to the organisational restructuring, but doesn’t offer any contextual or thematic analysis of the controversies involved. The final chapter needed to set out even-handedly what happened and what was at stake in terms of Māori Television’s future direction. In this respect, the right of reply accorded to Maxwell was a poor editorial judgment. Why should his official voice be privileged in a book which has admirably demonstrated that Māori Television was a contentious project assembled from below?
Wayne Hope is a professor in the School of Communication Studies at the Auckland University of Technology.