Guyon Espiner is a Radio New Zealand broadcaster with a prominent national spot as the co-host, along with Susie Ferguson, of Morning Report. It’s a role where ruffling political feathers can be routine. Naturally. And the feathers of listeners, too, as Guyon was quickly reminded when he began using a little more Māori language than some Pākehā ears could cope with. Not that that’s a big issue any more, as he explains to Dale.
Tēnā koe, Guyon. And thanks for joining us on E-Tangata. I’d like to start our kōrero by asking you what has been the most satisfying moment in your life.
Probably a doctor handing me a baby girl, four and a half years ago. My marriage and partnership with my wife, Emma, is incredibly precious, too. But that first moment of holding our baby Nico, almost five years ago, was probably the most precious moment of my life.
I was going on for 43, so I had a few miles on the clock by that stage. A lot of my life has been wrapped in journalism, trying to get to the top of that, and chasing down politicians. But having a daughter has literally changed my life, and put a whole lot of things into perspective.
There’s been so much that has flown off from that first time with our baby in my arms. So that moment is a hard one to go past.
When Karen and I started our family, that was a pretty special moment in my life, too. But let’s turn to your name. I don’t know many people called Guyon. Or Espiner. How did that come about?
Guyon is an Old English name, and there’s a character called Sir Guyon, the knight of Temperance, in an old poem, The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser. But you’ll also find the name in France. And, when English settlers came to New Zealand, they made use of the name. There’s even a Lake Guyon in Canterbury.
I’ve traced Espiner back to about 1700 in Yorkshire. And the family story is that, earlier, they were probably French or Spanish, possibly Huguenots who were booted out, with my lot ending up in Scotland, I think, and coming out to New Zealand in the 1880s. So that’s as much of the whakapapa as I know. But there’s a few holes in it.
And what can you tell us about your mum and dad? I’m curious about the origins of your inquiring mind, because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?
Well, my mum (Mary) died in 2001, which was another big moment in my life. I was around 30, at that time. She passed away when she was only 68. But my father, Eric Espiner, is still working full-time. He’s 84. He’s a doctor, an endocrinologist, and he’s been working in the public health system all his life, in Christchurch, in Ōtautahi, where I grew up.
And your siblings?
I’m the pōtiki of the whānau, the youngest. There’s three boys, and the next one up is Stephen and then Colin — the mātāmua of the family. Colin was in journalism for a long time and now works in communications for Sky City Casino in Auckland, and Stephen is a lecturer at Lincoln University just outside of Christchurch, where his main focus in on how tourism impacts on the environment.
Many Pākehā grow up without much contact with Māori, so I’m wondering how that was for you.
In my early years, the contact was virtually non-existent. We lived in Cashmere, on the Port Hills of Christchurch. A kind of middle-upper-class area, I suppose you’d say. And there were very few Māori families.
After primary school, it was very different. Cashmere High School was co-ed and, in the day, it was middle-of-the-road income-wise and there were quite a few Māori there. But I hadn’t met any Māori at all until I went to high school.
Well, there may have been a few who didn’t identify strongly as Māori. But, when I look back, my knowledge of te ao Māori was almost zero. No connection with Māori people. It’s amazing, but that was my reality growing up in Christchurch.
For most of us, when we reflect back on our schooling, Māori issues didn’t figure, did they? They were minimal. There might’ve been some references to the Treaty, but that was about it.
At high school, we got virtually nothing. I came out of high school not knowing any of the history of any of the New Zealand Wars. Almost nothing. And it wasn’t until I studied history at university and had some Māori mates that I learned anything.
But I picked up a lot more once I went into journalism and started working on stories in Christchurch and on Ngāi Tahu. It grew from there, I suppose. But when I look back on those early years — wow. Christchurch at that time, and where I was living, was so monocultural. It really was.
Before long, though, you’d gone through university and you were getting a taste of the newspaper world.
Well, I studied history at uni and we did some New Zealand history, which was an awakening into that world. But I really started to get my focus after I left university. I was wondering what I was gonna do — and then I got into journalism.
In terms of a job, that’s all I’ve ever done. Initially, I worked at a community newspaper in Christchurch. For free. I just said: “Look, I’ll come and try it, if you give me a go. And I don’t want any money for it.” Then, when I did some stories in the paper, I felt like I’d totally hit the jackpot and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Once I got my teeth into it, I found what I loved.
All along there’s been a dearth of Māori journalists in New Zealand newsrooms. How has it been in your experience?
The newspapers were terrible for that. Very, very few Māori. I started at a paper called the Christchurch Mail, and they’ve just closed, I think. Fairfax has been closing a lot of these community papers.
I think that, while broadcasting hasn’t always been accommodating, especially in the mainstream, it’s been a helluva lot better than newspapers. Newspapers haven’t done well in that regard at all. Not where I’ve worked in Christchurch, Wellington, or Auckland, although there were Māori journalists in Auckland.
I went to work for the Western Leader out in Henderson, and there were Māori journalists there. This was 1994. So there weren’t none, but there weren’t a lot, either.
How well served have Māori been by a media that’s kept painting a skewed picture of the Māori world?
Very poorly served. I think if you’ve got a media that’s often reflecting back at you stories about crime and things that Māori have done wrong — that’s gonna have a massive impact on how people see each other. So I think there’s been a real concern there, and it remains so to this day.
We’ve been poorly served as a country. And what you call the skewed coverage has been damaging for the people who see themselves reflected back that way — and also for others who get a distorted view of the people they share the country with. It’s a big issue.
Given your “white-as” upbringing, I guess you might not have anticipated that you’d team up with a wāhine Māori as your life partner — and that you’d be putting so much effort into reo Māori.
Nah. I probably would have been a bit surprised. We met at the Backbencher pub across the road from Parliament, back in 2009, when we were both working there.
And, really, our relationship has opened up the gateway to the Māori world for me.
Emma has a good grounding in te reo Māori from high school days. She’s dived back into the learning, too, to try and build on what she’s got — so we’re kind of starting from different ends. The thing with her is that she’s also in her fourth year at medical school — she was in the recruitment industry but decided to train as a doctor when we had Nico. And, with her writing and other media, she’s a little busy.
We use it at home quite a bit, and probably the biggest buzz for me has been Nico starting to use te reo. She’s understood it for maybe 18 months but has only just started to speak it.
A couple of weeks back I said: Kei hea te rau mamao? (Where’s the remote?) And she said: “Kaore au i te mōhio.” (I don’t know.)
I know that’s tiny, but, for me, it wasn’t. I was so stoked, really excited!
And I’m trying to use reo on the radio, on Morning Report, and share what I know, because I love the language and I think it’s really important that we embrace it. And I’d love a New Zealand where we all embrace it.
I guess your detractors, like Don Brash, assume you’re using it so you can annoy them with it. And I know it hasn’t been universally well-received. But your daughter’s responses in te reo Māori are probably way more important — and perhaps provide a glimpse into tomorrow.
Yeah, that’s right. And, man, I’m gonna need a head start on her, because you know what kids’ brains are like. I wouldn’t give it long before she flies past me and I’ll be learning from her. But that’s part of the beauty of life, isn’t it?
Let’s turn now to Emma’s whānau who, I imagine, have been very pleased, as almost everyone is, that you’re making an effort. Because learning te reo Māori is a tough gig.
They’re very proud, actually. They’re Ngāti Tukorehe from Ōtaki, and Martin Wehipeihana, Emma’s dad, is a fluent speaker. He went to university and studied Māori. He wasn’t a fluent speaker as a child, but he is now. And his dad, Martin Sr, who is in his early 90s, is also a speaker.
I got a pretty good reception from the whānau the last time I saw them. They were very proud of me for using it on the radio — and that meant a lot to me.
What moves are you making to polish up your reo?
I’m in the second year of a course at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, so I go out to Māngere every Monday and do three hours there. Then I spend another hour a day outside of that. I do need to work at it because it’s hard as an adult to learn a language.
I see this as a lifelong journey and I think I’ll always be learning. I’m pretty serious about it. It sorta grips me. It’s got its claws into me. I’m just now realising how much I don’t know!
Isn’t it neat to see more Pākehā weaving Māori kupu into their conversations. Some are learning te reo Māori like yourself. In fact, many are. But other non-Māori are picking up some reo and are throwing in mokopuna, or whānau, or whare into their everyday language. It’s way different from what it used to be in this country, eh?
Oh, totally. And it’s quite nice to hear it woven into English in a unique sort of New Zealand way. It’s pretty special — and it seems to be happening more and more, which I like.
Your predecessors on Morning Report, apparently, didn’t see the reo as being as important as you do. So your morning mihi and the greetings from your colleagues have been a bit of a departure. But it seems as though the negative reactions have subsided.
Well, RNZ has done the greetings for some years. But, as I started learning the language, I just wondered what would happen if I did a bit more than a greeting. And what would happen if I used the proper names, the beautiful names, like Kirikiriroa rather than Hamilton. And maybe some of the weather, or the story intros, or even the traffic — translating as I go.
I’ve found that, if you hold your ground and just keep doing it, then the criticism will subside. And, you know, when I didn’t do it, people would ask: ”Where was the mihi today?” Which is quite fun.
I see this again as a longer-term project for me — and I’m going to be using more reo.
I did two interviews in the reo in the last month. I talked to Peeni Henare about the death of Kingi Taurua. And I also talked to Anton Matthews, a Christchurch restaurant owner whose free reo lessons were a hit in the city. We did those interviews in te reo — or as far as I could get, which was about six questions, translating as we went. Just basic, though, because I’m still a learner.
Good on you, mate. Absolutely supporting what you’re doing. But some say you speak the reo too fast. That more listeners would cotton on if you were to ease back a bit.
Yeah. I’ve heard that advice. Maybe I should slow down a bit.
When I started learning, I was inclined to go too fast because I was anxious about it. And it’d come out as a barrage, rather than something easy to follow.
There might be a bit of that in what I’m doing. I think you’re right, mate. That’s probably it.
Anyway, it’s great to hear the reo on national radio. Congratulations for the work you’re doing. But what you’re doing raises the question of what responsibility our national broadcaster has in promoting te reo me ōna tikanga.
I think it’s a considerable responsibility — and that there’s a good argument that we haven’t done nearly enough, and should do more. I know that’s the commitment from the top. But we have a lot more to do.
Some of the feedback I get, the whakahoki kōrero, is: “Go to a Māori station.” Or they’ll say: “Oh, they’ve got Māori spaces for that.” But there’s a role for mainstream radio and television with this kaupapa, too. Jack Tame is doing the same kind of work as me on TVNZ. But the people watching Jack, or listening to me, might not go and listen to Māori media. So I think we do need it.
Another point, though, is that there are many Māori broadcasters doing amazing stuff. So I’m not saying I’ve got this big role. I’m just trying to do what I can with the opportunities that I’ve been given.
When you learn te reo Māori, you’re automatically exposed to Māori thinking and the Māori worldview. So I’m wondering whether any of that conflicts with how you were raised, and how you weaved them together somehow.
I wasn’t raised in a religious family. Very much the opposite. We weren’t churchgoers or anything like that. But the karakia are really beautiful and, for me, they’re a window that keeps opening into this world. I’m not gonna pretend that I’ve got any deep knowledge of this stuff, but I’m fascinated by it.Some, like Mike Hosking or Don Brash, might say: “Why would you use a dead language? It’s got no relevance.” But, say you were to ask: “Whereabouts do you live, mate?” They may give you a street name and, most likely, it’s a Māori name. And you think, what does it mean? What does it tell us about our stories?
That raises the question about what New Zealanders learn from te ao Māori. Perhaps the more we all understand about the injustices Māori suffered in the colonisation processes, the more we’ll all get along.
I don’t think you can understand where anyone is coming from if you don’t know what their story is. It doesn’t make sense to be sharing a land with others, if you don’t make an effort to learn their stories or their language.
Kelvin Davis, the deputy Labour leader, sometimes uses a good analogy for this situation. He says there’s a bridge between te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā, but the traffic has mainly been one-way. Māori have gone across and operated in a Pākehā world. But very few from the Pākehā side have ever gone across the bridge to learn about the Māori world, their language, or their stories.
It seems amazing to me that there’s resistance from so many people to do even a little bit of that. It’d be a much richer country if they made the effort. It’s not about blaming. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about knowing the richness of the stories and understanding each other. And it’s also bloody interesting. So what’s not to like?
Thanks very much, Guyon, for the time we’ve shared. Life ain’t all about work, though, is it? And I see that, in your downtime, you’re a runner and a guitarist.
Well, I was in a dreadful rock band. I had an Ibanez Roadstar Series 2 electric guitar. We played some AC/DC and stuff like that. Nowadays, I have an acoustic guitar which I strum every now and then. But I don’t take it to noho marae, because there’re much better players there than me. I’ve just been to one at the weekend. We do all the formal learning stuff, of course, but sitting around learning songs in the lunch breaks is pretty special.
What about your running?
I’ve done some big ones. Like the Kepler Track, which is a 60-kilometre mountain trail run. I did that three times and my best effort is seven and a half hours. That’s the one I’m most proud of. Lots of road marathons, too, although it’s more half marathons nowadays.
Running is my zen time really, where my mind just heads in all directions. It’s still a big part of my life.
Corin Dann, a good mate of mine, got me into it. Started at 5 or 7-k runs. I took it up when my mum died back in 2001. It was a way to process the loss. That was the start of it — and once I start something, I don’t like to give it up.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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