Moera Tuilaepa-Taylor is already making a difference as the head of the Pacific news team at Radio New Zealand — the first Pacific person appointed to that role. Here she talks to Dale about why she became a journalist and why it’s important to have more Māori and Pacific journos telling our stories.
Talofa lava, Moera. I wonder if we might start our conversation with you telling us something about your background — which, I understand, has been a mixture of Porirua and Sāmoa.
Kia ora, Dale. Well, my mum, Aigafealofani Foloi, and my dad, Feagaimali’i Avi’i Tuilaepa, came over from Sāmoa, but they met here in Wellington. At church, in Petone. Mum came first with her older brother Faresa Auega in 1967. And I was born in the Hutt. But then Dad got a job at Todd Motors in Porirua and we moved out to Cannons Creek.
And, yeah, I still live out in the Creek. You can get some flak from people who have their own ideas about how rough Cannons Creek is. When I started my job with Radio New Zealand, there were those who said: “God! You live in Cannons Creek?” And I’d play along with that reaction by saying: “Yes, but things are so much better now that we’re allowed to carry sticks to protect ourselves!”
But I had a great childhood. Everyone in our street were kinda on the same page because they were immigrant families or Māori who’d moved into the city. So our community was a cultural melting pot — and I loved it. I still have friends who grew up with us in our street. Which is pretty good.
I’m a state house kid. Were you one?
Yes. Working-class background. And parents speaking Sāmoan at home. So Sāmoan was my first language and I didn’t speak English until I went to primary school. And, of course, my parents spoke English with a Sāmoan accent.
I remember once at primary school, when my mum came to drop off my lunch, one of the kids said: “Gee. Your mum has an accent, doesn’t she? She sounds funny.” But I didn’t think so. She just sounded normal to me. Everyone at home sounded like that. So that reaction was quite an eye-opener for me.
Cannons Creek was an eye-opener for my husband Richard, too, when he first arrived there. He grew up in Toronto, Canada, in a very white middle-class area. And he said: “My God. I haven’t seen so many brown people in my life. And I said: “Yeah. This is my hood. This is part of me. It’s an important part of my life.”
So you told him: “Get used to it or hit the road, Jack.” Nah. Just kidding. The fact that you’re still there together suggests it’s just right for the whole family.
Even though you’ve made your life in New Zealand, you have really strong ties with Sāmoa — and any bad news from there, like this measles epidemic, must be especially upsetting.
When the epidemic broke out in Auckland this winter, there was always a concern that it would reach into the Pacific — especially with the memory of how devastating the influenza epidemic was for Sāmoa, even though that was back in 1918, a hundred years ago. A lot of people can remember the stories they heard from their grandparents and great-grandparents about that terrible ‘flu.
I remember my grandmother talking about it, about seeing the dead bodies when she was little. And so there was always the fear that, if the measles got to Sāmoa, it’d be a serious concern.
But, for me, vaccinations are really a major issue in the developing nations. In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, for instance, or in the small villages in Sāmoa, those vaccinations are crucial in saving lives and in stopping the epidemic spreading any further.
Fifty or so years ago when you mum and dad came from Sāmoa, there were some New Zealanders, including Māori, who weren’t well-disposed to Pacific immigrants. Did your folks cop any of that prejudice and suspicion?
Our street was a mix of Sāmoan, Cook Island, Pākehā, and Māori — and us kids were a really tightknit group. We had good, strong relationships. Our families were all working class, so we were all on the same page. And my mother didn’t ever talk about the difficulties or challenges she had when she first came to New Zealand. But I do remember her saying how important it was to be educated and to hold on to our language, even though English was really necessary, too.
The Dawn Raids were a big issue and, as kids, we knew that the person in trouble might easily be our aunty or uncle. We learned to sit quietly in the car. No jumping around. And, when you saw a police car, we’d just be hoping that we weren’t pulled over by them.
I’m sure my mother did see racism when she was here in Aotearoa but it wasn’t something she spoke about when we were growing up. Dad’s English wasn’t that great because the friends that he hung out with were Sāmoan. And, when we were growing up, we’d be the ones translating and paying for things for our dad.
I’ve got cuzzies who’re in the Mongrel Mob. And, no doubt, coming from Cannons Creek, you’d have a few Mob contacts, too.
Yeah. I remember the first time Richard met a gang member. We were at a service station at Cannons Creek. I went in to pay for the petrol while he was putting the petrol in the car. Then this car pulls up and a really big Mongrel Mob guy gets out. I could see the look on my husband’s face. But, as I’m coming out, the mobster says: “Hey Moera. Whaddya up to?” And Richard’s jaw dropped. And I said: “John, nice to see you.”
Sure, there are gangsters I know. Guys I grew up with at Glenview Primary School. Guys whose whānau are in gangs. But, of course, you still say hello. You shouldn’t forget where you come from.
Well, here you are now holding down an important job within Radio New Zealand, as the head of Pacific News. And one reason it’s important is that we still don’t have enough Pasifika journalists. We still don’t have enough Pacific voices in the media. I wonder what attracted you to this line of work.
My sister always said I was a natural nosey parker as a kid. She reckons I’m really in the best position to do the work that I do — and that’s asking questions.
But really it was Tapu Misa’s article in 1987 in North & South that resonated with me. It was so awesome to see a Pacific woman in a major mainstream magazine. She really inspired me to get into journalism. And it was so funny when I actually met her years later. It was like having a fan-girl moment. I was like: “I so love you.”
Her story resonated with so many friends who I know are still in the media. And it was that article that had them saying: “Yeah, that’s who I want to be. I want a job where I can tell our stories.”
Well, as you know, Tapu’s still doing that mahi, here at E-Tangata. Like you, I’ve appreciated the chance to work alongside her. And with Gary Wilson and with Derek Fox back in the day with Mana Māori Media and Mana magazine. They’re all conscious that too many of our Māori and Pasifika stories are still being told by Pākehā. So we’ve always been encouraging our people to play a bigger part in the media.
Just step us through how you came to be doing what you do as a radio journalist. Did you go off to journalism school?
When I left Porirua College in 1988, I did media studies at Whitireia Polytechnic. It was called Parumoana Community College in those days. Initially, I wanted to do print journalism. But then I discovered radio and instantly loved it.
Then, after only two years, I got the opportunity to work at RNZ in the operators pool. Operators are the ones who compile the programmes for RNZ and put the programmes to air. So I worked in the general operators pool for a year and a bit. Then a job came up with RNZ International where I got to focus on the Pacific and helped make programmes for Pacific communities.
After that, I took the Manukau Institute’s Pacific journalism course, which was fantastic. The friends I made on that course are still friends today. Some are still in the media, but others have gone into communications, which is where the money is.
We do encourage young Māori and Pacific students to train for the media. But are we doing enough?
I don’t think we are. I see too few Pasifika students among those doing media courses. What we need are Pasifika journalists telling our own stories. We need our stories coming from us. And told in our way. As more Pasifika people are integrated into Aotearoa life, there’s still a few who want to do journalism. But, unfortunately, a lot more want to do communications. Or indulge in the media just through social media.
Because we’re short of journalists who know, first hand, what’s going on in Pacific communities, the coverage is unbalanced in the media. Yes, there’s some bad stuff going on in our communities and that deserves attention. But there are amazing and positive things going on, too. New developments. Talented artists. Enterprising professionals and academics.
But too seldom do those achievements catch the attention of the media. Those stories don’t filter out nearly enough. And they won’t while so few Māori and Pasifika journos are there within the media and in a position to tell those stories.
I’ve been very pleased to see significant changes in attitudes and appointments at RNZ. The moves must’ve been encouraging for you and your colleagues.
When I came into this job, the only person I knew was Elma Maua who was always trying get more Pasifika voices on to mainstream media. But my chance came when Carol Hirschfeld, who was my boss then, told me I should apply for the manager’s role because “it’s really important that this is driven by a Pacific person from now on.”
So I did apply. And there’s Shannon Haunui-Thompson, who’s leading RNZ’s Māori strategy. Māni Dunlop who became the head of Māori news. And Leilani Momoisea who heads the RNZ social engagement team. It’s been great to see more Māori and Pacific in management positions at RNZ. So that’s a significant change.
This year I hired Koro Vaka’uta as RNZ Pacific’s news editor. He’s Tongan-Māori and the first Pacific or Māori in this position. Increasing the diversity within our team is really important to me — our staff should reflect the communities we report on. We now have seven Pacific reporters on our team who each bring language skills and links to their Pacific communities and are able to tell stories through a Pacific lens.
What are some of the significant stories, good and bad, that stick in your mind?
Domestic violence is still a massive issue in the Pacific region and some of the Pacific communities, whether people want to take ownership of that or not.
I did volunteer work for the Porirua Women’s Refuge for a long time so I saw a lot of the stuff that goes on there. There are a good many women in NGOs in the region doing fantastic work, on hardly any money, trying to combat violence against women. And it’s been important to tell their stories.
Climate change is a real fear in the region. Every time my mother goes back to Sāmoa she sees the water rising higher and coming closer. She can see how much change there’s been since her childhood. Education and jobs are other issues.
You can get imprisoned if you write the wrong stuff in some Pacific regions. In those places, it’s difficult, or maybe even impossible, to get the real story when some governments are insisting on PR pieces.
I know that what we do here in Wellington, as well as in our office in Auckland, is a real privilege because we can broadcast stories that are critical and can get to the bottom of an issue — whereas our colleagues in the region don’t have that luxury. They sometimes face threats and intimidation, maybe by the police. So there’s a real safety concern for them.
It’s been an interesting kõrero, Moera, and I thank you very much for what you’ve been sharing. But, in these final moments, I’m inviting you to look beyond your work and let us know what other interests you have.
Well, I love to travel, and I feel blessed that I’ve been able to do that. Another passion of mine is doing voluntary work. I first did that in Brazil where I was a support worker for a centre for kids whose parents couldn’t afford after-school care. I was supposed to write a newsletter but I ended up helping in other areas.
And the work in Brazil led me on to doing work for Women’s Refuge in Porirua. I also taught ESOL (English for speakers of other languages). And I helped with Literacy Aotearoa for a bit.
There are so many people who have slipped through the education system in this country and can’t read. But I’m in awe of how they’ve been able to adapt enough to survive and hold down jobs. I do stuff for the Cancer Society in Wellington, too. So that’s me. Plus looking after my two dogs and my husband.
But, finally, Dale, I want to acknowledge the work you’ve done over the years. It’s been really important and I’ve loved it.
Well, sis, we’re on the same waka. So that makes me feel good.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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