Atakoha Middleton explores how Māori journalists balance tikanga and manaakitanga with asking hard questions. (Photo: Simon Smith AUT)

What makes Māori journalism distinctive? Atakohu Middleton, an award-winning journalist, has explored that question in her new book Kia Hiwa Rā!: Māori journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand.

One point of difference is that Māori journalists often operate within a cultural framework and worldview that can seem at odds with the conventions of journalism. How, for example, does a journalist ask hard questions of elders they’ve been raised to respect and revere? How do they balance tikanga and manaakitanga with the need to push for answers, whatever the cost?

All those questions came to the fore when Native Affairs, Māori TV’s current affairs programme, launched its controversial investigation of Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust, just over 10 years ago — as Atakohu recounts in this extract from Kia Hiwa Rā!

 

In te ao Māori, we are raised to revere elders and leaders. However, in a tribal society with an age-related hierarchy, reporters who push for answers or display scepticism at what they are told can be accused of a lack of manaakitanga.

This isn’t unique to Māori reporters, of course: “Most people don’t like to be rude or confrontational, particularly to those in leadership,” said Annabelle Lee-Mather. “Learning to ask hard questions while maintaining relationships comes with experience.”

Kereama Wright said that when he was a junior journalist, he had to consciously give himself permission to ask what needed to be asked. He was raised with the words “Kaua e whakahōhā, kaua e whakahōhā i ngā pakeke!” (Don’t be annoying, don’t annoy your elders), and when he started at Te Karere, learning on the job, those words echoed:

It’s kind of what I had in the back of the mind, ‘kaua e whakahōhā’ [don’t be a nuisance]. But then, early in, I realised ‘no, you need to be the hōhā [nuisance]’. In order to do this work, you need to be the hōhā. Ki te kore koe e whakahōhā, kāore koe e whai kaikōrero, kāore he kaupapa, nē? [If you don’t make a nuisance of yourself, you won’t get your interviewee, and you won’t have the story, will you?]

He decided he would ask the necessary questions, but with humility: “A tikanga that I’ve kind of created for myself is be the hōhā . . . but be the hōhā with respect and be the hōhā ā-ngākau Māori nei [a nuisance, but with kindness and respect]. So a lot of the time, I approach everyone respectfully and ko te reo Māori te reo kōrero [and speak in Māori].”

Gloria Taumaunu took the same approach: “It’s in how you handle things. You’re not entitled to their whakautu [a response], or their whakaaro [thoughts], but you can ask respectfully.” In addition, it was only fair to give notice of potentially confronting questions, which aligned with manaakitanga.

Taumaunu said: “I think you have to make them aware that you are going to ask the questions. You can’t lull them into ‘Okay, it’s just a kōrero, a chat,’ and then hit them while they’re sitting there in front of you, because you get them on the back foot.”

Mihingarangi Forbes and Annabelle Lee-Mather have earned reputations for being unafraid to push for answers; to expect accountability, they believe, is no contravention of tikanga. Mihingarangi said, “Asking questions doesn’t impinge on anyone’s mana; it’s their answer that does that.”

However, manaakitanga was key: “Making sure the person is treated with dignity is key.” Annabelle took a similar stance: “Their answers will either enhance their mana or diminish it.” She was upfront with interviewees about her intentions and reminded them of the possible outcomes:

I say to them, ‘I’m going to be asking you some tough questions that might make you feel uncomfortable, but this gives you the chance to front-foot this take [issue] in your own words. If I don’t ask you, then people will think I’ve given you a patsy interview and that makes both of us look bad.’ Most accept this. And if they don’t, they don’t — you just have to suck it up and do your job.

To avoid asking difficult but necessary questions, she said, was “An insult to both the talent and our audience . . . it’s important to remind ourselves that our responsibility is to the ordinary Māori who pay our salary through the tax dollars that funds our programmes. Our job is to seek the truth for them.”

(Supplied)

Native Affairs and Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust

Forbes and Lee-Mather were among the Native Affairs team that investigated the financial dealings of Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust, asking questions on behalf of members of the kōhanga reo movement who felt their concerns were being dismissed.

The collective, which represented 60 language nests, alleged that their schools were starved of cash and their buildings falling apart while the trust and its wholly owned commercial arm, Te Pātaka Ōhanga (TPO), made questionable purchases, stockpiled cash and refused to answer questions. The collective felt it had no option but to turn to Native Affairs.

The ensuing story, A Question of Trust, outlined the collective’s allegations and used publicly available information to show the trust had $13 million in reserves. However, the board refused to engage with journalists, despite repeated requests and written questions.

The board also unsuccessfully tried to injunct transmission of A Question of Trust. However, it was forced to provide financial information in making its bid to block that broadcast, and Native Affairs successfully applied to use this information in a second programme, Feathering the Nest. This was based on records of credit-card transactions made by a board member and her daughter-in-law, the general manager of TPO, and showed lavish personal spending.

A Serious Fraud Office investigation concluded that, while there were issues with credit-card use and general governance at Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust, there was no criminal wrongdoing. However, a review of TPO, the commercial arm, under the Charities Act 2005, found serious wrongdoing and it was given a formal warning. The trust board was required to make substantial changes to its staffing and procedures.

This was investigative journalism that brought positive change. However, principal reporter Mihingarangi Forbes told Stuff that, from the beginning of the investigation, she and colleagues were pressured from within Māoridom to drop it. “We all got emails and calls saying, ‘just leave it alone’ and ‘why is a Māori organisation investigating another Māori organisation?’ We should be able to put the microscope on our own.”

The facts had to be established, she added, and a Māori organisation was best-placed to do so: “We understand what they are trying to do, and often have sympathy for their aims. But we won’t let them hide behind tikanga if they’re not tika [acting appropriately].”

After the allegations were first broadcast, the Kōhanga Reo National Trust Board complained to the MTS board in a bid to appeal to their peers. Jim Mather, then MTS chief executive and editor-in-chief, rejected the approach and directed the trust to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), one of several national watchdog agencies that hold the media to account.

The trust board complained to the BSA that the broadcast was inaccurate, unbalanced and unfair. The BSA, whose members are experts in journalism, broadcasting and the law, rejected the assertion, saying that the story had high public interest and was a legitimate investigation into a publicly funded body.

Still, some quarters of Māoridom said the approach Native Affairs took was “Pākehā-fied”, bashing Māori and lacking respect. It was not, they said, tikanga Māori. The reporters disagreed, saying that citing a breach of tikanga was a defensive smokescreen; they had tried to meet with the board. Forbes said to the New Zealand Listener:

Tikanga Māori is kanohi ki te kanohi — face-to-face. So if that’s the case, they should have met with us. They ignored us from the beginning and went to court. So this whole tikanga thing is easy to throw up in the air. Throw your arms in the air and talk about tikanga when it’s not suiting you.

One stuff.co.nz commentator wrote that sexism was part of the dynamic:

The young, many of whom were female, journalists had the temerity to challenge the behaviour of the older, many of whom were male, members of the Māori establishment. The message from some disgruntled elders to the stroppy wāhine toa [warrior women] of Native Affairs seemed to be loud and clear: ‘You be quiet, girlie!’

Jim Mather left MTS in late 2013, and his successor, Paora Maxwell, was reported as having concerns about the tone of the approaches to the trust board. “When you challenge the establishment, you are going to get kickback,” he said. “If there was any criticism from me, it is about the tone. Tone is difficult to balance and it is difficult whenever a younger person is inquiring about an older establishment person.”

MTS was subsequently blocked from covering kōhanga reo-related stories, and this remained the case five years later, when Keith Ikin started as MTS chief executive in early 2018. In an attempt to clear the impasse, he met with those who were on Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust Board at the time the scandal erupted, and told the National Māori Journalism Hui in 2018:

We sat down and I saw the hurt that they beared [sic] through the telling of that story and the way that story was told and the impact that it had on them. And so the issue around us ensuring that we have balance is important . . . as Māori, yes, we hold decision-makers and we hold people in positions of power and positions of authority . . . to account. But we have a wider responsibility in terms of tikanga Māori, whakaaro ki te tangata [considering the people involved] and in that circumstance . . . I believe we got it wrong. I believe . . . we lacked balance.

As noted earlier, the BSA found that the reporting was not inaccurate, unbalanced and unfair. Still, two out of three Whakaata Māori CEOs had concerns about tone and balance. There is no evidence, however, that either publicly questioned the approach of the trust board in refusing to answer legitimate concerns and then seeking an injunction.

Very few of the CEOs up until that time had been professional journalists. However, they were Māori leaders in a small pool of Māori who might be related, and with whom they might have longstanding relationships. As Mihi Forbes writes here, we don’t know how influence and relationships behind the scenes may have played out in public pronouncements.

We do know, however, that the political environment around Māori Television is affected by “the highly complex Māori politics surrounding the appointment of the Māori TV board, and the close and interwoven politics of whānau, tribal allegiances, and personal friendships”. There were allegations of editorial interference at MTS while Paora Maxwell was CEO.

The above suggests a fundamental misunderstanding in some quarters of Māoridom about the role of journalism in a democracy. Māori journalists see their role as do their mainstream counterparts: to deliver truthful, fair and balanced information to their community of interest and monitor those in power. Tikanga and the Māori worldview informs the subjects chosen, the way in which news work is carried out and how it is presented. However, as the late veteran reporter Tāwini Rangihau said, “The ethics of journalism are the ethics of journalism in whatever language you’re reporting in.”

Such a role conception is reinforced and supported by a regulatory regime that applies to all news media in the shape of the BSA and the New Zealand Media Council; the same role conception has been noted in Indigenous journalism elsewhere.

Critics of the Native Affairs reporters also ignored the fact that Māori culture has long valued open and robust public debates. As parliamentarian Metiria Turei wrote at the time, “There is nothing un-Māori about confronting a misuse of power or asking questions of public figures. The open airing of issues is supposed to be a hallmark of hui [meetings] and kōrero.”

Indeed, Māori media speaking truth to the Māori powerful is not a new issue. In 1994, Ripeka Evans, then chief executive of Te Māngai Pāho, told the journal Hecate that critical reporting was necessary:

To question the Minister for Maori Affairs and his policies is not to attack Maori. To look critically at the structures of Maori organisations — such as Maori trust boards and other trusts and incorporations, or at the performance of some Maori leaders — is not necessarily to be hostile to Maori interests. Sunlight can in fact be a very good disinfectant. This comment is particularly true of ministers, bureaucracies and political organisations. However earnestly they believe they are doing their best, they are not themselves the clients.

Some in the Māori world felt it was not culturally acceptable for the trust’s leaders, revered stalwarts of the language revitalisation movement, to be questioned, and made their feelings known. Reflecting the debate, veteran reporter Maramena Roderick, who was not at MTS at the time, firmly rejected this view:

What’s forgotten in the kōhanga reo story is that it was a number of kōhanga reo themselves who raised the concerns. They protested. They had a right to be heard also. So what is a Māori way? Not to question? Not to do any story that may bring Māori into disrepute? That’s not journalism. I don’t even think it’s Māori.

Lee-Mather said it was hard for her to challenge the trust board, as she regarded two of its members, Tīmoti Kāretu and Te Wharehuia Milroy, as mentors; they had been her teachers in elite language school Te Panekiretanga o te Reo. For months, Native Affairs encouraged the board to talk, she said: “I sent through the entire question line . . . we weren’t trying to ambush them or catch them out . . . we just wanted to get them to the table and have this discussion and, of course, they wouldn’t do it.”

As she worked on the story, a proverb she had learned from the men stuck in her mind: “Takahia te tikanga kia ora ai te tikanga” (trample tikanga for the greater good):

I had to keep that in my head all the time because we were questioning the governance practices of the Kōhanga Reo National Trust and that included two men who I adore and hero-worship, and who have mentored me, who have been very generous kaiako [teachers] to me, and it was seen as a direct challenge to them. It wasn’t — it was a challenge of the governance of that organisation and that case was a quintessential example of ‘takahi te tikanga kia ora ai te tikanga’.

There were, she said, big issues at stake around the health of the kōhanga reo movement, and they had to be examined: “We did it because we wanted to draw attention to the fact that it’s a bit broken and needs some people to come in and take a look at it and figure out how to make it better again.”

Despite the “massive blowback” from those who felt that questioning elders was an attack on mana, Lee-Mather “felt good that those people who really needed a voice and a platform . . . got it”.

Viewers noticed, and in the following months, Native Affairs was “inundated” with tip-offs: “Message after message about dodgy kōhanga, dodgy marae, dodgy kaumātua, dodgy sports clubs, dodgy this, dodgy that. Our people are crying out for an outlet to have their nawe [complaints] heard, and they don’t want to take it to mainstream.”

The Native Affairs team, while the most high-profile journalists to date to be accused of trampling tikanga, are not alone. Several journalists reported that when investigating stories, people had cited tikanga to try to prevent them asking questions or taking footage.

Maramena Roderick described this as using tikanga as a weapon, and said, “Too often, Māori media are pressured from Māori who say, ‘You can’t do this story because of tikanga.’ What they’re really saying is ‘Know your place’.”

This was generally a signal, she said, that they didn’t know the answer or were trying to hide something, “which immediately raises a big, fat, red flag”. She added, “Those who have nothing to hide will be very upfront; they will ask for time to investigate. That’s fair. But those who threaten are usually trying to hide, and that’s a reason for media to dig even harder.”

 

This extract is from Kia Hiwa Rā!: Māori Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand by Atakohu Middleton ($45, Huia Publishers) and is reproduced here with the permission of Huia Publishers. It’s available for purchase from www.huia.co.nz

Dr Atakohu Middleton (Ngāti Māhanga, Pākehā) is a news and features journalist whose lengthy career has encompassed outlets as diverse as Radio Waatea, the Guardian (UK), the New Zealand Listener, the Sunday Star-Times, and the New Zealand Herald. She lives in Tāmaki Makaurau. Her book Kia Hiwa Rā!, on Māori journalism in Aotearoa, was released in January 2024.

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