NewsroomTaylor Swift. Who could’ve imagined that an innocuous, mainstream, tween popstar from Pennsylvania would perform the last rites when the end came? But Taylor Swift it was. She and her mate from the North Shore, Lorde. We shouldn’t blame them. They just wanted to be friends.

It was you lot, really. You audience members (a group formally known to the newspaper industry as readers) wanted to know every detail about this blossoming pop princess mateship. So we did what we had to do. We mined Twitter for you, slapped on an enticing headline, and you all came clicking.

That’s how Māori news reporting finally died at the New Zealand Herald. Near enough, anyway.

I’ll explain.

Once a lightning rod for debate and dissent and maybe even a beacon of hope in the unwinnable quest for genuine diversity in New Zealand’s newsrooms, the Herald no longer has a designated reporter for Māori issues. It hasn’t had one since December 2014, when James Ihaka departed for life less crushing as a public relations staffer at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.

That’s not to say the Herald doesn’t want a “Māori Affairs” reporter. It’s been trying unsuccessfully to recruit one for 14 months. The problem is that it can’t find a highly-skilled, well-connected Māori journalist to work for peanuts in return for simultaneously chasing ambulances, regurgitating tweets and digesting proposed changes to the Māori Fisheries Act 2004.

What’s that got to do with Taylor Swift? Here’s what. Shortly after James Ihaka departed, a new reporter arrived in the newsroom, bright-eyed and bushy tailed. She’d made the big time. Her first assignment? Cobble together a story about Lorde tweeting to Taylor Swift. It wasn’t this story about Lorde posting a photo to Twitter of herself holding Swift’s foot, but it might as well have been. To this day, that reporter is still trying to shake off the hangover from that crushing reality check.

 

News ain’t what it used to be. And Māori news, as James points out, is just one of many casualties in a journalistic traffic war that places the acquisition of unique browsers (website clicks) above all sorts of antiquated concepts. Like genuine news value. Accuracy. Ethical standards. And that sort of guff.

But Māori news is the most glaring casualty — and the one that reflects most poorly on a nation allegedly founded on a genuine partnership.

“I’m pretty bummed out about it, really,” says James about not being replaced. “But not surprised. That was the way it was going.”

Willie Jackson, the boss of Radio Waatea, is much less polite.

“You guys are a disgrace,” he rages. “You white people want to protect your white people, Steve. I think there’s an institutional racism that pervades the mainstream media. I really do.”

There’s a lot to unpack there. Firstly, Willie has an ability to harangue people without automatically hurting their feelings. There’s no trace of malice in “you white people”. It’s good-natured ribbing. Good-natured but utterly exasperated. And, as for “you guys”, Willie still thinks of me as a Herald reporter, which I was for the vast majority of the 10 years we’ve known each other.

Willie, as it happens, is on the warpath over the lack of Māori content on National Radio. And his spray at the Herald is at least partly motivated by the paper’s failure to take up his cause after his “research” claimed that the state-funded broadcaster was delivering a pitiful amount of Māori content.

“They are our national broadcaster. They have an obligation. That’s why I’m angry about it. We used to have our language on that channel. This is meant to be a country where we have a partnership going on.

“You think the Herald will do anything? Not interested. Do you think the Dominion will do something? Not interested. It’s a classic case of how white people love protecting their interests. They don’t want to hear any criticism of their racist media outlets that shut out Māori.”

There’s an obvious explanation for the Herald’s lack of interest in the story. Which is that this would be a curious cause to adopt for a news organisation with not even one Māori issues reporter.

I should mention here that Willie isn’t a disinterested observer. Radio Waatea was once contracted to supply Māori news on National Radio but RNZ ended that arrangement in 2011.

That’s not to say that Willie doesn’t have a point. As RNZ’s CEO and editor-in-chief Paul Thompson acknowledges “the main thrust of [Willie’s] argument has merit” — even though his research “is not credible” and “some of his criticism from it ill-informed”.

“He and others believe RNZ should do a much better job of reporting, analysing, explaining and celebrating topics that concern and are highly relevant to Māori. I agree. … We do some good things in this arena but we also know that we can improve.”

Paul adds that RNZ has been working on “a new long-term strategy that represents an increased commitment to creating high-quality Māori content, supporting te reo Māori and fostering Māori journalism. At the core of the plan is a belief that our credible Māori journalism and journalists must be prominent within our primetime news and current affairs shows and bulletins, not side-lined into a short Māori bulletin.”

 

I asked Shayne Currie, the managing editor of NZME — the company that publishes the Herald — for a response to the issues raised in this story but he was on annual leave at the time of writing.

But I can at least report the Herald position on Māori affairs up until late last year. Before I left the newspaper in November, I was told the company was still seeking a Māori affairs reporter but had been unable to recruit anyone with sufficient ability. Several people in the know told me it was due to the lowball salary on offer — around $50,000 a year.

That no Māori journalist feels compelled to accept a lower-mid-level salary for performing a job that requires significant skill and experience is perhaps the only silver lining in this story.

“They’re expecting someone with experience to pick up the round,” says James Ihaka. “No one is going to do that. They’re not going to leave Māori TV or Te Karere, take a pay cut and move up to bloody Auckland.”

The job is not one for a rookie.

“It presents so many more challenges than every other round,” says James. “You’re expected to have contacts in pretty much every field — like in sport, the Māori business world. You’ve got the Māori economy which is worth, what, $40 billion now? You’re expected to have contacts there. You’re expected to have contacts in all the different marae and iwi throughout the country. The Māori affairs reporter covers pretty much every round. It’s just got Māori in front of it.”

Successfully pitching stories to the (almost exclusively Pākehā) senior staffers he reported to was often a challenge as well, says James.

“When you’re having to explain to the chief reporter why a particular Māori story really is a story — and then also explain the background and history — you’re really on the back foot. I had some good, pressing issues that needed to be told and they were dropped for real estate stories in Auckland. It was an uphill battle. When you’re having to give history lessons to the people who’re supposed to be managing what you’re doing, well, that was pretty frustrating.”

The biggest letdown, though, came on the day James was offered the role. He was informed it had been downgraded from a full-time position to one that would be expected to take up no more than 30 per cent of his time. It was a clear signal that Māori news was no longer highly valued.

“As soon as I heard that I thought: Oh f**k.

“Māori news had been diluted quite a bit so there was only so much I could do. Māori operate by this concept kanohi kitea — which basically means when your face is seen. So you’ve got to attend the different hui, go to the various marae and to the grassroots things before you’re going to establish that level of trust and get reliable sources. That takes a lot of time. But, in the environment that we were in, it just wasn’t possible.

“I’m a bit gutted that we aren’t getting the coverage that we could be getting. We used to have the likes of Jon [Stokes] and Yvonne [Tahana] who were very prominent Māori affairs reporters. They had distinct voices and were very good journalists who provided quality coverage. You got the diluted version with me. There is a chunk of news that is missing but you could argue that with a lot of news these days. If you look at a newspaper from 2010 compared to what you can get now, they are completely different things.”

 

Concerns over the lack of Māori journalists in the mainstream print media aren’t new. Just last week Herald columnist Scotty Stevenson wrote about the overwhelmingly white, middle aged press pack that covers rugby in this country. Last year, Scott Campbell, a former television reporter, also raised the issue of the lack of diversity in national newsrooms.

And a decade ago, Gary Wilson (a co-founder of e-tangata) penned an extensive report for the Journalists Training Organisation outlining the “steadfastly Pākehā” make-up of the mainstream media. What he couldn’t have known was that, in comparison with today, they were the golden years of Māori and Pacific Island reporting by the mainstream press.

The Herald has been here before.

Before Jon Stokes, a hard-nosed pro, took on the Māori Affairs role in April 2004, the Herald had muddled along for several years without a specialist. According to Jon, the paper simply hadn’t been able to attract a candidate of sufficient ability.

“Then Don Brash came to the fore,“ he says. “Orewa speech, Māori privilege. And I think the Herald was stunned that it didn’t have the ability to tap into a lot of stories in that space.”

Jon was recruited from the Waikato Times and immediately repaid the investment in him. The Māori Party was in the process of being formed, National was making political gains attacking Māori privilege and Labour was rapidly distancing themselves from anything to do with Māori development. Māori stories were front and centre of the news agenda.

“It culminated in the foreshore and seabed hikoi in Wellington. That was my first week. The Herald were rapt. They’d struck gold by reinvesting in the Māori round.”

Can we expect that to happen again? I doubt it. This doesn’t feel like just another turn of the wheel. It feels like the end.

 

What does it mean for Kiwis if mainstream media outlets such as the Herald stop attempting to cover Māori issues from an insider’s perspective?

Yvonne Tahana, who left the Herald in 2013, believes the paper’s Pākehā reporters do a good job of covering Māori issues — up to a point. She sees its press gallery reporters as confident and competent in covering Māori political stories, while the likes of Kirsty Johnson (education reporter) has done excellent work highlighting issues at Māori boarding schools.

But, she says those stories tend to be “problem” stories — “with Māori as the problem”.

She cites a report in a British newspaper about the number of Māori in New Zealand’s prisons as another example. Written by a Kiwi journalist, the story was well-executed — and Yvonne had in fact written a similar piece a few years earlier. But it still bugged her.

“I was quietly furious about it. There’s this whole world of Māoridom and you want to write about Māoris that are in prison.”

“I did a feature on it myself. But I did other things as well. Not just Māori as a problem. I did fun stuff too. I can look at myself in the mirror.”

She didn’t complain, at least not publicly.

“One thing you run the risk of, if you complain, is that Pākehā won’t write Māori stories any more — and I don’t want that. I actually think ‘well done’ to the Pākehā who want to do Māori stories. Bless you.”

 

A mainstream media landscape that routinely only covers “Māori as a problem” will do more than just ruffle a few sensibilities, says Steve Elers. He’s a Massey University journalism lecturer and he says racial stereotyping — such as that routinely produced by search engine Google until Steve brought it to the media’s attention — has a real impact on how we view each other as people.

“Numerous studies have shown that the mainstream media tend to stereotype Māori as either mad, bad or sad,” says Steve. “These negative depictions of Māori are legitimised and gain cultural currency because the media are seen to be reliable sources of information. This influences how other New Zealanders view Māori.

For example: “The media will often try to find someone to speak on behalf of Māori communities about social issues such as child abuse. But where are the Pākehā leaders in the media speaking out against white-collar crime or child pornography? According to the statistics on the website of the Department of Internal Affairs, every year in this country there are hundreds of Pākehā men charged with trading child pornography compared to three or four Māori. Where is the media coverage? And where are the Pākehā leaders speaking out against it?”

Another example: “On Tuesday October 15, 2013, the Herald’s front page was dedicated to a story about the Kohanga Reo trust’s alleged misappropriation of funds which was in the vicinity of tens of thousands of dollars. The day before, Kenneth John Anderson pleaded guilty to fraud concerning $118 million dollars. He didn’t make the front page — the Kohanga Reo did.”

What, then, can be done? James Ihaka doesn’t believe the answer lies with the likes of the Herald.

“At the best of times, your average Māori story wasn’t going to get much coverage anyway,” he says. “Now you’ve got the likes of Rodney Hide saying it’s the market at work and it’s what the average person wants that counts. It isn’t politics or economics. And you’d probably count Māori issues in there as well. The real problem we’ve got is that, if it’s not going to be the Herald, who are the other sources of news for Māori that you can turn to? It probably isn’t Māori TV any more — they’ve lost most of their good journalists thanks to what looks like an editorial clampdown.”

Willie Jackson agrees.

“It’s really disillusioning. We have a real lack of Māori stories in the Herald. The only stories getting in are what they consider sensational. The Herald doesn’t get it from a rounded perspective of what is happening in this country.”

Castigating the Herald is fair only to a point. Despite operating in the shadow of what many believe will prove to be a fatal brush with disruption to its business model, New Zealand’s biggest metropolitan newspaper maintains a genuine commitment to quality journalism. This month it reformed an investigations team that had been in abeyance since the latest restructure. The team consists of around 10 of the country’s most skilled reporters. Many of them are well paid (by industry standards, anyway) and they are all highly motivated to produce journalism that matters.

Last week I met with Jared Savage, the Herald investigations editor and I asked him a question where I already knew the answer: “How many brown faces are there in your team?”

 

© e-tangata, 2016

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