Hōmai Te Pakipaki was one of Whakaata Māori’s most loved shows. “Whānau from across the motu would queue for the chance to belt out karaoke numbers from Aotearoa’s rugby clubs and garages.” (Hōmai Te Pakipaki /Facebook)

Māori Television — now Whakaata Māori — turned 20 last week. Jamie Tahana looks back on the long fight to make the Māori television channel a reality.

 

The first words to air on Māori Television were made up in a panic.

It was March 2004, and Julian Wilcox was standing in the predawn darkness, torches lit around him, a crowd gathering behind. Alongside his co-host Rongomaianiwaniwa Milroy, they were readying themselves to take a brand new channel, the product of a decades-long fight, to air.

On screens around the country, a title montage was counting down. Viewers were watching a rising sun, paddling waka, motifs etched in sand, frozen mountain peaks, tumbling glaciers and braided rivers. A pre-recorded karakia kicked in over the images. It was Julian’s voice. “Whakataka te hau ki te uru, whakataka te hau ki te tonga . . .”

Hearing this in his earpiece, only seconds from going live, he panicked.

“I’d forgotten I’d used the words that were going to be my karakia when we went live in the titles, which we’d recorded two weeks earlier. I went, ‘Crap, I can’t repeat that!’ So I had to make it up on the spot.”

He did. He raised his eyebrow, then stared down the barrel of the camera.

“E ngā iwi o te motu, tēnā koutou kātoa. Nau mai ki te wā whakatihi nei . . .”

Māori Television, Aotearoa’s Indigenous public broadcaster, was now a reality.

Julian chuckles while recalling that morning. “Ad-libbed, bro. I ad-libbed the first line of Whakaata Māori. Made it out like I’d prepared it, but I was freaking out, going, ‘Jeez, you’d better come up with something.’”

That the very first lines were ad-libbed says something of the can-do nature that would come to define the network that brought so many Māori voices, faces and experiences to the screens — busting te ao Māori out of the Sunday morning deadlands.

Māori Television, now Whakaata Māori, last week marked 20 years since it went to air. But as everyone I spoke to — from people who’ve worked for it in the past to those leading it into the future — affirms, its story begins long before then.

The kākano (seed) was planted by the luminaries of the Māori renaissance, who fought at every level to bring it to light. It overcame pessimism and doubt, political attacks, and a dearth of resources to find its stride. It told Māori stories, explored Māori issues, challenged Māori ways and thinking, and celebrated Māori in ways seldom seen before. It introduced phrases that seeped into the national vernacular: “Mean Māori Mean.”

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The Māori Language Petition was presented to Parliament on September 14, 1972, spearheaded by 22-year-old Hana Te Hemara. (Photo: Ministry of Culture and Heritage (URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/maori-language-petition-1972)

Hana Te Hemara stepped on to the forecourt of parliament, flanked by members of Ngā Tamatoa and Te Reo Māori Society. It was September 1972, and they had gathered beneath the Beehive — then a naked steel skeleton of a construction site — in the squally rain. In their hands were boxes of papers containing the signatures of more than 30,000 people, demanding that te reo be taught in schools.

The native language of this land was close to extinction. In 1970, only five percent of tamariki Māori could speak it. One survey in the Wairarapa settlement of Papawai found only one person under the age of 44 who could speak Māori fluently. In many other areas, there was no one. “They felt that the language could be lost completely unless something was done to bring it back,” the report concluded.

Ngā Tamatoa were rangatahi whose whānau had been strapped or caned for speaking their language — who at primary school had to write lines in dusty chalk on the blackboard: “I will not speak Māori.” In 1970s New Zealand, if someone was to turn on the radio or television, announcers were more preoccupied with curating their Queen’s English than pronouncing Taupō or Māori correctly. The artist and scholar, Kura Te Waru Rewiri, told The Press in 1972: “No Māori newspapers, no television time for Māori language, and only half an hour once a week on the National Radio programme.”

Broadcasting was such a powerful medium. Most evenings, from the city centres to the rural hinterlands, most people would gather round their black and white television sets after devouring a dinner of lamb chops and three veg, all watching the same programmes on one of two channels. If tamariki could see and hear themselves, the advocates thought, then that would be a powerful tool to revive the language.

Te Hemara’s petition was the catalyst for famous land marches, protests, and efforts to reclaim language and rights. It also brought a wave of scrutiny to the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation.

In 1978, Te Reo Māori Society was back at parliament with another petition, this time a 25,000-signature call for a recognisable Māori presence on television. Māori content at the time was largely confined to light entertainment and the arts. On current affairs programmes, it was mostly Pākehā reporters spotlighting Māori in the throes of urbanisation.

The calls worked. In the 1980s, a wave of new programmes aired, including the four-minute news programme Te Karere, Waka Huia and Koha. But even with these changes, Māori programmes remained minimal outside of their allocated slots.

In 1984, the bearded unionist Huirangi Waikerepuru took a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal calling for te reo to be preserved and made an official language. The tribunal met at Waiwhetū Marae in Lower Hutt, where Huirangi would say: “Broadcasting is, perhaps, the most powerful medium of communication that we have, and therefore it is important that Māori language be used to as wide a range as possible.”

In four weeks of hearings, the tribunal heard from kaumātua who had borne witness to the withering of the reo as well as young activists fighting for its survival. They argued that the Crown — and, by extension, the state-owned broadcasters — had contributed to the loss through exclusion. The tribunal agreed, stating that: “It is consistent with the principles of the Treaty that the language and matters of Māori interest should have a secure place in broadcasting.” The Crown had signed a treaty and, therefore, had an obligation to “active protection”.

But this was the 1980s, and the Lange government was selling state assets left, right and centre. The radio stations were mostly being sold off, and TVNZ was corporatised into a state-owned enterprise. This worried Huirangi. Māori content was already ghettoised in the darklands of Sunday morning, so if TVNZ was sold or given a purely commercial mandate, then what would that mean for its obligations to Māori?

At the same time, the government was auctioning off radio frequencies. So, instead of stations borrowing a frequency, they were now being sold to the highest bidder. With nothing put aside, there was a fear Māori would be shut out entirely.

Huirangi was back before the tribunal. Alongside the Māori Council, he also filed injunctions in the High Court to have the changes halted until the government came up with a plan to protect te reo. That action would make its way through every layer of the legal system to the Privy Council which, in 1993, made substantial findings about the Crown’s duties of protection. The court action also wrangled some key promises, among them that the Crown would investigate creating a Māori TV channel.

*

It was around this time that a young journalist from Feilding, Mihingarangi Forbes, was starting out. “Māori programmes at TVNZ were successful for many years, but it was bloody tough, you know,” she told me. “Te Karere was in the newsroom, then next year it was out of the newsroom, then next year it was back in the newsroom as the bosses decided whether they wanted it or not.”

Julian Wilcox was a young journalist in Wellington, starting with the fledgling Māori radio station Te Upoko o Te Ika. “Let’s be honest,” he said. “If TVNZ had done its job for Māori in line with the remit that they had been given, you wouldn’t have Māori Television today. But they didn’t. They kept ghettoising all our content onto a Sunday morning platform, and we were left behind.”

In the 1990s, calls for a stand-alone Māori television channel were growing louder. Māori radio stations were opening up and down the country, but TV was lagging behind. The Privy Council case only served to highlight the chasm. Then, in 1996, the government finally announced it would fund a pilot for a Māori channel.

“It wasn’t set up well and it became a political football,” recalled Mihingarangi, who moved to Auckland to join the station, dubbed the Aotearoa Television Network.

From announcement to launch, ATN was given seven weeks to hire staff, train them, find studios and then prepare programming. The contract required three hours of original Māori television seven nights a week for 13 weeks with a budget of $2.6 million. It broadcast in Auckland, but its 500-watt signal was so weak most people couldn’t see it. It started attracting political heat over how its money was being spent, and whether it was meeting its targets, which many in the industry agreed were next to impossible. Aotearoa Television folded 10 months later.

“It wasn’t just a television station falling over, it was lives, livelihoods, families. That was the first time I’ve ever been unemployed,” Mihingarangi said. “Some people had to move back home because there were no jobs.”

For some, burned by the scandal and demise of ATN, there was a sense of dread that it might have been the one shot blown, that the fight for Māori television had gone. For others, though, it only galvanised their resolve that it be done properly. A half-hearted attempt wouldn’t make the obligation to uphold te reo in broadcasting go away.

“I always wanted to be at Māori Television.” Julian Wilcox with his awards for best news or current affairs presenter and best te reo Maori presenter in 2012. (Sandra Mu/Getty Images)

“I think it actually taught us to do it better, to be smarter, to not say we’d do it for peanuts,” Mihingarangi said. “And I think the people who put their hands up for Whakaata Māori said: ‘No, this has got to be done the right way or we’re not doing it at all because of what happened at ATN.’”

In 2001, the Labour government decided to try again. Helen Clark announced a new publicly-owned television service, saying: “This government also accepts the obligation to promote Māori language and culture through the medium of television.” Julian Wilcox, who moved to Te Karere after ATN, was eager. “I always wanted to be at Māori Television,” he said.

“When Māori Television got given the green light, we felt like it was us against the world. We wanted to compete against TVNZ, against TV3 and against Sky, because we felt that’s what our people deserved. Quality content that they could see for themselves, made by themselves, that was as good as, if not better than, anything else in the business.”

Annabelle Lee-Mather, who was at Ruia Mai, was the first reporter hired by Māori Television. “I was desperate to be there and didn’t have any better offers. I was more than happy to go, but everyone was like, ‘Oh nah, we don’t know if it’s going to float.’”

*

John Davy was a Canadian businessman with a stellar CV. He had a master’s degree in business administration from Denver State University, was a member of the BC Securities Commission, and the chief executive of large companies in the Middle East. He was a national fencing champion and the author of two books. He told Māori TV’s board that he wanted to use his significant experience to help the new channel get off the ground, and that he could start as chief executive immediately. He was hired in 2002.

There was just one issue. None of his claims were true. His books couldn’t be found, nor could any of his previous career experience. All that could be found to match his degree was that it could be bought online for $159. After six weeks, he was fired and charged with fraud. He spent three months in prison before being deported to Canada an hour after his release.

It was hardly the most glorious start for a taxpayer-funded broadcaster, and it only intensified the scrutiny. This was the early 2000s, and the political knives were out. The Clark government had just dropped all mention of Māori from its “closing the gaps” policies, and then the Foreshore and Seabed fracas stirred up. National was questioning the value of a Māori television channel, saying the money would be better spent on books in schools for Māori to learn to read. Māori Television didn’t help itself either, when, later in 2003, chief executive Derek Fox resigned amid a harassment scandal, and another executive resigned within a week of launch.

“There was some understandable criticism, and then there was some criticism that was just racist and resentful because, you know, there’s nothing like the combination of Māori and millions in money to really outrage some New Zealanders,” said Annabelle Lee-Mather.

Downtown at TVNZ’s glassy Hobson Street headquarters, watching this all play out, Shane Taurima was a presenter on Marae. “Māori Television was being used as a political football, being kicked around, and it didn’t really matter what happened,” he said. “It was really challenged from the outset, and I always remember feeling sorry for them because I don’t think that Whakaata Māori was actually given the best opportunity to succeed.”

Julian Wilcox said the criticism was widespread. “The thing people forget is that it wasn’t just non-Māori who were a little bit negative about it. There were our own people who were working in broadcasting at the time, who didn’t want to come because they thought we weren’t going to be open for long.

The thing that kept us going was knowing we had these luminaries in Māoridom. You had our kaumātua in broadcasting, Huirangi Waikerepuru, going ‘Kia kaha, kia kaha’. We always had the backing of the key people.”

Then, despite all the hurdles and doubts, launch day finally came.

*

Julian Wilcox remembers the morning of March 28, 2004 vividly. The weather was meant to be terrible, he recalled, with storm warnings for all of Auckland. There was also a sense of dread in the pit of his stomach as he headed to work at 3am. After all this fight, after all this controversy, would anyone actually show up for the public launch?

“I can still remember what I was wearing, actually,” Julian said. A black jacket and a white T-shirt, a “minimal amount of hair gel”, black pants.

The plan was to air six hours of rolling coverage from its studios in the suburb of Newmarket. Home to luxury car dealerships and boutiques, surrounded by the mansions of Parnell, Epsom and Remuera, Newmarket was hardly renowned for its high Māori population, even if the studios were in a converted office block next to an aquatic centre and a TAB. Why not down south or out west? Māori Television said it wanted to be central so it could attract entertainers and politicians to be interviewed. But the issue of location did weigh on Julian’s mind that morning as he was sitting in make-up. After three years of controversy, they would look a bit foolish if no one actually showed up.

He needn’t have worried. The weather was fine, and there were hundreds of people outside. “I can still recall who was in front of me. You had Te Arikinui Te Atairangikaahu in the middle. To her right, Eru Thompson, Te Warena Taua. To her left you had Te Aopehi Kara, Parekura Horomia, Huirangi Waikerepuru, and just beside him was my uncle Pat Hohepa. And behind them, you couldn’t see in the dark. All you could see was movement and shape and form.”

At six o’clock, the karanga rang out over Newmarket. The ope headed up the stairs, across the verandah and through the doors, where they blessed the new studios. Whakaata Māori was live. Also there was Annabelle Lee-Mather, gathering material for the first edition of Te Kaea at 8:30 that night.

“I remember that morning really clearly, waking up in the dark, heading down there, all the people that were there. Just a profound sense of gratefulness that we got to be a part of it,” she said.

As the ceremony unfolded and the sun rose in Auckland, Mihingarangi Forbes was sitting at home in Wellington, holding her newborn baby with eyes glued to the television. She was working at TV3, but watched the Whakaata Māori launch with “extreme FOMO”.

“I remember being so proud. And feeling like I was missing out and feeling like everything that everyone had done had woven this amazing mat that Whakaata Māori launched from. It was something that was rangatiratanga, mana motuhake — and the wairua of that launched it like a skyrocket.”

Huirangi Waikerepuru, who’d fought long and hard for the Māori TV channel, at the launch of Māori Television in 2004 (URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/launch-of-maori-television, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012)

The 30-year fight that led all the way to the Privy Council had come to fruition. But now the real work had begun. Annabelle Lee-Mather said the only pressure seemed to be the pressure they were putting on themselves. “The expectations were so low in New Zealand about what Māori Television was going to be, we could literally only go up from there,” she laughed. “So, in a lot of ways, the terrible commentary around us did us a massive favour because we pleasantly surprised everyone.”

It didn’t take long for Whakaata Māori to find its stride, even if it had few resources compared to the other broadcasters. It brought kapa haka and waka ama to the screens in a way never seen before. The soap opera Kōrero Mai taught te reo in inventive ways, and the iconic kids show Pūkana became an after-school staple. It started translating big overseas titles, too. “Low key, when they had Avatar: The last Airbender in te reo Māori . . . unreaaal,” messaged one friend in response to a question I posted on Instagram. “But we always ended up watching Te Kāea cos that’s what Dad wanted to watch.”

Julian Wilcox was sacked amid a furore over leaking in 2005 before returning not long afterwards to become one of the main anchors. (“Peaks and troughs, brother,” he said). From 2007, he fronted the flagship current affairs show Native Affairs, which scooped many of the country’s journalism awards. Julian said news was always a key flank of the strategy. “Right from the start, we had to be innovative while still trying to compete and, yep, we wanted to compete. Particularly in news and current affairs, we wanted to be better than everyone else,” he said.

Māori Television launched the same week that the Foreshore and Seabed hīkoi left from the Far North, and there was a real hunger for Māori stories to be told differently. Properly.

“Here’s the thing. Pretty quickly, mainstream started doing a lot more coverage of Māori issues because of Māori Television. And they had to start upping their game and stop using Māori issues as political footballs, or using Māori issues in a much more negative, pejorative way. Because we could balance it out.”

Annabelle Lee-Mather was on the frontlines as the hīkoi worked its way down the country, the perfect story for a brand new news programme to get stuck into. “Because you had a newsroom of quite young people, our coverage was gritty and raw and in-your-face and much more challenging than the type of coverage shown on TV3 or TVNZ about Māori issues — even Te Karere,” she said. “I think the fact that our people, who were angry and upset at the time, could see news coverage that was reflecting their concerns rather than a big Māori society 101 that you might get on mainstream, that really helped to drive an audience towards us.”

Whakaata Māori blazed a trail outside of news, too. It redefined Anzac Day broadcasting, and there were other shows about renovating marae, exploring kai, gritty dramas, and powerful documentaries. It looked, and sounded, like us. In 2008, it launched a second channel, Te Reo, which broadcast entirely in Māori.

Ask your Auntie, one of the station’s most popular shows, centred on a rotating panel of wāhine who answered letters and delivered sage life advice through withering smackdowns. One of them, AUT professor Ella Henry, told RNZ that Whakaata Māori was the only station brave enough to do the show. “It was and continues to be the only television show that has ever allowed wāhine Māori to be bold and brave and sassy and sexy. It’s quite an achievement.”

There was Code, the sports show that couldn’t afford any sports footage. But it carved a loyal following through skits, field reports, and banter between the co-hosts and stars it managed to attract. In a reunion show that aired last week, the old hosts were together again, slightly greyer, with “Mean Māori Mean” T-shirts. The main guest was Warriors captain Tohu Harris. “I think I was 13 when it started,” he said.

There was also a reunion of Hōmai te Pakipaki, the talent show that became a Friday night staple. Pikiteora Mura-Hita, herself a previous winner, introduced the show alongside Mātai Smith. Whānau from across the motu would queue for the chance to belt out karaoke numbers from Aotearoa’s rugby clubs and garages. It made people like Chad Chambers, from Tokomaru Bay, overnight stars. Chad, who graced the stage in knee-high white gumboots, won the 2011 final, singing a cover of Rod Stewart’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” that’s been watched on YouTube more than a million times. He was back for reunion, and so were the gumboots. “It’s been a meke journey,” he said.

Julian Wilcox said the station had a deliberate open-door policy, where people could rock up on Friday with a guitar and they’d film the jam. Even among the staff, the culture was one of boldness, inventiveness, aroha and fun. “The joke about Whakaata Māori is that you put on like five kg when you start because our wharekai was pumping,” said Annabelle Lee-Mather.

After all the criticism, TV writers in the Herald and the magazines were regularly lauding the channel’s coverage, to the point it started to be seen as something of a default public broadcaster. “That was the irony I think nobody expected,” Annabelle said. “That when Pākehā New Zealanders turned on Whakaata Māori, they would see more of themselves in our programmes than what they would see on TV1 or TV2 or TV3, which were deep in the American Idol era.”

In 2012, Mihingarangi Forbes finally made the leap to Whakaata Māori, a move she described as a homecoming. She took over as producer for Te Kāea, bringing with it a kind of mongrel that hadn’t been seen much in Māori journalism. “They were like, ‘Are we allowed to talk like that?’ And I was like, ‘Hell yes! You say this and you say that,’ and, ‘No, don’t take that for an answer.’”

A year later, Annabelle Lee-Mather was the executive producer of Native Affairs when Mihingarangi was chosen to front the show and Julian Wilcox became head of news. The approach the show took rankled some, who called it disrespectful, but he’s unapologetic. “A current affairs show did current affairs stories, and sometimes they were about us. And, yes, that got prickly. We felt as broadcasters we had a responsibility to our own to hold ourselves to account. And it’s much better that we do that than non-Māori because guess what angle they’re going to take?”

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The Native Affairs team in 2013. Its investigation into the Kōhanga Reo National Trust, led by Mihingarangi Forbes (front, second from left) and Annabelle Lee-Mather (front, far right) caused ripples throughout Māoridom.

One of the great successes of the Māori renaissance is kōhanga reo, the language nests that, since the 1980s, have raised thousands of pēpi in their native language. They’ve been a labour of love, mostly driven by the nannies, kaiako and volunteers who teach for little more than the love of the children and the language. In 2013, many of the buildings were dilapidated. In one, a doll was used to plug a gap to stop the draft seeping in. In others, paint was peeling off the walls, coins were being scrounged to buy the milk for cups of tea.

That’s why, when Native Affairs aired an investigation called “Feathering the Nest”, it rippled right through Māoridom. It exposed credit card misspending, questionable loans and untraceable donations at a private subsidiary of the Kōhanga Reo National Trust. The investigation, led by Mihingarangi Forbes and Annabelle Lee-Mather, found the subsidiary’s general manager had put a wedding dress, designer handbag and a Trelise Cooper dress on the company credit card. Low-and no-interest loans worth $180,000 had been made to some staff and directors, while kōhanga on the frontline were scrounging for the basics.

“In my mind, there was no option. We were responding to the call of these kōhanga,” said Mihingarangi. “This movement [is] loved and adored by us as well, and all our kids were in kōhanga at the time. That was just something that had to happen.”

The fallout was immense. The trust board’s lawyers sought an injunction in the High Court, but lost. They then took Native Affairs to the Broadcasting Standards Authority, where they also lost. On RadioLive, Willie Jackson and John Tamihere said the story was “Māori bashing”. The government minister Tariana Turia called it an “attack” on the kōhanga movement, musing that Māori Television had lost sight of its original purpose. Education minister Hekia Parata commissioned Ernst and Young to look into the spending, but the terms of reference were so narrow they excluded the subsidiary the story was about. One month later, Māori Television was banned from the Kōhanga Reo National hui — the board’s comms person telling them it was because “they hate you”. Two years later, Te Iti Kahurangi offered a blistering critique from the stage at Te Matatini, targeting Native Affairs for running “negative” stories.

At the same time, Māori Television was looking for a new chief executive. In 2014, Paora Maxwell, the former head of Māori and Pacific programming at TVNZ, was named as that replacement, despite a petition signed by half the staff protesting the appointment process. Soon after, he announced a “structural realignment” that included disestablishing the role of head of news. Julian Wilcox resigned, as did Head of Programming Carol Hirschfeld.

That November, Paora Maxwell criticised the “tone” of “Feathering the Nest” on RNZ’s Mediawatch, which many took as a sign that Native Affairs was doomed. A report commissioned by the station’s executive raised concerns around the style of reporting, with “areas of concern” including “tensions” over the “Māori view of how to report” and “what reporting is from a tikanga perspective”. Suspicions were mounting of political interference, claims denied by Maxwell, the Māori TV board and the government.

“I guess, first of all, we started to feel tension within our newsroom,” Mihingarangi said. “People who had always been supportive of us were all of a sudden not supportive of us. I’m really disappointed, still, at those individuals for folding on us, but that’s just the reality.

“It was . . .” she paused. “It was interesting.”

Accusations of political interference continued to grow, mounting further when a Native Affairs special on Whānau Ora was pulled at the last minute, or when managers sat through the cuts in the edit suite. In 2015, Maxwell intervened to have a follow-up investigation into the kōhanga story pulled. “It was incredibly difficult because it just felt like us against this huge establishment, and all the powers that be were working in concert to try and undermine what we had done and the flow-on effect of that,” Annabelle said.

“I’ve resigned,” Mihingarangi announced in a tweet in June 2015. Annabelle Lee-Mather and producer Adrian Stevanon followed soon afterwards. Reporters Jodi Ihaka, Ruwani Perera and other backroom staff were all gone by the year’s end.

After a golden run, speculation and scandal about Māori Television had flared up again. Questions were being asked in columns about whether it could survive. Paora Maxwell resigned in 2017, reportedly over clashes with the board. Native Affairs and Te Kāea are no more, phased out soon after the scandal.

Talking about that saga today, though, Mihingarangi and Annabelle have no regrets. “I think the kōhanga reo story was really a coming of age for Māori journalism, and I think if we were to be a part of a similar investigation now, there probably wouldn’t be the same outcry because other Māori journalists are now telling those kinds of stories,” Annabelle said.

*

Shane Taurima speaks down the camera from a white meeting room in Whakaata Māori’s East Auckland offices. The network is based in East Tāmaki now, with spacious facilities and a brand new multimedia studio. He’s made time for a Zoom call between endless hui and indulging in “many” 20th birthday cakes.

The day we spoke, Tama Potaka, the minister for Māori Development, was due to visit to indulge in one of those cakes, celebrating the 10 staff who’ve been there since day one. Some whānau have multiple generations within the walls of Whakaata Māori now. In a press release sent later that day, two of those staff, Miriama Prendergast and Ethan Smith, were quoted as saying it’s been more than a job, but a journey.

Shane was appointed kaihaūtu, or chief executive, in 2019. “I can only talk about the five years that I’ve been here,” he said. But in the New Zealand media, there’s been a lot of change in two weeks, let alone five years, as an impending sense of doom swallows the industry. Hundreds of jobs have been lost at TVNZ and TV3 in recent weeks.

Whakaata Māori is in the throes of trying to transform itself, moving away from television to become a digital-first content provider. It’s essential for its survival, Shane Taurima said, as he talked passionately about “updating” or “evolving” programmes.

Yes, Native Affairs and Te Kaea are no more. But there are Te Ao bulletins throughout the day, and there is still a weekly current affairs show, the award-winning Te Ao with Moana. Recent coverage of Te Matatini regionals has drawn huge traffic, and the channel is still putting out bold programmes such as the bilingual drama Ahikāroa and the comedy social media reels Te Tari. The formats have changed, he said, lauding the success of the Māori+ streaming site and app, which has “millions” of users. Impressive numbers for a niche, Indigenous broadcaster.

“I have likened the past five years to a rangatahi. And it’s been a time where, like rangatahi, they’re no longer tamariki. They’re not pakeke yet, so they’re trying to find their role and place in the world,” he said. In fact, Taurima is unapologetic about Whakaata Māori being quite different to 15 years ago, when it became the default public broadcaster. “It’s hard when you’re trying to deliver everything to everyone.”

“We [now] have four core target audiences: whānau raising tamariki in te reo Maori, fluent speakers of te reo Māori, language learners, and rangatahi. Rangatahi are really important to us because of our demographics. One in two Māori are under the age of 24 — we have such a young population.

“Let’s face it, those who are already on the journey, they have nowhere to go to get content that stimulates them, that entertains them, that they’re able to learn from in the language. So it makes real sense for us to refine and be very clear about who our target audience is.”

Te Ao with Moana, Whakaata Māori’s award-winning current affairs programme. From left: Hikurangi Jackson, Moana Maniapoto, Kirsty Babington and Jess Tyson. (Te Ao with Moana)

Shane Taurima sees a time — he’s not sure when, exactly, but in the not too distant future — when Whakaata Māori will cease to be a television service. “We still have a very loyal, traditional, generally older audience that use our linear channels. So we’re conscious of still needing to be able to deliver and cater for them. You know, with anything Māori, everything that we have has been fought over. So you’re not going to be rushing to give anything away or give anything back.”

But Whakaata Māori has many hurdles to confront as it stares down the next 20 years, running to avoid the catastrophe consuming other media companies. For the past four years, the Māori media sector, which includes iwi radio and Whakaata Māori, has been under review. Now, there’s a new government yet to make a decision on what to do with that review, although Shane said he’s had “positive” discussions with Tama Potaka.

One of the recommendations was to update the legislation which governs Whakaata Māori, written in 2003, which would “allow the shackles to be taken off” its transformation plans. There are also several long-standing inequities that Māori media contend with. For example, non-Māori media gets $70 for every hour of content broadcast, while Māori media gets $30 for the equivalent.

Still, its taxpayer funding does provide some level of certainty, even if Whakaata Māori is playing catch-up after receiving no new funding between 2008 and 2022, with much of that recent boost time-locked. “We’re set to lose just over $50 million over the next three years,” Shane Taurima said, unless that funding is renewed or a more enduring alternative is found. Whakaata Māori also relies on advertising revenue, but “we only need to look at what’s happening in the wider media sector to understand that, actually, with our niche audience and with our focus, it is very difficult to rely on advertising revenue, even though our advertising revenue has just about doubled over the last three years.”

Still, he’s confident the broadcaster is on the right track, and there will always be the need — and demand — for a Māori-led platform. After all, the arguments that gave rise to the fight for Māori TV still stand; it’s just the mediums that are different. “To tell our stories and to promote and protect our language and culture, there must always be a place for a platform. I think that our digital aspirations and plans give real effect to that.”

Looking back, former head of news Julian Wilcox said: “It didn’t need the turbulence that it experienced to get to this state. It’s gone through some rocky times, and that’s had an impact and that’s sad.

“Whakaata Māori today is different to how it was when we started. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing. The good thing about Whakaata Māori now is that it’s very clear about its knitting. I think that’s a positive, that it’s in a better state today.”

Annabelle Lee-Mather is optimistic. “There’s an opportunity for Māori to make some really bold, audacious, courageous decisions about what our delivery pathways are to our audiences,” she said. “I would like to see Māori journalism rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the New Zealand media landscape.”

*

A couple of Fridays ago, former and current Whakaata Māori staff gathered in an Auckland bar for a celebration that stretched well into the night. The tears, laughs and kōrero flowed as much as the inu and music. But among those there, there was an overwhelming sense of love and achievement.

“This sounds so corny but, like, how much we all love each other and how incredibly blessed and privileged we feel that we got to be in the service of our people by creating that station and the magic that we made,” said Annabelle Lee-Mather. “How lucky we were to be a part of something so special and magnificent. Like, man, literally the luckiest kaimahi in the world.”

Mihingarangi Forbes was also there. Despite it all, she still remembers her time fondly. “It was such a great time. We managed something, and I don’t know how we did it, because I’ve never worked in a newsroom like it before, or since.

“There definitely was that feeling of, ‘We did something amazing.’”

 

Jamie Tahana (Ngāti Pikiao/Ngāti Makino/Tapuika) is a journalist and broadcaster who has worked in both Aotearoa and the Pacific. He grew up between his Dutch mother in the Hutt, Wellington, and his Te Arawa dad in Rotorua, going on to qualify with a master’s degree at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University. He was Māori News Editor at RNZ until May 2023, and is now in London for his OE

© E-Tangata, 2024

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