Our mainstream media organisations have, for generations, played an unsavoury part in helping keep many New Zealanders uninformed and prejudiced about Māori and Pasifika issues. No doubt unintentionally in most cases. It’s just that their journalists usually haven’t known a great deal about the non-Pākehā worlds in Aotearoa — or about the country’s history. And their stories have reflected that weakness.
So there were great hopes for the wholesome impact that Māori and Pasifika broadcasting and print enterprises might make when they began getting traction 30 years ago. But all along there have been doubts about their capacity to make much of a difference because they’ve generally been small-time and poorly funded.
There have been doubts, too, about the capacity of the mainstream media to lift their game, despite encouraging signs now and then.
It’s not clear where the answer lies. But at least reform is on the agenda now that a couple of cabinet ministers are on the case and Te Puni Kōkiri is about to embark on a stocktake.
And another encouraging development is that a number of journalists with a background in Māori and Pasifika journalism are being drawn into discussions about the issues we need to deal with.
One such journalist is Nevak Rogers, who’s now the Māori and Pacific Commissioning Consultant at TVNZ.
I’m a Hula Haka, a Moko Bunga, and an Afakasi Māori. At least, that’s what I began calling myself as a Māori-Pasifika combo back in the ‘90s. I’m not sure where those labels came from. For me, it was just a fun way to acknowledge both sides of my heritage.
My Māori whakapapa comes from my mum, Waina (nee Mihaka), who grew up in Manutūke, just outside of Gisborne. She was raised by her nan after her mum, Hine, passed away in 1959. She spent four years at Hukarere Girls’ College, did her teacher training at Ardmore, and landed her first teaching job at Manurewa Central.
My Tongan genes are from my dad, James (or Kelly, as many people know him) ‘Ilolahia. In 1941, my grandfather, Molimea ‘Ilolahia, came over from Tonga to work as a butler for the Governor-General, who was Sir Cyril Newall at that time.
Dad’s mum, Mina, had passed away when he was young so, as a seven-year-old, he came over on the Matua and joined Grandpa in Auckland in 1949. Then he went to Auckland Grammar where, so the story goes, he was a gun boxer. A few years later, he joined the army, and later the SAS, and fought in Vietnam.
He clashed with his younger brother, Will, over that war. Uncle Will, who was New Zealand-born, was opposed to our troops being there. So it was a subject that was avoided at the family home in Sandringham. Not that either Dad or Will — who went on to co-found the Polynesian Panthers — were inclined to avoid confrontation.
Dad met Mum while she was doing her teacher training at Ardmore and he was based nearby at the Papakura Army Camp. Mum convinced Dad to leave the squadron once my younger brother Clayton arrived, and so we moved to Ōtara when I was four.
There the whānau ran a dairy which served a community that was a neat mix of Māori, PI and Pālagi, although the special virtue of the shop, in the eyes of us kids, was that it could mean access to free lollies if our parents were distracted.
Mum says I had good manners in those days. Didn’t even say “bum” or “fart” until I was at high school. But, apparently, I did have a temper. And our cop neighbour who witnessed my tantrums as a toddler was predicting that I’d be trouble as I grew up. I remember the principal racing out after school one day because he thought, from the sounds I was making, that I was being abducted. It wasn’t quite that serious. I was upset because Mum was late picking me up — and I was refusing to get into the car. I was five.
My parents pushed me into all kinds of sports to keep me busy and out of trouble — athletics, ice-skating, touch rugby, and tennis. And three other sports where I did well: netball, badminton, and horse-riding, too, because, for some years, right up to my late teens, I had a pony and rode competitively in dressage, showjumping, and cross-country.
Through those school years, we’d always spend our holidays in Manutūke (a six-hour trip), hanging out with my nan, Blossom Waipara, and the whānau, including Mum’s dad, Bluey, who’s 92 now. We’d roam with the cuzzies from house to house, grazing on the fruit trees, swimming at the swing bridge, spending time at our five marae, and landing chores on the farm or the pā.
At the marae, I’d gravitate to the kāuta because that’s where the action was among my aunties and uncles. I’d hang on their every word while I was stirring custard or peeling spuds. Gossip, PGR-rated stories, verbal jousting, and belly-bursting katakata. I wanted to be just like them when I grew up.
We’d spend time, too, with Uncle Will’s kids, Jaunnie and Frelimo, who were the same age as me and my brother. I was always in awe of Jaunnie. She epitomised cool. Uncle Will was managing Herbs at the time, so she grew up around musos, and always had the latest sounds, haircut, and kākahu. Plus, she knew how to tau’olunga, the traditional Tongan dance.
Family gatherings and tangi were our main link with our Tongan culture. Dad didn’t speak much Tongan to us growing up. He was very much of a mind that, for us to be successful, we needed to know how to foot it in a Pālagi world.
And, despite pleas from Mum and me, he hasn’t felt any overwhelming urge to return to Tonga or, maybe more importantly, take us there. My husband, Tipene, and I went there about 12 years ago. And, for me, like many Kiwi-born Pacific Islanders, making a visit to your ūkaipō was a surreal experience. But we need to build on that with our kids.
It’s been different on my Māori side because Mum had grown up with her grandmother, speaking Māori. Nan was from the old school and a stickler for tikanga. My Pop lived at Rongopai in Waituhi and his dad, Nanny Snapper (Tāmure Rangiaho), was Ringatū tūturu. So those Māori values and beliefs were very much in and around me from an early age — including what may seem to have been little things.
So no cutting your hair or nails at night. No flowers to be brought inside after dark. No head-related anything on the tables. No going under the table. Tea towels washed in their own buckets. And no playing leapfrog with boys. I never questioned them — and, to this day, they’re non-negotiable in our whare.
When I was 11, my folks settled on a lifestyle block in Glenbrook, a couple of kilometres from the steel mill. And from Glenbrook Primary School, I went on to Pukekohe High. Even though there was a large Māori population in Puke, I was in a very Pākehā environment at that school, especially when I hit the sixth form. I had an ‘afakasi Sāmoan mate in my class and brown mates in my netball teams. But that was about it.
Mum was teaching at Puke North Primary in those days. To catch a ride home with her, I’d walk through what some locals called “the Reservation” because there were so many Māori families in that area. That term may give you some idea of the attitudes around the town then. And no doubt still.
Some of my Pākehā mates were uneasy about me walking, on my own, through what they saw as “gang land”. But I felt just as at home there as I did whenever I went off on the weekend to white reservations on the Coromandel, like Pauanui and Tairua.
The school could’ve, should’ve, done more to see that we learned our New Zealand and Pukekohe history. But a brief burst on the Treaty of Waitangi is all I can recall. And then it was Mary Queen of Scots, the Gaza Strip, Mao Tse Tung and stuff like that. So we had no context for, or understanding of, the realities around us.
There was a Māori culture club which I now wish I’d joined because I’m hopeless at all things kapa haka. My son, Te Kaha, who’s 18 and the leader of Ngā Puna o Waiōrea, cracks up laughing at how un-co I am.
I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school but, eventually, after some prodding from Gary Wilson, a family friend, I enrolled in the Pacific journalism course at Manukau Polytech.
Gary had teamed up with Derek Fox and Piripi Whaanga to set up Mana Māori Media, and when I finished the course, they offered me a job there working on radio stories we supplied to Radio New Zealand and to the iwi network — and doing bits and pieces as well for Mana magazine.
The course gave me a chance to immerse myself in the Tongan culture, which I relished, but it also woke me up to the part that colour plays in Kiwi society and to the struggles for a fair go that Māori and Pasifika leaders had been engaged in for generations.
The wake-up call came from my larger-than-life, very passionate, slightly manic American journalism tutor, Bob Wandstraat. I’d led such a privileged life, had copped so little overt racism, and learned so little history, that I was oblivious to much of what was going on in Aotearoa.
I was born in 1972, the year that my uncle co-founded the Polynesian Panthers and the year that the Māori language petition was presented to parliament, yet that and much more might have been in another world for all I knew.
But the Manukau course and then the apprenticeship at Mana Māori Media helped me understand not only that there was a struggle worth joining, but also that media skills were worth learning because they’re such a valuable tool.
Life at Mana was a rich experience because there was a wealth of knowledge there and a critical mass of expertise. That wasn’t just in the Māori staff such as Wena Harawira, Dale Husband, Ana Tapiata, Gideon Porter, Rereata Makiha, and Wassie Shortland. It was there, too, in the Pasifika journos like Tapu Misa, Isabell Speck, Tiana Tofilau, and Lito Vilisoni.
Also, there were clued-up Pākehā (Carol Archie, Andrew Robb, Lloyd Ashton, and Siobhan Wilson) who were quite at home with kaupapa Māori.
And then there was Gary and Derek setting and keeping the bar high — way higher than the mainstream media could manage or even hope to match.
My next steps were moving to Rotorua in 2000, having Te Kaha, and then deciding with his dad, Mike Jonathan, that we’d set up a production company to make content for the Māori Television Service which was to be launched in due course.
Together with our mate Glen Bates, we started Hula Haka Productions. We converted our master bedroom into an office and the walk-in wardrobe was our edit suite. Once we’d taken over the dining room and lounge too, we moved into a grown-up office.
It was an exciting time. We did freelance stories out of the Bay of Plenty for the three free-to-air networks and made some documentary and factual series including Marae DIY, which in 2007 won the Qantas Media Award as the best reality series, although it was up against Police Ten 7 and NZ Idol.
As with Mana, we had some seasoned players in our team, like Wena Harawira and Kirsty Babbington, and we groomed a bunch of newbies who’ve gone on to set up their own production companies or become producers or media execs around the motu.
But running our production company took its toll. For instance, the $40,000/hour cap for Marae DIY all but crippled us. We eventually shut up shop and went back to Tāmaki where, as a freelancer, I produced and directed for some of the bigger production companies, such as Screentime, Eyeworks, and Tūmanako.
Five years ago, I produced a doco to mark Māori Television’s tenth anniversary. In the course of that project, I could see clearly that the channel wasn’t close to where we thought we’d be when there was all the excitement and razzamatazz at the launch in 2004. So when I was asked to tono for the job of commissioning the MTS programmes, I took it.
Being in a position to choose the programmes that MTS should broadcast wasn’t the way to fix what needed fixing in Māori Television. But we had some wins with a number of shows. Like Sidewalk Karaoke, the Ring Inz, and Piri’s Tiki Tour. And we took risks that paid off with Ahikāroa, Artefact, and Find Me a Māori Bride.
However, the channel simply didn’t, and doesn’t, have anywhere near the pūtea needed for the kind of high quality shows that can attract and hold audiences, especially when the new generation of rangatahi Māori have been thrashing YouTube and moving en masse to social media platforms like Insta.
And with the industry not having the dollars to pay production companies at a realistic level for high-quality shows, that’s meant curtains for some of them.
With MTS moving from Newmarket to East Tāmaki and with our pōtiki, Mina, starting kura in the city, I applied for the Māori and Pacific Commissioning Consultant role at TVNZ. That’s where I am now. It’s a neat role — Te Reo Tātaki is the home of New Zealand’s most-watched Māori programmes and I love that I get to work on PI content, too — especially at such a critical time in the public broadcasting space. I’m hopeful but concerned.
Hopeful because, with Kris Faafoi we now have a Minister of Broadcasting who knows the business from first-hand experience as a journalist. Also, Nanaia Mahuta, the Minister for Māori Development, is taking a keen interest in seeing that the Māori media becomes much better organised — and the stocktake she’s calling for from Te Puni Kōkiri has the potential of finding out not only what’s wrong, but what the remedies could be. So there’s cause for hope.
Not boundless optimism, though, because there have been problems festering away for 25 years or more.
At the top of a depressing list has been the failure of successive governments to understand the need for strong Māori and Pasifika voices in the media — seeing that we still have a society who don’t know what they don’t know about te ao Māori and Pasifika. And that means substantial funding, not the less than subsistence level that’s been the rule.
Then there’s the fragmentation of the Māori and PI media workforce. The professionals and talented amateurs are scattered through scores of organisations ranging from TVNZ and MTS down to the tiniest of the 21 iwi radio stations. But no one has come up with a master plan. Or, if they have, it’s been kept a secret.
And what about the talent scouting and training that began in the 1980s when the NZ Journalists Training Board and the Department of Māori and Pacific Island Affairs got together? Their schemes provided a flow of brown media recruits, including me. But what’s being done now to see that there’s trained talent coming into the business?
There are other concerns. Some of them huge, like the need to rethink the role of broadcasting in protecting and promoting te reo Māori — and to respond to the reality that te reo Pākehā has a critical role in supporting te reo Māori and the Pasifika languages.
So roll on Te Puni Kōkiri’s stocktake. And let’s hope that we can provide the courage, clear thinking, and ingenuity to handle the consequences.
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