A spectacular Maori victory: The first ten years of Maori TV

by Bill Ralston / 15 February, 2017

 

MTS’s launch in 2004. Photo/Gil Hanley

A worthwhile book on Maori Television’s first 10 years gets hung up on mainstream news gathering.

If you are Don Brash, I advise you not to read this book, as it chronicles the first decade of a spectacular Maori victory under the Treaty of Waitangi – the formation of the Maori Television Service (MTS). Maori won that long-fought battle, but it seems the Te Tiriti o Waitangi war continues, as the agitation of Hobson’s Pledge demonstrates.

Jo Smith is a senior lecturer in ­English, film, theatre and media studies at ­Victoria University, and she writes like one as she outlines in a dry, earnest academic style the birth of MTS in 2004, and its aim to protect and ­promote Maori language and culture. It is a little like sitting through a semester of Indigenous ­Broadcasting 101. This is not a book for an idle reader ­wondering whatever ­happened to Friday night’s Homai te ­Pakipaki. As she chronicles the ­challenges MTS now faces, it’s clear she is a ­passionate advocate for it.

She quotes extensively a wide variety of Maori broadcasters, academics and politicians, skilfully using their words to illustrate her key theories about how Maori Television should be done and appreciated. However, Smith may raise the hackles of some non-Maori mainstream media, which she portrays as a negative stereotyping force with regards to Maori and Maori business.

Homai te ­Pakipaki presenters Pikiteora Mura-Hita and Matai Smith. Photo/Neville Marriner

While discussing a short-lived precursor to MTS, the Aotearoa Television Network (ATN), which failed after 13 weeks, she says, “ATN’s closure also received hostile media coverage that framed Maori broadcasting as a ‘waste of taxpayers’ money’ and that called into question the fiscal responsibilities of Maori organisations.”

Tukoroirangi Morgan’s expensive ­underwear aside, there were genuine questions raised about the company’s commercial operation and its costly deal to use an underpowered transmitter. These were questions the media would have asked of any organisation where there was public money involved.

Similarly, she brushes over the ­appointment of the first MTS CEO, John Davy, with his false curriculum vitae, and, as the launch of Maori Television nears, she declares, “The period leading up to the launch saw non-Maori media outlets return to the alleged failings of ATN rather than the aspirations and intentions of the new channel.” She fails to ­recognise that it is not the media’s job to be a ­cheerleader, suppressing inconvenient facts, so as to boost Maori Television.

Commenting on the departure of the next CEO, Derek Fox, after what she euphemistically describes as “a human resource issue”, Smith again talks of “­negative media coverage”. Any CEO in any organisation, particularly one financed by the taxpayer, who left in similar circum­stances would have received such coverage.

Smith finds herself in more difficult waters as she describes the stories aired by MTS current affairs show Native Affairs on alleged financial malpractice in the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust (TKRNT). Those stories caused furious debate among both Maori and non-Maori. The MTS journalists argued that the ­stories were driven by the principles of good journalistic practice; the other side argued that Maori media should not be criticising Maori enterprises and organisations.

The trust had refused to talk to Native Affairs, then banned the programme from its press conference. Smith justifies that, saying, “While TKRNT’s actions might be interpreted as contrary to a democratic ethos, where public debate is a norm, they must be considered in the light of the historical harm done by media outlets to Maori institutions.”

Curiously, Smith makes no mention of the negative reaction of MTS staff to the 2014 appointment of Paora Maxwell as CEO and the departure of high-profile personnel that followed. Perhaps she sought to avoid that negative coverage so as not to inflict further historical harm on a Maori institution.

Having worked extensively in ­tele­vision, print and radio for the past 40 years, I can assure Smith there is no conspiracy, conscious or unconscious, by non-Maori media to destroy or damage Maori organisations; they get the same scrutiny anybody does in New Zealand.

Her approach, in my opinion, damages what could otherwise be a worthwhile book. MTS has clearly worked to protect te reo and tikanga, it has provided quality TV ­programming to a relatively broad ­audience, and it has breathed life into the Maori private production industry. In the absence of a national public service tele­vision channel, it is a safe enclave for a core part of New Zealand culture.

To quote the Act that founded MTS, its job is to provide “a high-quality, cost-effective television service that informs, educates and entertains ­viewers, and enriches New ­Zealand’s ­society, culture and ­heritage”. This book ­demonstrates it is doing so admirably.

MAORI TELEVISION: THE FIRST TEN YEARS, by Jo Smith (Auckland University Press, $45)

This article was first published in the January 21, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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