Hard News by Russell Brown

83

Standing together

For those of us in journalism, the most extraordinary and troubling element of the dispute over spending at and around the Kohanga Reo National Trust has been the treatment of the programme that brought the issues to light, Maori Television's Native Affairs.

When Education minister Hekia Parata held a surprise press conference last month to announce the findings of the EY audit of the trust, Native Affairs was pointedly not notified or provided with the audit. Yesterday, when the hui held at Turangawawae to discuss the kohanga movement's future culminated in a press conference, Native Affairs was denied entry.

I've spoken to Maori who were unhappy with the style of Native Affairs' reports on the trust and its commercial subsidiary Te Pataka Ohanga, but I think it's important to note that this hostility towards the journalists began well before these programmes went to air. 

Last year, Native Affairs had to go to the High Court to defeat an injunction brought by the trust that prevented the investigation screening. TKRNT trust board members directly lobbied members of Maori Television's own board, until Maori Television CEO  Jim Mather made it clear that any complaints would have to go through the proper channels. Native Affairs journalists have been placed under pressure in other, less visible, ways.

But it actually goes back further than that. Last August, tangatawhenua.com published a statement from the Mataatua-Tauranga Moana kohanga collective, which was seeking a "whanau-initiated review" of elements of the national trust's operations, including TPO's related-party loans and the level of non-cash compensation to TPO management and directors. It also backed the trust's then-suspended CEO, Titoki Black.

The response was a heavy letter from Chen Palmer on the trust board's behalf declaring that the claims were "false and defamatory" and demanding that the site remove the statement immediately. As a journalist, I can't see this as anything other than legal bullying. To his credit, Potaua Biaisny-Tule the young man owns and operates the site, didn't cave. The wording of the story was reworked to more clearly frame the collective's claims as opinion and you can still read it and part of the defamation letter here on the site.

I'm pretty clear that the kohanga movement is a sphere where history and feelings run deep and that the current problems are for stakeholders to address, not me. It seems that a good start was made on that at Turangawaewae.

But until such time as journalistic scrutiny is not met with intimidation and exclusion, I can only stand in solidarity with my fellow journalists -- much as Tova O'Brien did on 3 News last night when she put questions about the banning of Native Affairs to Tuku Morgan, the hui spokesman. Her questions were angrily dismissed, but I think it's to Tova's credit that she asked them knowing the likely response.

We journalists can be annoying buggers. Sometimes I despair at the work of my peers. But when we're performing our key role in the public sphere, we should have each other's support.

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