In the midst of a very good article over at The Spinoff this week - the Top 50 NZ works of non-fiction as selected by a panel of indigenous experts - there was one line that leapt out. "There are now no regular Māori columnists in the mainstream media".
I suspect it stood out because it's one of those deeply uncomfortable things that, once seen, can't be unseen, like white privilege, or The Room. And how has it not been mentioned more often? It was suddenly very striking how obviously whitebread our print media commentary is – and I say this as a Pakeha and occasional (and aspirationally less-occasional) newspaper columnist. How is it possible that in New Zealand, in 2015, we don't have any regular Māori columnists in the mainstream media?
I asked on Twitter if anyone could supply a regular Māori MSM columnist. Rachel Stewart (columnist at the Taranaki Daily News) suggested Dion Tuuata, a fellow Daily News columnist. He's the CEO of Parininihi ki Waitotara Farms (I Googled) and, Rachel suggests, well known in Māoridom.
So, that's one, and good on the Taranaki Daily News. But there quite obviously should be more than just the one in the country. Why isn't there a regular Māori columnist at the Listener, or Metro, or the Sunday Star Times? And there should quite definitely and obvioiusly be a weekly Māori columnist in our only national daily, The New Zealand Herald. At minimum. Come on, can't the media muster even a token effort?
It really does seem like the most ridiculously glaring omission. Editorially it makes no sense at all. There is no shortage of brown people in New Zealand who can write up a goddamn storm. Even trying to adopt a hard-nosed commercial perspective, I don't see the sense in the continued absence. Sure, pageviews are a key measure of success these days, and they have been for quite some time, but you can't tell me that the writings of a media-savvy, articulate, Māori person in New Zealand in 2016 wouldn't attract a metric fuckton of clicks and commentary. It'd also annoy precisely the right kind of people, which I see as a core duty of the fourth estate.
On Twitter, Russell Brown suggested that Morgan Godfery – blogger over at Maui Street – would do well with a Listener column. "It's bizarre the gap persists," Morgan replied. "Maybe some mainstream media expect Maori media to cover 'Māori'?"
Maybe there is that expectation. If so, the implication is that mainstream media commentary is produced by, and exists more or less entirely for, non-Māori. Which is pretty strange, and really quite awful, when you think about it.
I expect that there will perhaps be several, or many, people nodding wearily at this epiphany. It reminds me of attending a Wintec Press Club where Mihingarangi Forbes and Annabelle Lee were the speakers. Towards the end of the talk (which was fascinating and mostly concerned the conflict at Māori television and within Māoridom over the kohanga reo funding scandal) Mihi made a striking observation, as recorded by Stephen Stratford over at Quote Unquote:
And referring to Newstalk ZB’s Rachel Smalley’s complaint that there are too few women on-air, Forbes noted the greater “paucity of Maori in mainstream media”. Well, yes. There is marginal and there is marginal.
It's a bit hard to articulate the surge of awareness that rippled through the room, as the audience realised that damn near all of us – including most of a who's who in the New Zealand media, and for some reason, me – were white. For a while we were all treated to a look from the other side of New Zealand's racial divide, at the sheer inequality of things. There was a real sense of sadness to it. It was deeply unsettling and it shook me in a way I find very difficult to describe.
So to learn (and I'd still like to be wrong) that there are essentially no Māori columnists in the New Zealand mainstream media brought a lot of that surging back. Where does the fault lie? Privilege, wilful ignorance, racism, or the trifecta? It makes me wonder what a good old-fashioned public pressure campaign would do. Write some letters, tweet some Tweets. It's not like there isn't some dead wood in the mainstream that can't be cleared out. Rodney Hide does not need a column and it shows; his stuff reads like asphalt. Mike Hosking is horrendously overexposed. The Sunday Star Times used to have a couple of acid boring columns by Phil Goff and Judith Collins (does it still? I hope not) and the Herald kept Garth George on well after he was clinically dead.
It's time we had more Māori voices in the mainstream media. Maybe we should try and make it happen.
NB: New Zealand Herald columnist Lizzie Marvelly advises that she is of Te Arawa heritage. And occasional contributor Alan Duff was upgraded to a regular at the same time Lizzie's column started. – RB