3 Dec 2017

Te reo on the radio too much for some

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 3 December 2017

A controversial column condemning the use of te reo Māori on RNZ sparked debate about racism, free speech and even hate speech this past week. Mediawatch looks at the responses and asks a veteran Māori broadcaster if this is a big deal or a storm in a teacup.

The ODT's editorial confronts the controversy over Dave Witherow's controversial column.

The ODT's editorial confronts the controversy over Dave Witherow's controversial column. Photo: PHOTO / RNZ Mediawatch

Two TV shows which switch between English and te reo Māori screened recently on TVNZ 1.

Moving out with Tamati and Morena - a daytime show which ended its second series this week - were funded by the Māori broadcasting funding agency Te Mangai Paho to bring te reo Māori to a wider audience in the mainstream media. There were few objections to either show.

Last month, new MP Tamati Coffey - the host of Moving Out with Tamati - said he was thinking about drafting a Bill to ensure all publicly-funded TV programmes include dialogue in te reo Māori. There was no outcry about that either.

This week, TVNZ host Jack Tame got an award for his use of te reo Māori on TVNZ1's Breakfast and said the audience didn't seem to mind it.

However, reporters and presenters slipping into te reo Māori in their introductions and their signoffs on RNZ National certainly got up the nose of writer and outdoorsman Dave Witherow from Dunedin.

In an opinion piece in the Otago Daily Times last week, he said “inflicting Te Reo on the entire population was contemptuous.”

Witherow’s column went beyond just te reo Māori on RNZ. He wrote about "increasing demands" made by Māori “on the assumption that the tolerance of the majority of New Zealanders will never be exhausted” - and concessions given to what he called “the politics of insolence”. 

His language was fairly florid (some people actually thought it was a satire at first glance) but he meant it when he said English is our daily language, and those who prefer Te Reo “have no right to inflict it on the majority".

The reaction from others in the media was swift, strong and overwhelmingly unfavourable. 

Kanoa Lloyd on The Project last Monday said the debate was already over and most New Zealanders were happy to hear te reo Māori on the air. In 2015, she was in the news herself for complaints about dropping Māori placenames into her weather bulletins on the same channel.

On Stuff.co.nz, reporter Glenn McConnell condemned Witherow's column as "casual bigotry" - something he says he encountered during five years learning te reo himself.

The Spinoff website's Madeleine Chapman labelled it the Worst Opinion Column of 2017.

"It’s funny to a point, but it also serves as a wake up call that these people still exist in our country. And while we can’t respond to every person who has ever said something racist or sexist or homophobic, we can at least call them out when they do it on a public platform," she wrote.

There has been plenty of that going on online and in the mainstream media. So was Dave Witherow a lone voice on the pages of the Otago Daily Times?

Not quite.

On Facebook, the former leader of the National Party and the Act Party Don Brash said he too was "utterly sick" of people speaking Te Reo in "what are primarily English-language broadcasts."

He reckoned even brief bits of Te Reo on RNZ national - and especially introductions on morning report by host Guyon Espiner - were not anly inappropriate but ineffective.

"Not one listener in hundreds has any knowledge of what he is talking about. It's 'virtue-signalling' at its worst," he wrote

It was not a surprising view from the figurehead of lobby group Hobson’s Pledge - formed a year ago to oppose what they see as Māori favouritism. But that also made the news, and then further headlines after a half- hour encounter with Kim Hill on RNZ National's Saturday Morning.

That interview angered a lot of people on social media, with some saying should not even have been given a platform for his views.

Readers write in

Dave Witherow's column has dominated the letters to the editor this week in the paper, which published a roughly even split between those condemning it and those praising Witherow for writing it, and the paper for publishing it.

In an editorial last Tuesday the ODT said te reo Māori does has a place in mainstream media - and in the ODT itself  - but Dave Witherow was entitled to express his views in the paper.

"Tolerance and freedom of expression are precious foundations of democracy and civil society. While, inevitably, these must have limits - hurt feelings, offence and even social justice rights are insufficient grounds to stamp out the expression of opposing views," the editorial said.

And in a age of social media echo chambers, the ODT said a paper can undermine what it called "conformity of thought.”

"New Zealand's dominant ''correct'' outlooks are in danger of bullying everyone else, of constructing an ideological straightjacket that suppresses any chance of debate. Through healthy debate, and exchanges of views, perhaps we can all add to each other's education," said the ODT's editorial.

It concluded Witherow's views were “archaic”, but not ''hate speech'' as many critics had claimed.

Following orders?

Dave Witherow claimed RNZ staff are "obliged to dispense their daily dose of te reo" under what he said were “new rules” at RNZ agreed behind closed doors.  

Not quite.  

In February last year, RNZ introduced a new Māori strategy - one aspect of which was “personalised language plans for key executives, presenters and journalists”

"We want to promote the use of te reo across all RNZ's platforms and make it an integral part of the work we do. Ahakoa he iti he pounamu - while it may be a small step, as a public broadcaster we have a responsibility to protect and promote the language"

 - RNZ's Māori Strategy, February 2016

On RNZ's website last week, Te Manu Korihi editor Shannon Haunui-Thompson threw a few facts into the debate, explaining that RNZ ran some special stories during Māori language week, and a few te reo Māori lessons on-air with Guyon Espiner and Māori Issues correspondent Mihingarangi Forbes.

Reporters signed off their stories in Māori for the week, after which the newsgathering chief at the time - Brent Edwards - suggested sticking with it.

Not all RNZ listeners liked it, a few complained and one formal complaint was made to RNZ and the Broadcasting Standards Authority, she said.

It was a very confused complaint - to put it politely - which the BSA considered "trivial and vexatious".

Wena Harawira

Wena Harawira Photo: City Gallery Wellington/Elias Rodriguez

Wena Harawira knows what it's like when te reo Māori riles listeners and viewers.

After joining RNZ's 2ZG in Gisborne as a teenager, her uncle at RNZ urged her to move on because her te reo skills would go to waste.

She joined TVNZ's Māori news programme Te Karere in 1983.

"The TVNZ telephonists at the time wrote down the complaints from the public. Some of those comments are not broadcastable, but they would painstakingly record the comments of people who felt the Māori language wasn't what they wanted to hear - even for five minutes," she told Mediawatch

Harawira has broadcast in English and te reo Māori on TVNZ, RNZ, Māori Television and radio over 35 years. She recently won a lifetime achievement award at the 2017 Ngā Kupu Ora Awards for Māori literature and journalism.

"A few seconds of a reporter signing off in Māori language or greeting the listening public - it's nothing," she said.

"It's no different to the banter on Morning Report between announcers Guyon Espiner, Mihingarangi Forbes or Suzie Ferguson in English. That takes up precious seconds and minutes and there's no protest about that, but it's no different in Māori," she said. 

In Māori news media, the controversy caused by the ODT column appears not to have been a big issue this past week. Sir William Gallagher's controversial comments on the Treaty of Waitangi got much more coverage. 

Harawira told Mediawatch both were non-issues. 

"There are bigger stories happening that Māori audiences would be better off knowing about," she said.

"Sir William is entitled to his opinions, as is Don Brash and (the author of) that opinion piece in the ODT. Those were stories aimed at a specific Pākehā audience and I don't think many Māori would waste their time worrying about them - and they shouldn't," she said.