How New Zealand Media Makes Waitangi Day Into a Day of Us and Them

It’s our so-called national day but, as researcher Alex McConville has found, Pākehā journalism is dictating the story.

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09 February 2017, 1:00am

(All images taken at Waitangi Day celebrations in Waitangi, by Sylvain Gautier)

Another year, another Waitangi Day done and dusted. While I suffered through the holiday thinking things couldn't get any worse—hungover, stranded and starving in the middle of nowhere at 11PM, no ride home, and work the next day—a friend pointed out to me, "at least you're not being misrepresented in the media even after suffering the effects of colonisation, right now".

Massey University's Te Rōpū Whāriki PhD candidate Alex McConville has been researching just this—what Waitangi Day means to Pākehā and other settlers, and how this is represented in the media. For me, feelings of bad karma and agitation blinded me from appreciating what is arguably the most significant day in the history of New Zealand.

Alex's research has shown that for "a lot of people Waitangi Day is loaded with a range of emotions—be it pride, nostalgia, grief, or indifference, for example—and how it relates to national belonging, cultural identities, and ethnic relations in New Zealand." His research is part of The National Days Project, a collaboration of both Māori and Pākehā researchers from Massey University and Auckland University, who are exploring little-studied acts of commemoration that express nation and community.

VICE talked to Alex about his thoughts around Waitangi Day and this year's media coverage.

VICE: Hi Alex, let's get straight to it, how would you describe journalism in New Zealand?
Alex McConville: In many ways popular journalism may as well be called Pākehā journalism. The mainstream media has long been biased towards settler colonial ways of seeing the world. From this perspective, Māori news is bad news.

You describe Pākehā as the dominating force, like white people are setting the media agenda, what's with that?
[The term] "affective privilege" broadly refers to the felt dimensions of ethnic advantage. If we take the example of Waitangi Day and the media, it is typically the case that settler-colonial ways of feeling are held as authentic, legitimate, and self-evident truths from which all else follows. It is certainly advantageous when one group's way of experiencing the world is held as the normative gold standard. When a particular area of the public sphere is dominated in such a way, the advantaged have the power to set the scene, influencing what will be felt and understood, in ways that will regularly go unchallenged as natural, inevitable and unproblematic.

So the media uses emotion to undermine Māori?
The media tend to use sustained and repeated ways of formulating events and phenomena. Familiar argumentative sequences, metaphors, tropes and rhetoric are set in motion and a particular mood is presumed for the nation.

What about Waitangi Day, specifically?
The story typically goes that "a few radical Māori" are being troublesome, menacing and generally disruptive to the otherwise celebratory day "we" (Pākehā) could all be having. Familiar questions are routinely asked such as, "How will they ruin the day this year?", "Who will be disrespected next?" and "Why don't they just get over it?" Framing the day as one of hostility and angst severely limits possibilities to engage in meaningful and informed debate in ways that might foster biculturalism.

Māori are typically positioned as bitter, angry and hostile, yet most often in a disingenuous and inauthentic way. This allows for "us" (who it is assumed are Pākehā and "New Zealanders" in general) to be anything from "pissed off" to "determinedly indifferent". Ultimately, the whole scenario works to provide more "evidence" as to why Te Tiriti is best ignored.

Do you have any examples?
[In the lead up to Waitangi Day this year] The New Zealand Herald published  "Kiwis 'cringe' at Waitangi Day ceremony: PM". The headline does a number of things. At once it effortlessly calls into focus the ongoing conceptualisation of Māori "bad behaviour" in all its myriad forms through the deployment of the word "cringe". "We" know it is Māori bad behaviour, because the master narrative of Waitangi Day being a day of hostility and tension is so deeply entrenched in the national collective memory that it is now part of the Waitangi Day script.

Affective privilege is at play here for two reasons. Firstly, the use of the word "Kiwi" as a signifier of national identity is typically used as a way to describe people primarily of British and European descent—think of the Don Brash ads: Iwi v Kiwi. Coupling "Kiwis" with "cringe" in this way foregrounds particular feelings and emotions as valid. Secondly, the headline is based on what the Prime Minister has said. As the foremost representative of the Crown, his position is inherently speaking for Pākehā and about Māori.

What do you think of this year's media coverage, as a whole?
The two media stories that broadly framed this year's Waitangi Day were around Bill English's decision to not at attend commemorations at Waitangi, and Te Tii Marae's decision to sell broadcast rights to media. These kinds of stories fit neatly within the "Waitangi Day is a bad day" imaginary as outlined above. Among other things, they bring into focus the 'good Māori/bad Māori' dichotomy. 'Good Māori' are those who are happy with the way things are and 'fit in' with mainstream society. 'Bad Māori' are those who resist the status quo and demand to be heard.

In the Stuff article, for example, PM Bill English defends Waitangi Day no-show, says Kiwis 'cringe' at protests—the PM suggests protests are not as relevant as they once were, and that it is 'the type of protest' people 'cringe' at given a) protests apparently lack relevance, and b) protests are not appropriately carried out—only 'bad Māori' could be involved here; an unnecessarily dissatisfied and poorly behaved vocal minority. Again, Māori are being judged by Pākehā in ways that serve Pākehā interests.

In a Newshub opinion piece Te Tii Marae can stick it where the sun don't shine, 'bad Māori' are presented as "greedy", and "opportunistic"—familiar characterisations. Apparently these actions are "a farce and we're not fooled". "We", of course, being Pākehā, 'good Māori', and other well behaved members of settler society. Here, Māori are presented as dishonest and disrupting proceedings "as usual", and true to form there is no effort to delve into the reasons or nuances that give rise to the situation.

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