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Metiria Turei and How the NZ Media Ignores Its Own Prejudice

The predominantly Pākehā media establishment betrays its limitations whenever race is on the news agenda.

Miriama Aoake

Illustration by Ashley Goodall.

For the past few weeks, New Zealand has dwelt on Metiria Turei (Ngāti Kahungunu) and her admission of benefit fraud. Many were quick to label the move divisive, a ploy for votes, and condemned Turei for what they saw as a lack of remorse. Turei was persecuted by media agents with no concern for her hauora or that of her whānau. For Māori, mainstream media is mired in colonial framing, misrepresentation and exclusion—yet mainstream media continues to insist its coverage is non-partisan. Metiria Turei conceded the scrutiny on her whānau was unbearable, and she resigned as Green Party co-leader last Wednesday. The voices of Pākehā men were once again triumphant in drowning out the Māori worldview.

Journalism is informed by Western pedagogies, which emphasise the need for objectivity, but the definition has shifted over time. Journalists recognised bias as inherent, and resolved to develop the practice to test information and prune any cultural or personal bias. Objectivity, in a modern context, translates as free from bias. American writer Walter Lippmann once quipped that journalism was being practiced by "untrained, accidental witnesses". Purging journalism of an unmoderated bias to which it freely confesses is impossible.

The need for Māori to establish an independent body to monitor media performance is imperative, and the UN agrees.

Media treatment of Māori and Māori issues is deeply prejudiced. Research conducted by Māori academics between 2006 and 2007 analysed close to 2000 stories across ONE news, 3News and Prime. In total, only 1.8 percent of stories referenced Māori. Of that 1.8 percent, 56 percent were concerned with child abuse. Representations of Māori, and our stories, remain under the control of Pākehā-owned television, radio, and print media. The need for Māori to establish an independent body to monitor media performance is imperative, and the UN agrees.

In 2005, Aotearoa was visited by UN Special Rapporteur Rodolfo Stavenhagen—he was responsible for assessing the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Māori. The report, published in 2006, was damning. His findings suggested there was a systemic attitude of racism towards Māori within the media. He found that potential Māori ownership of resources is portrayed as a threat to non-Māori and that a recurring theme is Māori as incompetent managers or as fiscally irresponsible. In his recommendations, he advocated for the establishment of an independent commission to monitor media performance and intervene with remedial action when necessary. He also pleaded with political figures and media outlets to refrain from using language that may incite racial intolerance. The glaring scrutiny which prompted the resignation of Metiria Turei is evidence that mainstream media has made little to no progress.

Media treatment of Turei syncs perfectly with the themes that emerged from Stavenhagen's report over a decade ago. Patrick Gower wrote an article for Newshub titled "Metiria Turei's Political Fraud is Ripping Off the New Zealand Public". The language used is indicative of prejudice towards Māori, incentivising his audience to postulate themselves as New Zealanders, while Turei and those who identify with her, are otherised and excluded: it insinuates that beneficiaries are neither taxpayers nor New Zealanders. Gower relies on the depiction of Māori as fiscally irresponsible to support his argument that Turei cannot be trusted, but includes no Māori sources, which are informed by the processes of colonisation. He accused her, rather than of empowering the voiceless with lived experience, of orchestrating a publicity stunt for selfish, political gain.

Mainstream media is an echo chamber cloaked in the dominant, Pākehā worldview. Barry Soper's New Zealand Herald analysis was consistent with Gower. He asked, "What Could Metiria Turei's Admission Do?" He fixates on Turei's relationships before conceding "[the issue] should have us all thinking about what it's like living hand-to-mouth." Soper, like Gower, refuses to acknowledge the demography for whom Turei speaks. His tone-deaf approach is a strange paradox. It should have us all thinking about poverty. Turei divulged the mechanisms of poverty from experience. Yet Soper, and mainstream media, used every possible opportunity to avoid talking about poverty.

Such flagrant denial of the Māori world view, in a public arena, both extends and affirms the practice of assimilation.

Manaakitanga cannot exist in this environment. There was no mention of Turei's iwi or hapu affiliations, which are central to how many Māori identify. Pronunciation of her name was butchered. Māori voices with lived experience were shut out of the conversation. There was no effort made by any mainstream agents to contextualise the endurance of colonisation, and how it continues to dictate the choices of Māori women in poverty. Such flagrant denial of the Māori world view, in a public arena, both extends and affirms the practice of assimilation.

The need to demonise the poor and impoverished, to distract from the issue of a broken safety net, to stifle a Māori voice is indicative of an experience shrouded in privilege. The approach is necessarily punitive by design. It is an offensive which, when successful, exacerbates the division of wealth and equality, the "us versus them" rhetoric. Both for Turei and Māori women, navigating post-colonial Aotearoa is exhausting and arduous. We prune and trim, yanking the weed out by the root on our hands and knees. We sow seeds to harvest and bloom when the time is right. We scrub the blood and dirt from the beds of our fingernails. We sleep heavily, satisfied that our labour will make an impact. In the morning, we wake to find the weeds overgrown, the soil infertile, and the flowers wilted. Yet still, we persist. We rise every morning, repeat the mahi, and reclaim our whenua.

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