Journalism lecturer Greg Treadwell says Stuff’s ‘sorry’ for its past treatment of Māori could now lead to it holding to account those behind all kinds of structural racism and inequity

Imagine how the news executives at Stuff must have felt, sitting there, looking at each other, having just decided to launch a very public, in-depth and ongoing investigation into their own news organisation and its racist past.

I like to think someone might have gone to put the kettle on and everyone realised that nothing, save perhaps the morning tea, was ever going to be the same again.

Because if this is for real, it won’t be. Can’t be.

I’ve wondered for much of my professional life, first as a journalist and then as an academic of sorts, just how we might move on from the structural legacies of colonialism.

Our first job, I would have thought, was to unpack and then discard the truly awful ones that again and again frame the powerful as the righteous. These lie at the heart of postcolonial Euro-exceptionalism.

They lay the groundwork for many manifestations of racism, which should be considered as an insidious characteristic of cultural dominance, not a response to a skin colour. Until they are gone, how can anything change?

Shortly after starting to teach journalism and while still learning about the gentle art of research and the value of journalism studies, I attended a journalism-education conference at Massey University in Wellington.

Prime Minister Helen Clark was to open it and so there were journalists as well as journalism educators in the lecture hall. Clark berated journalists for their lack of knowledge of the world in a way I suspect few would have courage to do so publicly today.

It would be fair to say there was a little tension and the journalism educators looked on, smiling inwardly, on both sides at the same time.

It was 2007 and the Tūhoe community had not that long before been raided by the State’s special forces in a dramatic but failed antiterrorism operation. Armed forces, it turned out, had conducted illegal and unethical raids on the innocent and, aside from a few firearms charges that stuck, it all ended in embarrassment for the police.

A senior Fairfax journalist speaking at the conference that day defended the news organisation’s publication of transcripts of police surveillance tapes which it had obtained and used to dramatic effect on a newspaper front page. There was some pretty good discussion.

And then a Māori journalism educator politely, inclusively even, asked that senior Fairfax journalist if, well, didn’t he think that headline up there on the screen wasn’t just a bit racist?

I watched him stiffen, pause, draw breath and tell her that he would not dignify that question with an answer. He turned to the next question.

I suddenly saw the real size of the problem.

How can we have an inclusive society if journalists, who still play a highly influential gatekeeping role in the world of political communication despite the advent of social media, cannot recognise that racism can be everyday in nature?

That it can be ingrained in centuries-old attitudes to which many Kiwis still cling? That it lives in the way social and political privilege is structured at every corner.

And, yes, that it can even be in the manner in which we have become used to writing our headlines.

A journalist who can’t see the ongoing reproduction of social norms, good, bad and sometimes racist, by the media isn’t easily going to see racism in the police, the Government, our schools and universities, or in our justice and correction systems.

There was a massive distance, it seemed to me, between that probing, reflective question from an academic about that headline and the view-of-self inherent in the response to it by the journalist back then in 2007.

Look what local ownership can mean, a Māori colleague said to me after Stuff announced its investigation into the way it, and former versions of itself, had treated Māori over the past century or two.

Holy shit, I thought, and suddenly wondered if it was indeed possible to start moving on from the structural iniquities bequeathed to us by Queen Victoria and her hegemonic hungers.

If Stuff can unpack and reject its formerly racist self in front of its readers, then perhaps that will encourage others to do the same in all sorts of contexts small and large.

We might start to see how it is done and, in fact, that it can be done. But, I think, even more far-reaching might be the new Stuff’s ability to then unpack the racist architecture holding up all sorts of political, economic and social structures and to hold to account those who reinforce them.

After all, who’s going to listen to the MSM today if it starts to get too high and mighty on us?

But freed from the corporate ownership that previously hobbled such social-justice initiatives, Stuff, the one-dollar wonder of 2020, might indeed be in control of its own destiny and perhaps even be able to help the rest of us take control of our own.

This week a Māori journalist and academic told those at a Pacific Media Centre seminar at AUT that, after so many decades of marginalised coverage of indigenous perspectives and worse, her heart leapt when she heard of Stuff’s initiative.

Another experienced academic told us it was a gamechanger for Aotearoa New Zealand media.

Me, I sat there wondering how those editors at Stuff must still be feeling, having committed to moving their journalism into the 21st century at last. And at last owning it.

I reckon their cuppa tea might have tasted pretty damn good.

Dr Greg Treadwell is the head of journalism at Auckland University of Technology.

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