Can Willie Jackson, Minister for Māori Development and former broadcaster, revitalise a struggling Māori media sector? Jackson says he wants to see more content in English and a closer alignment with other public media organisations.

COMMENT: There has been a lot going on in the media sector lately. Traditional media has been regaining some of its lost mana. Ownership changes, government attention and financial support, new revenue strategies and a swing back to more trusted media players in the Covid era have turned a tide of industry pessimism into a gentle, perhaps very gentle, wave of optimism.

The same can’t be said for the Māori media sector. With static government funding for nearly a decade, Māori media has gone backwards. Iwi radio has battled away on the smell of an oily rag. No one wants to say it publicly, but many Māori broadcasters and journalists privately describe Māori TV as a “basket case”. The viewing numbers can be down to a few thousand a night.

According to Minister for Māori Development, Willie Jackson, Māori TV’s ratings have fallen away because it lacks good programming – in English.

“In the past it has all been about the language (te Reo), a huge focus on the language, but we need our own news in English and we need our own programmes in English; it’s not so much about the language, it’s about the stories. Most of our people don’t speak te Reo and we shouldn’t do it at the expense of our people.

“There are now minimal audiences on Māori TV.  When Māori TV was at its best we had great programmes in English – remember Native Affairs, Code and outstanding coverage of Anzac day?”

Out of town and out of sight

Māori TV’s problems have been compounded by a board decision to shift its headquarters in Auckland from Newmarket (where rental costs were high) to East Tamaki in 2017.

Former CEO Paora Maxwell wanted to shift the network’s production centre to Rotorua. The Auckland Council, hoping to keep the broadcaster in Auckland, made an attractive offer to house it in Henderson, close to public transport links. The board dithered and Māori TV’s landlord in Newmarket signed another tenant.

The station eventually ended up 20 kilometres from the Auckland CBD in the old East Tamaki headquarters of the now defunct Pumpkin Patch clothing company. Former employees unflatteringly refer to its location as “North Waikato”. 

“It’s not so much about the language, it’s about the stories. Most of our people don’t speak te Reo and we shouldn’t do it at the expense of our people.”

– Willie Jackson 

Former prime minister John Key once described Māori TV’s Newmarket HQ as being part of the TV triangle. TVNZ, TV3 and Māori TV were within 10 minutes’ driving time of each other and he could be interviewed at all three, in prime time, before attending a function in the city. No busy person is keen on going to Māori TV’s boondock location. The network’s remoteness also makes it hard to attract and retain staff.

The steady migration of viewers and listeners to on-demand platforms has also had a major impact. Māori TV and Iwi radio haven’t had the financial firepower to make substantial investments in new technology or additional programming that might attract younger audiences.

Review follows review

In October 2018, the then-minister for Māori development, Nanaia Mahuta, recognised the problems and ordered a review of Māori broadcasting.

“New and advancing technology has disrupted the broadcasting environment as we knew it. We need to ensure that Māori broadcasting is future-proofed and fit-for-purpose as we move further into the digital age,” Mahuta said.

The review concluded that the sector was fragmented and siloed. The money being invested was “not being maximised”. 

A five-person advisory panel was appointed to come up with options. When its report was finally released in March 2020 its main recommendation was for a single Māori news service to be located within Māori TV.  The “Māori media ecosystem” would have full access to the content.

The plan was slammed by Māori broadcasters working in mainstream media.

Annabelle Lee-Mather, producer of The Hui which screens on TV3 was among the fiercest critics.

“After months of hearing senior members of government speaking about the importance of plurality in New Zealand’s media, and tens of millions of dollars being spent on achieving that (through government support packages), I couldn’t believe that this was their solution.”

TVNZ programme commissioner Nevak Rogers said if the idea was taken up “it would be the end of Marae, Te Karere and The Hui.”

The plan was binned when Willie Jackson took over the portfolio from Mahuta at the end of 2020. 

“Jackson is a broadcaster at heart. He has a passion for the industry which Nanaia (Mahuta) didn’t have.”

Jackson quickly appointed his own advisory panel. The line-up is markedly different to Mahuta’s group. It includes the outspoken Lee-Mather and high-profile Māori programme producers Bailey Mackey and Nicole Hoey. TVNZ presenter Scotty Morrison and former journalist and press secretary Jason Ake are also members. 

The group has a ‘young guns’ look about it but Jackson has, shrewdly, handed the chairmanship to Auckland academic Ella Henry, who points out she now is in her seventies.

Jackson describes the panel members as “not fundamentalists but they call a spade a spade and have open minds”.

A new plan

Henry told Newsroom the group will present its report to Jackson in two weeks but wouldn’t be drawn on the specifics of any recommendations.

“The one thing there is a consensus on is Māori media has not had an equitable share of sector funding and the workforce lacks capacity. It is clear that polytechnic and university courses have been under-delivering for Māori.”

Henry herself is supportive of the current Māori broadcasters.

“During the Covid lockdowns, Iwi radio delivered fantastic information to our people all over New Zealand. They operate on the smell of an oily rag. I want to see them funded to the extent that they are not out there doing sausage sizzles to keep going.  And, so they don’t have to hire high school grads instead of journalism graduates.”

And, she says, the description of Māori TV as a “basket case” is wide of the mark.

“That is not my view. I feel saddened when I hear that. Yes, it would’ve been better if they were somewhere near a bus stop and a coffee shop (laughing) but they are not a basket case. I think they have lacked the ability to be strategic because they haven’t been able to take a breather in 15 years as they have been too busy doing it. They have also lacked the money to maximise their digital development.”

When this year’s Budget was announced, an allocation of an extra $42 million extra for Māori media raised hopes of a significant shot in the arm for the sector but closer scrutiny revealed the amount is being spread over four years. 

Jackson admits it won’t do much to address the sector’s problems. He is after more.

“I want to completely reshape the Māori media sector. I want to make aligning it with public media a priority and make sure we get a fairer slice of the pie.”

It is likely Jackson will want to encourage more Māori programming on TVNZ, TV3 and other mainstream commercial platforms as well as securing better funding for the existing Māori broadcasters. Jackson himself had success in commercial media, his interview show, Eye to Eye, screened on TVNZ 1 between 2005 and 2009 drawing audiences of between 100,000 and 180,000. Few off-peak shows would rate as highly today.

A member of his advisory group, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Newsroom “Willie has a strong commitment to Iwi radio and even though Māori TV isn’t performing well, he won’t want to be the guy who turned the switch off.”

Everyone Newsroom spoke to in Māori media agreed that if anyone can secure a better future for the sector, it is Jackson.

“He is a broadcaster at heart. He has a passion for the industry which Nanaia (Mahuta) didn’t have,” said one source.

Ella Henry is also optimistic.

“Willie is in a unique position. He understands the media and can be very persuasive. We have a big Māori caucus and we have already seen how they can make things happen.”

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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