Reading between the lines

Ka hao te Rakatahi
Nā Nuku Tau

I’ve been reading a book by Naomi Klein called No is not Enough – Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. Among other things, Klein discusses how a fear and hatred of the “other person” (gays, African-Americans, Mexicans, women etc,) can be perpetuated by the media. Klein makes this case well with the example of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in the very African-American city of New Orleans. Decades of being demonised and targeted by populist media campaigns, such as former president Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” characterisation, a derogatory term stigmatising black women on welfare, fostered indifference to Black Americans by the general populace. The flood barriers were allowed to decay and erode due to this lack of empathy and care, and neoliberal politics. The following disaster relief efforts were equally lacklustre, with then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s office rerouting an electricity company to fix an oil pipeline, rather than supply emergency hospitals.

What stood out was the media’s focus on petty crimes and burglaries by the starving population, rather than their suffering. Instead of sympathising, many Americans continued to write off the victims of the flood as thieves, looters, the “n-word”, “thugs”. Packs of white American men patrolled the streets as “vigilantes” on the lookout for “crime”. I’m sure you can read between the lines.

This might all seem a bit far off and irrelevant to little old New Zealand and Ngāi Tahu. It’s also generally agreed that for the most part, our disaster relief in Christchurch post-earthquake was well done. So what am I on about?

Divisive media is the key to my story here, and I’m sure that’s something everyone can see when they’re reading the papers or scrolling through Facebook feeds. Many of our papers and media companies are privately owned – it’s naive to think that articles are written solely in the public interest. Privately-owned bodies exist to turn a profit, and in the news world, nothing creates profit better than sensationalism, covert racism, and disingenuous journalism.

Many of our papers and media companies are privately owned – it’s naive to think that articles are written solely in the public interest. Privately-owned bodies exist to turn a profit, and in the news world, nothing creates profit better than sensationalism, covert racism, and disingenuous journalism.

While our media is not nearly as bad as certain overseas outfits, one still has to be critical. An example relevant to Māori is last year’s “Welsh skull” debacle. Noel Hilliam, a farmer with zero relevant qualifications, had a lengthy article published about him in the Herald that was largely uncritical of his actions. Hilliam robbed a Māori burial ground of a skull. He claimed it was a hāngi pit, but it was a burial ground. He then claimed to have sent the skull to an unnamed expert from the University of Edinburgh, who verified the skull as one of Welsh origin that predated Māori arrival. No one from Edinburgh could verify Hilliam’s claims, never mind the fact any idiot could tell you it’s impossible to tell if a 1000-odd year-old skull was “Welsh”. Such unresearched, Eurocentric, obviously racist drivel should never have made it into our national newspaper. Yet it did. The article was posted everywhere and seen all over feeds. I had people ask me about it at school. The editor and author of the piece flagrantly ignored the fact that Hilliam had robbed a burial ground to push an agenda that feeds an uglier side of the Kiwi population. The side that like to believe the white man really was here first; that everything post-Treaty was justified, and that as Europeans they’re simply taking back what is theirs. Our media jumps on one of these stories each time a new one comes out – it’s a national pastime. I remember in primary school, a man from the museum was shocked that three quarters of our class believed that a race was here before the Māori. When asked to explain, everyone had airy and half-connected stories of everything from the Vikings to the Greeks to the Chinese. I’m not closed to the idea of a prior people at all. I am closed to junk science and Eurocentrism that aims to justify past wrongs and legitimise the actions of settlers.

The same sort of dishonest journalism can be seen across the board, with many other ethnicities and social movements. Rowdy Tongan fans at the Rugby League World Cup got back-to-back coverage. They were on my newsfeed every night. The South Auckland pool carpark brawl was likewise slathered in everyone’s face. I don’t remember couch burners in Otago getting anywhere near as much coverage. Legitimate right-wingers with interesting views like David Seymour are often given little coverage or airtime. Yet when Bob Jones or Don Brash feel like crawling out of whatever hole they’re in and making an obviously inflammatory statement, the media flock like vultures, even somewhat legitimising these men’s shocking positions. The hounding of Metiria Turei by every media outlet in the country was deplorable, compared with the few articles that appeared on Bill English’s financial discrepancies – nothing gets racist old men and basement virgins more riled than an “uppity” Māori feminist!

The key message in all of this is to be critical of what we see, hear, and read. Whether it’s blatantly outrageous like the Wanganui Chronicle blaming feminism for male suicide or more subtle such as the thumbnail of a Māori woman attached to an article about “fussy” charities, bias and divisive journalism is ever present in all our media. When one sees stories of human suffering or another group at a disadvantage, it’s natural to jump on the offensive. It’s human to feel the need to legitimise yourself and attack anyone who may threaten that sense of legitimacy. Yet that road can lead to the reaction suffered by the working class African Americans of New Orleans. Because the media perpetuated a myth of welfare queen looters, it was easier for Americans to blindly hate, rather than help their fellow man and acknowledge the institutional racism of their country. New Orleans is a long way from home, and we are fortunate to be in an infinitely better place regarding the state of our journalism and people. Yet if many of us remain unaware of the conscious/unconscious ignorance and pseudo-intellectualism pushed by many of the country’s top current events sources, we could easily be going down a similar path.


Eighteen-year-old Nuku Tau (Ngāi Tahu, Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri) is in his first year of a law degree at the University of Canterbury.