Settling For Less

Does mainstream media coverage distort our understanding of Treaty issues ?

by Neil Adcock

“The Herald today undertakes a task more important perhaps than any we have done. It is an attempt to move the public discussion of Maori privileges beyond the palpable Pakeha resentment…and to begin to distil fact from fiction, experience from impressions, and find the substance of the discontent”

(Editorial, ‘What’s Bugging non-Maori people’ The New Zealand Herald, 23 February 2004)

If the most popular forms of public commentary were anything to go by – Internet comments on mainstream media sites and talkback radio – you would think that New Zealand stands at risk of being bankrupted (or worse !) by the so-called Treaty gravy-train, and by never-ending claims of historical injustices. Of course, some may disregard some of the ‘extreme’ opinions in these forums due to the anonymity that drives much of our entire public debate of national issues. However, it should make us question how people gather their information about New Zealand’s history.

Most people don’t have to deal with the Treaty of Waitangi or “Māori issues” (pardon the gross simplification – though this gross simplification is part of the problem) on a day-to-day basis, and the history books and university courses about Kiwi history aren’t necessarily blockbuster successes. As a result, much of the information about Treaty settlements or about Waitangi Day commemorations ( for example) are mediated through the mainstream media. Given the current government’s push on Treaty settlements, the role of the Māori Party in the Government, the current foreshore and seabed review, and the continued debate on republicanism, Waitangi Day, and multiculturalism, it should be crucial to have the general public engaged on the issues, or debating the historical background. Yet despite the gravitas with which the New Zealand Herald described its role in the opening quote of this article, it may well be the media’s own institutional practices that are preventing such an investigation from actually taking place.

It would be near impossible to objectively deny the impact and legacy of colonisation on Māori populations in New Zealand’s history. Whether that be in the wider context – such as over three million acres of Māori land being confiscated following the Land Wars in the 1860s, the role of the Māori Land Court in facilitating fraudulent land purchases, or governmental policies which actively discriminated against Māori, te reo Māori and particular cultural practices – or within localised contexts.

Even in relatively recent times, one can cite the misused Public Works Act process which led to Ngati Turangitukua having land taken by the Crown in the 1960s to set up the town of Turangi (despite there being free Crown land a few kilometres down the road, and despite the land taken being particularly significant) or the confiscation of over a million acres of Tainui land and its resulting economic dislocation, which was finally redressed with a $170 million settlement in 1995 (a fraction of what was lost). The Waitangi Tribunal for example, releases publicly available reports on particular claims, many of which run to hundreds and hundreds of pages of careful historical research, and outlines the considerable injustices that have affected specific iwi.

The current National-led Government appears to be taking the Treaty process seriously, and negotiations are occurring at a rate rarely seen in New Zealand politics before. For this article, Treaty Minister Chris Finlayson explains that he sees government acknowledgement and redress as being very important. “Acknowledgement of grievances is almost by definition the first step towards addressing them. This is not a process about apportioning guilt – many of the most ingrained grievances occurred before anyone alive today was born – but it is about putting right to some extent, the wrongs of the Crown in the past. As the representatives of the Crown in the present day, we have that responsibility.”

Finlayson suggests that the purpose of redress isn’t necessarily driven by monetary imperatives. Official recognition of the connection and relationship of a group of people to a particular land can be just as important as the ability to develop economic possibilities.

Part of the interesting dynamic involved is that such a policy doesn’t necessarily accord with previous National governments’ views on race relations (with the exception of Doug Graham’s Treaty push in the 1990s), or perhaps even with the views of many of National’s core supporters. However, it can be argued that some of the most revolutionary changes in New Zealand politics have come from parties acting contrary to stereotypical ideological positions e.g. Rogernomics in the 1980s by Labour, the settlement processes in the 1990s by National – mainly because it’s an ‘easier’ sell.

Finlayson cites what he sees as the previous government’s relative inaction. “One challenge we have is that before 2007, when Michael Cullen applied himself energetically to the Treaty role, Labour’s time in government was a very slow one in terms of settlements being concluded. That government concluded an average of 1.6 settlements per year over almost a decade.”

None of this constitutes an easy sell for a government to the public – particularly when the negotiations require years of dialogue and considerable historical research, and particularly when the public aren’t necessarily engaged with the issues relating to a specific claim. Labour’s panic over the Foreshore and Seabed issue in 2004 stemmed from the fact that it had already faced considerable criticism for being a centre-left party pandering to minorities, and from the fact that the Court of Appeal’s decision in Ngati Apa was widely misreported as affecting ‘New Zealanders’ access to beaches’ – when instead it acknowledged the rights of individual claimants to attempt to seek a ruling that a particular foreshore and seabed was customary land.

Finlayson suggests that while the specifics are difficult to compress “the more general narrative as to why we seek to settle historical grievances can be put concisely: the Crown signed a Treaty undertaking to treat Maori in good faith, and it often failed to do so.”

Yet despite the grand narrative appearing so simple, the little narratives get lost in the process being publicised. Part of the issue is that the mainstream media – relied on, as mentioned, by so many rely for their understanding of political issues – face particular institutional pressures which can affect the way the Treaty, or other issues such as the foreshore and seabed or Waitangi Day, are reported.

Dr. Sue Abel, senior lecturer at Auckland University, suggests specific factors have a big impact in the way a news story is constructed. Firstly, she suggests that the media often make the assumption that the audience is non-Māori. Given the commercial imperatives of mainstream media, it is obvious that ‘majority’ considerations will largely drive content.

Secondly, the media does not have the time and space to fully explore historical issues in any given story. Of course, this limitation is applicable to any news story, but this is particularly fatal when detailed historical research and context is the story itself, as it is in settlements. The government settlements are a result from this individual research, yet by paying little attention to the research, the redress becomes de-contextualised.

Also, history is hardly the commercial goldmine for the media when compared to a news headline such as “Maori claim airspace above Rotorua marae” (Dominion Post, 24 June 2008), or ‘Give Us $10m or we occupy – hapu” (Dominion Post, 3 March 2009).

Finlayson suggests the media are interested in particular public hooks – if popular public buildings or landmarks such as Auckland’s One Tree Hill or Wellington’s Railway Station are involved, that will result in more media attention than a wahi tapu site in unused rural Crown land. Finlayson uses the example of the “Te Tau Ihu agreements in principle [which] I signed last year got a lot of media attention because they included an undertaking to investigate ways of recognising Ngati Toa’s intellectual property in the ka mate haka – but the dollar amount of a few hundred million was deemed singularly uninteresting.”

Further everyday pressures affect the construction of news stories. Most journalists would not have the time to read a full three hundred page report on particular historical injustices and discuss the importance of the settlement with all interested parties – especially when all a journalist has is two minutes on the news, or a few hundred words in a newspaper. As always, the media also favours conflict over stasis.

Abel says : “I spoke to several reporters this year who said ‘nothing happened on Waitangi Day this year’”. When it comes to Waitangi Day, even a lack of conflict becomes a narrative when discussing Waitangi Day – which gives the impression that conflict and Waitangi Day are inextricably linked. Abel says “[British cultural theorist] Stuart Hall said many years ago that violence, especially anti-establishment ‘violence’, is such a strong news value that if there is none, that itself becomes the story.”

The fact that Waitangi Day is covered by political reporters, as opposed to other kinds of reporters (e.g. arts reporters etc.) suggests a particular impression is being created of the day. When it comes to specific movements, the use of particular words equate controversial ideas with Māori. The Kupu Taea report, which analyses reporting of Māori issues in the mainstream media, highlights the use of particular loaded words in Māori-specific contexts – words such as “activists” or “radicals”, which can frame the debate. The “terror raids” of 2007 were tied in with Māori activism and Tuhoe, despite the majority of those arrested not being Māori.

Finlayson suggests that all this could present problems, politically. He says Labour’s slow pace before 2007 “meant that Treaty settlements often flew under the radar, and were rarely in the news. The pace at which settlements are concluded obviously needed to increase, and that has meant a flurry of activity. That can give the impression, if it’s not properly managed, that there is less progress rather than more.”

Further, Finlayson acknowledges the length of negotiations in Treaty settlements, and the fact settlements happen in stages “may give the public an idea that more money is changing hands during the process than is actually the case. That was noticeable in the case of the Central North Islands forestry deal, worth around $500 million, because there was also an asset transfer a year after the legislation passed. Without background, casual audiences could be mistaken for thinking numerous half-billion deals were concluded between 2007 and 2009.”

However, Finlayson argues that the media aren’t as poor as some may think – with a few exceptions which he highlights, such as Michael Laws’ prediction of ‘blood in the streets’ following the Tamaki Collective’s settlement in Auckland. “Obviously some are better than others. Media coverage is often not particularly in-depth, but that is hardly unique to the Treaty area and reflects resourcing issues and audience preferences. I can’t think of any news outfit that is trying to overturn political and public support for Treaty settlements. Some commentators are in that camp, but they are mainly professional provocateurs or simply ignorant.”

However, Abel suggests the pressures can have an impact in terms of public perception. “I’m kind of wary of stating the media as the sole determinant of something. But certainly it has contributed. Off the top of my head I can think of two things: the lack of any historic context to stories means that breaches by the Crown are not widely known.”

Secondly she says that “historically, claims under the Treaty were reported as a threat to ‘us’. Although this does not usually happen today, (the foreshore and seabed is an exception.) ” Given how removed people are from much of New Zealand’s ‘controversial’ issues on a day-to-day basis, the way the issues are reported in the media can have an impact in terms of public perception. Given the Government’s current policy of resolving all Treaty issues by 2014 and the upcoming foreshore and seabed review – a clearer representation of New Zealand’s history, and one that acknowledges the diversity that makes up the process of dealing with this history, would be a much more effective way to differentiate between, to use the Herald’s grandiloquent words, the experience from the impression.

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Neil Adcock is a writer living in Wellington