Journalism, History and Forgetting

Why is our past a foreign country?
by Alison McCulloch

Journalists don’t just write the first draft of history, as the cliché has it, but – for better or worse – the second. It’s journalism that tells us which bits of our history we are supposed to remember and which we should forget. This year, journalism will remind us, yet again, that the most important thing for New Zealand (and Australia) to remember is an otherwise obscure World War I battle fought half a world away on behalf of an imperial power that we lost. State funded books, TV series, research projects and exhibitions will invite us to pore over and dwell upon every detail of the ghastly and unjustifiable slaughter that was Gallipoli 1915.

Compare that saturation coverage not just with the thinly reported anniversaries last year of key battles in the New Zealand Wars, but with the coverage of the very consequential present-day efforts to remedy the damage those wars wrought, and the picture is pretty dismal.

I’ve long had the impression that daily corporate media reporting on Treaty of Waitangi settlements provides us with a poor to non-existent second-draft of history. It seems the stories behind the claims – the injustices being addressed, the events that underpin them – are of little importance compared with the sums of money involved and whether or not there’s been conflict among claimants or, better yet, with disgruntled Pākehā.

After digging into the New Zealand Wars question last year for Werewolf (, I decided to take a closer look to try to get a more concrete sense of what’s being included in Treaty settlement coverage, and what’s being left out. As well as reporting on money and land exchanges, are journalists offering up any of the background: What happened that led to the claim? What did the Waitangi Tribunal have to say about it? Or the iwi concerned?

I approached this inquiry by looking at one year’s worth of daily print media Treaty settlement coverage. If you’re interested in methodology, the research was based on a ProQuest database search of Australian and New Zealand newspapers for all articles in calendar year 2013 containing the words “treaty”, “Waitangi” and “settlement”. That search returned 382 articles (I selected only the New Zealand newspapers), all of which were then assessed as to whether or not a Treaty of Waitangi settlement was a crucial part of the story (rather than a peripheral mentnion). This resulted in a grand total of 82 articles, which I read and analysed according to the following scale (a fairly subjective exercise):

0 = no historical reference
1 = passing historical reference (at least one)
2 = historical reference with detail (some context)
3 = historical reference with substantial detail (well contextualised)

Here’s a visual representation of the results:

Briefly put, nearly 65 percent of the articles I looked at provided little or no historical context for the Treaty settlement being reported on, leaving around 36 percent or just over a third of the articles offering some useful historical references.

To give you a flavour of what I mean, here are a couple of exemplars:

[Rated 0] 221. “Iwi close to deals in Treaty talks.” Waikato Times, 18 May 2013. P. 3.

This 536-word story was a summary of various Waikato treaty claims, focusing on the total dollar amount, that used quite negative language: The first two paras read:

“Treaty claims are being fast-tracked to settlement and Waikato-Tainui are set to profit as iwi around the region line up for their share of the pie.

Current Waikato claims in the settlement process are expected to exceed $250 million and include ownership of everything from mountains to hospitals, schools and police stations.”

The article went on to detail settlement amounts and various parcels of land being transferred, and was one of the more powerful examples of a negatively cast story that offered no historical context.

[Rated 2] 264. “Bay iwi given money and land.” Bay of Plenty Times, 8 April. P. 1

This 402-word story covered the signing of a Treaty settlement with the Western Bay of Plenty iwi Ngati Pukenga. Though the historical context offered was too brief, (17 words out of a 402 word story) it is an example of the kind of content that is at least minimally useful, and could very easily be included – and better yet, expanded upon – in stories about Treaty settlement issues. This was the sentence: “The Crown initiated military conflict in 1864 and subsequent actions, including confiscation, left Ngati Pukenga virtually landless.”

[Rated 3] 282. “Crown and Tuhoe finish negotiations.” Rotorua Daily News, 23 March. This 161-word story about the finalizing of a $170 million deal between the Crown and Tuhoe is a good example of how even a short article can nevertheless place a Treaty settlement in at least some historical context. The story included this sentence: “Treaty Negotiations Minister Christopher Finlayson said the settlement reflected the very serious nature of the breaches by the Crown of its obligations, including confiscation of prime agricultural land, brutal military campaigns, and unjust land purchases. Tuhoe still felt the consequences of these actions, with many of the iwi suffering severe socio-economic deprivation.”

Besides the statistical results, the content analysis was revealing in some interesting and useful ways. Here are a few observations I made as I read:

1. Most of the coverage of Treaty settlements is being done by regional newspapers.

Clearly this reflects where the settlements are happening, but it’s notable that articles about settlements don’t commonly reach the main centres, except when there’s conflict, Pākehā disagreement, or for example, the case of Tuhoe representatives travelling to Parliament for a signing, which was reported by the Wellington-based Dominion Post because it happened on their patch.

2. A major source for historical context in stories that did contain some, like the case cited above, were comments made by the Treaty Negotiations Minister, Chris Finlayson, at signing ceremonies where Crown apologies – which are contained in the Deeds of Settlement – are generally included in his speech and his speech notes. A secondary source was speeches by Māori at signing ceremonies, but this was fairly rare. In general, reporters appear not to be using Māori spokespeople, Waitangi Tribunal reports, or even the Deeds of Settlement themselves for background or historical material, even though the latter two are easily accessible online – and in the case of the Deeds, easily digestible.

3. Too often, where there is some historical reference, it is far too general to be useful. In fact, sometimes the historical references are so general as to be almost insulting. For example, in a 507-word article in the Taranaki Daily News about a land transfer from a district council to a water supply company, which Māori feared would put the land out of reach for inclusion in any future Treaty settlements, the only historical reference was a general quote from then Māori Party MP Tariana Turia: “Taranaki iwi suffered some of the most serious breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi at the hands of the Crown”. What breaches? And how did they relate to the land at issue?

4. There were a few stories whose main focus was Pākehā grievance. Though the sample size is small, around 3 articles, it was interesting to see just how much historical context was included in all of these stories, which also tended to be picked up and run in papers across the country.

On 15 August, the Marlborough Express reported – in a 500-word story – on opposition to the gifting in a Treaty Settlement bill of a memorial site (Pioneer Place) north of Blenheim to Ngati Toa, a North Island iwi. The complainant quoted in the article, Ratepayers’ Association president Pat O’Sullivan, was paraphrased as saying that “More than 150 years of residents’ history was being ignored”. The articles went on to give historical context with respect to the Pākehā concerns (for example, “Tuamarina resident Roland Wadsworth and his wife, M’Lis Wadsworth, spoke of their concern about the proposal, saying Mr Wadsworth’s great-grandfather was one of the six men killed in the affray and buried by the river.”) but it gave no information about what “affray” referred to (the so-called Wairau affair), and there was no Māori historical context included.

5. Some of the stories I rated highly for historical context were actually editorials or opinion pieces, which arguably should have been excluded. But it was interesting to note that editorial writers appear more likely to include historical context than news reporters.


The news media’s neglect of history in coverage of Treaty settlement issues isn’t a benign problem, but a pernicious one. It doesn’t just do harm to Māori – and in an existential way – it does harm to our collective memory, pushing New Zealand’s own history farther and farther away so the past becomes more like that of a foreign country – more foreign to us, oddly enough, than the shores of Turkey. Examples of this harm are easy to find, including where I live, in the Bay of Plenty. Here – and no doubt elsewhere – there is a powerful anti-Māori, anti-Treaty sentiment that, like the news articles being relied on, rarely appeals to useful historical context.

For a while, in 2012, I kept track of letters to the editor in the local paper, which were – at least going by what was published – predominanty hostile, if not racist. After a few months, it got too depressing and I stopped collecting the letters, but here’s a selection of excerpts, keeping in mind that these are published letters attributed to named individuals, (they’re not from anonymised comment threads) though I’ve excised the names:

10 September 2012: “[The likes of the Maori Party] sit around and think: ‘Well, now we have Chris Finlayson wrapped around our little fingers, what else can we swindle out of those Whites? … It is time that the Waitangi Tribunal listened to claims from settlers who not only rescued Maori from total geographic and social exile and a savage way of life which was spiralling toward extinction, but they placed the whole world, with the knowledge and expertise of thousands of years’ experience at their disposal. Where is the gratitude?”

12 September: “In the name of sanity, when is Prime Minister John Key going to grow a pair and slap these greedy Maori agitators down once and for all? … As for ‘Mana’, every nation who have [sic] been conquered had to adjust and get on with it. No more excuses, these part-Maori people have to grow up and face reality.”

14 September: “The sooner we end this Waitangi apartheid tribunal and grievance industry the better off the country will be.”

21 September: “How far does the country go in setting right the ‘grievances of the past’ before it becomes simply a case of ‘hands in the lolly jar?’”

25 September: “Is it not true that Maori have had ‘countless’ benefits bestowed upon them that were never mentioned in the treaty? How dare they – Maori – hold the country to ransom with interpretations when it suits them.”

4 October: “’Appeasement’ deservedly became a somewhat dirty word in 1939, and now some 73 years later, it’s the only word I can think of to describe the pathetic, namby pamby efforts of our political leaders, in response to these ridiculous Treaty of Waitangi claims being made by the Iwi elite.”

10 October: Responding to a letter from a Māori correspondent: “So, [—-] thinks Maori are hard done-by. If you want to live in a Punga [sic] house with wall-to-wall dirt and a stockade around to keep all the wild animals from coming in to eat you then move out of the nice place you live in.”

27 October: After noting that Ngāi Tahu’s chairman Mark Soloman [sic] is really a Pākehā, the writer went on to say “There are people lining up to cash in on the Treaty in which their 5 per cent of Maori [sic] ancestry was diddled by their other 95 per cent of European ancestry. If some ancestors cheated another, then why are they claiming it back from the rest of us, why not just keep it all in the family.”

That the news media repeats and reinforces negative themes about Maori is not news. It’s has been well chronicled in myriad academic studies, as well as by the Kupu Taea / Media and Te Tiriti Project which has also tried to provide resources to journalists to counter the negativity. (Another excellent resources is the Treaty Resource Centre.) Looking specifically at Treaty settlements, as I’ve already noted, there’s a wealth of accessible historical and authoritative sources that are packed full of not just facts, but the kind of anecdotal colour journalists usually love.

• Waitangi Tribunal Reports are available for download at the Tribunal site

• Deeds of Settlement available for download at the Office of Treaty Settlements (Surprisingly, I found only one article that included a link to the Office of Treaty Settlements.)

• Reports and deeds usually list the names of iwi and hapu representatives and spokespeople.

• Papers Past has searchable papers from 1839 to 1945.

A to Js online: the Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives and the Votes and Proceedings of the House of Representatives, which contain lots of reports from the battle front, primarily from Pākehā/colonial sources, but the rawness of these reports is important.

Te Ara: The online Encyclopedia is a good resource, and its historians are pretty accessible if you have questions.

As we approach what will surely be an orgy of remembering around the Gallipoli centenary, couldn’t we try harder to write a second draft of history that’s a little more balanced? I’m not arguing we forget the World War I dead – 60,000 Australians and 18,500 New Zealanders are quite simply horrific numbers – but that we not remember them at the expense of what happened here. Death tolls are an inadequate way of measuring harm, but even if we restrict ourselves to those, new research on the Waikato war of 1863-64 by historian Vincent O’Malley suggests that the numbers of Māori killed and wounded “may have exceeded those sustained by New Zealand troops during World War One in per capita terms”.

Journalists are supposed to strive for fairness, yet it’s a practice that seems not to extend to reporting on the past. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur said it perfectly:

“I continue to be troubled by the unsettling spectacle offered by an excess of memory here, and an excess of forgetting elsewhere to say nothing of the influence of commemorations and abuses of memory – and of forgetting. The idea of a policy of a just allotment of memory is in this respect one of my avowed civic themes.”
(Paul Ricoeur, “History, Memory and Forgetting”)