TV One’s Close Up featured a Northland man Wikatana Popata talking about a hikoi in protest about the Government’s proposed asset sales last month. Popata made the most of his air time and said he had “had enough of Pakeha”, and wanted the Treaty of Waitangi thrown out so Māori could rule the country.
This led to more than two thousand online responses on Close Up’s Facebook page, with most upset by the comments: “I am embarrassed about the arrogance and ignorance of Popata”, “He should focus his anger on a better New Zealand of one people”, and “I am totally bored with this victim mentality.” Others took issue about whether Popata should have been given any air time at all.
Close Up followed up the initial story with a panel debate the following evening. In his introduction to the debate host Mark Sainsbury said: “Have we scratched the surface of a racist underbelly or exposed leaders of a cause with little support?” Two guests were in the same studio – John Ansell who is an outspoken right wing blogger and Morgan Godfrey who is a 20 year old law student and commentator about Māori politics. Mana party leader Hone Harawira joined the debate via a video link. The debate deteriorated into Ansell and Harawira knocking heads. When interviewed about his perspective of the coverage of a race relations issue, Godfrey said he was naive to think the discussion would be about politics and race relations, in hindsight he said he would have declined the invitation.
“With John Ansell in the room, I should’ve realised the discussion was never going to be informative and reasoned, of course that was never the intention. The intention appeared to be to get John Ansell and Hone Harawira together, play them off against each other and then have me pipe up occasionally as the token “moderate” or “young person”, says Godfrey.
“Of the panels I’ve done, that was the most venal. It achieved nothing other than to provide John Ansell with a platform to parrot his flawed and offensive views on Maori and New Zealand society.” Godfrey says he was stunned and confused with what was said. “And, I think understandably, angry with Mark Sainsbury’s unwillingness to shift the conversation towards reason, as opposed to hyperbole, misrepresentations and lies which is where Sainsbury directed the discussion.” Godfrey believes there is a lot of value in raising the issue that was debated but the way it was done had no value whatsoever. “Racism needs to be handled better by the media. The way media frame the debate isn’t helpful at all – they want the various sides to clash as opposed to reconciling them. Most of the feedback I got was overwhelmingly negative about the debate and that it achieved nothing. I also don’t think anyone learnt anything from it.” Godfrey says racism in the media is not uncommon and it annoys him but generally he chooses not to comment on it.
Māori Television head of news Te Anga Nathan said the channel has in the past featured the Popata brother when there was news value, as when the brothers jostled the Prime Minister at the Treaty grounds at Waitangi Day this year. Nathan says when the hikoi to Parliament over asset sales was happening its news team focused on the whole journey and not any particular participant. “There’s no point in beating something up and making it controversial.”
Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres says Close Up’s approach is not untypical. The media often become fixated on controversial figures making statements rather than setting out to cover the original event which in this case was a hikoi opposed to asset sales.
“And then it’s easy to invite people’s feedback. It’s not rocket science that they will get it and then they hype it up to another level by inviting two people representing two extremes on the issue to debate it, and side-lining the only person who was there to discuss the topic in a more detached way.”
De Bres believes this kind of approach was seen in media coverage of Waitangi Day, this year and in past years.
“In a way this kind of coverage does more harm than an individual racist statement in a public arena. Media really need to think whether it is responsible to trigger this kind of reaction in the area of race relations where there is a known level of prejudice in the general community. At the very least the media shouldn’t feed it. The effect is to confirm people’s prejudices, and reinforce a long suffering feeling on the part of many Māori that their issues are not fairly represented in the media.”