Thursday 1 March 2012

The Media, Politics and Darkies Behaving Badly

A few years ago I was driving the prominent and respected Maori lawyer (or as mainstream New Zealand media prefers to call him, 'radical') Moana Jackson, to a meeting in Hastings.  On the way he told me a story about a seminar he gave to a room of media workers (radio announcers, journalists, etc), most of whom were European, some of them well known.  Moana began his presentation by asking them an interesting question, did they recognise names such as the Chris and Cru Kahui and other Maori children killed by parents/relatives and care giver?.  Everyone in the room knew these names.  He then mentioned others, all Pakeha children killed by their parents, at around the same time, yet not one of the media present had heard of any of them.  He then asked 'how is it that you know of Maori children killed by whanau, but not non-Maori'?  Moana informed me that his question made many of the participants uncomfortable, with one asking him 'are you implying we are racist', to which Moana replied 'no, just putting that point out there for you to think about' (my paraphrasing and apologies to Moana for any inaccuracies).  I will go where Moana did not go that day and state that mainstream media reporting in New Zealand and Australia of First Nation issues, including crime, Treaty rights, welfare dependency, etc, etc, is often uninformed, poorly evidenced, biased and racist.

I expect the mainstream media's response will be to accuse me of playing the race card in order to silence their voices.  In response I ask when has any criticism, no matter how well founded and evidenced, ever stopped mainstream media from commenting on the Indigenous social context that, given how poor so much of the writing and commentary is, many of them appear to know little about?

Or the response might be that Maori commentators like me don't like uncomfortable truths being told about our communities.

So, let me kill off that rubbish right here: first, as a criminologist I am well aware of the damage we do to our own and to a degree alot of mainstream media lack, because I actually live in/research with, Indigenous communities.  But of course that direct engagement, the hallmark of good research in my experience, also makes me aware of the range of drivers and explanations for such behaviour; including individual proclivity, mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, histories of violence and abuse, institutional racism, violent/biased/over-policing, and long term impact of social and economic dislocation via the colonisation process (Tauri, 2004).

In other words, scholars who engage are aware of the complexity of the causes of the social ills facing First Nation communities, the multiplicity of drivers and the difficulty in constructing solutions in the messy context of the social world.  Although it has to be said that the creation of effective responses  might be made easier if the policy sector would stop making 'policy from afar' and work directly with communities to develop solutions, and cease relying on the importation of socially and culturally inappropriate interventions (Tauri, 2009).  

Secondly, I agree with many non-Maori commentators, including the venerable Michael Laws that we need to take ownership of the issue of violence/crime in our communities.  However, unlike Mr Laws, I know that some Maori are taking responsibility, something he would know himself if he left the radio booth and went and visited the Maori Women's Refuge in Hamilton that works with Maori women abused by men, and their male abusers, or the youth/social service providers like Mana Social Services in Rotorua, CART and Eugene Ryder who work with Maori (and non-Maori) youth offenders in Wellington.  If he and his fellow media experts were to engage with Maori in this way then perhaps they would stop making silly comments like 'what are Maori leaders doing about these issues'.  What Maori leaders (that includes all who work in this area and not just Iwi/tribal leaders) are doing is working...  they haven't got time to stop and educate mainstream media.  I suggest that  ill-informed journalists, breakfast show hosts and the like get off their backsides and go see what Maori 'leaders' and communities are actually doing... but please try not to get in their way while they are doing it.

Another response is likely to be a statement along the lines that they are simply reporting the facts.  Well if your facts are based on only ever telling one side of the story, or focusing your attention predominantly on brown people for a behaviour that occurs in all communities, then I stand by my claim of racism.  If you tell me that you are 'only giving the public what they want', then I say bullsh*t.  In any media outlet there is a process in place for selecting and managing the construction and dissemination of news (see Barak, 1994; Herman and Chomsky, 1988; Sloan and Mackay, 2007; Valverde, 2006), and it is clear that in all Settler Societies (such as New Zealand and Australia) Darkies Behaving Badly = sales, revenue and readership, especially if the story is about crime.

Media responses to Raema Merchant's child abuse research
The story Moana told me came to mind recently when I read online and media responses to Raema Merchant's Masters thesis, titled Who are abusing our children? An exploratory study on reflections on child abuse by media commentators (2010).  In short, Raema argued that while Maori were over-represented in child murder statistics, a significant portion were still committed by non-Maori, but that media outlets predominantly focused on Maori victims and offenders. The media reaction was, as usual, uninformed, biased and vitriolic.  A classic example was posted on the blog CrusaderRabbit and described Raema's work (2010b) as 'dishonest and propogandist'.  And because she drew attention to the uncomfortable truth that non-Maori also kill their children, she must be racist.  The irony of such a rant is astonishing, and actually provides evidence to support one of the key issues Raema studied in her thesis: 'why do media focus so much on brown people who kill, and not other ethnicities'?

The CrusaderRabbit blog proceeds from there to state the obvious, that Maori disproportionately kill their children (although the writer somehow misses the fact that Raema acknowledges this point), while conveniently ignoring an uncomfortable truth, that 60-70% of New Zealand children are not killed by our people.  Similar stances were taken by other media and bloggers such as No Minister whose response was "So..... 80% of the population account for about half the child abuse cases. Stop trying to minimise the disgrace that is Maori child abuse by using the "they do it too" excuse. Master thesis without maths. Nice".  Actually it is No Minister whose maths is wrong, and just like the commentator on CrusaderRabbit, misses the crux of Raema's argument.  Nowhere in Raema's work (2010a and 2010b) does she minimise the damage we sometimes do to our children.  Instead, she asks the valid question 'why media, policy workers and politicians scrutinise our communities to such an exaggerated extent, while others are largely ignored'?

I am tempted to turn No Ministers question around and ask why it is that non-Maori commentators like him (I'm assuming from the style of writing that it is a male) and CrusaderRabbit are driven to deny the reality of non-Maori/brown people's rates of child murder and abuse.  I would like to ask these commentators why they are so keen to deflect attention away from Pakeha child/wife abuse and crime with the 'it's only the Darkie's that do it' kind of rhetoric and logic so often espoused by enlightened social commentators like Michael Laws and Paul Henry in New Zealand and Andrew Bolt in Australia?

In case any of you feel like reading the blogs and other media cited here, you might first want to read some of Merchant's findings and comments on the issue, such as:
  • Almost 9000 children were victims of physical abuse between 2000 and 2008, yet only 21 became “household names”’ in the media.
  • Just one-third of child deaths were reported in the press, and they were predominantly Maori cases.
  • Merchant urged the public and media to focus on real problems of child abuse, rather than making Maori the “face of abuse”.
  • “The real danger I have seen from a social worker point of view is that there are a lot of children being abused but as far as the public are concerned they only seem to know about the ones that are Maori".
  • “Child abuse is a problem for all people, not just for Maori".
A Comment on Riots, Non-Riots and Bullsh*t Media in Australia
I would like to end this blog by handing out the very first 'bullsh*t artist of the week award'.  The winner of this prestigious award goes to Henry Ergas, a writer for the Australian for his coverage of the so-called riot that supposedly took place in Canberra on Australia Day (The Australian, 2012).

For those of you who don't know, on Australia Day in Canberra (January 2012) 200 heavily armed Aboriginal protesters stormed a restaurant, attempted to kill the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, maimed and wounded 30 police officers with knives, guns, machetes and the like, resulting in 3 dead and 56 arrested.

Well, actually that didn't happen at all; but you would think so after reading the rubbish that a lot of mainstream media were reporting in Australia at the time.  The Australian and many other newspapers, radio shock jocks and the like continuously referred to the 'rioting, violent, aggressive' nature of the crowd, as did police when called on afterwards to explain their bizarre behaviour, which saw the Prime Minister being dragged out by police as though caught in a firefight with armed rebels.  What we saw on TV was a protest action, and nothing more than that.  Yes it was loud, and angry, with people shouting slogans, banging on windows and the like, but it was not a riot.

What occurred in some cities in Britain recently, violent clashes between protesters, youth and police involving weapons, death, the burning of businesses, homes, vehicles, looting... now THAT is a riot.  The same goes for the 2005 Cronulla riots involving an estimated 5000 people and on the first day resulted in 26 people being treated for injuries, violent clashes with police, arrests, property damage and such like (note that the Cronulla riots did not involve Aboriginal peoples in any significant way). Nothing of the sort occurred in Canberra on Australia Day.  

And yet in The Australian we have Mr Ergas comparing what happened in Canberra to Cronulla, when the two incidents are clearly dissimilar in both scale and impact.  However,completely exaggerating the Canberra incident is not THE reason Mr Ergas receives this award.  The reason is the stunning, illogical argument he poses that the Australia Day incident shows that Aboriginal peoples and their supporters received special treatment, based on the fact that no one was arrested.  He hints that this demonstrates 'how far Australia has come' in Aboriginal affairs.  Wrong on all counts Mr Ergas: firstly, the protesters weren't arrested because unlike events in Cronulla in 2005 and recently in Britain, participants were not rioting, they were not stabbing, shooting, impaling police or politicians or members of the public.  Nor were they setting fire to vehicles and buildings.  And lastly, the argument that the protesters were in some way protected from arrest because of their Aboriginality would be offensive if it was not so (unintentionally) funny.  My gut feeling is that many Aboriginal communities experiences of policing are vastly different from Mr Ergas.  If their experiences are anything like that of First Nation peoples in New Zealand, Canada and the US, then many Aboriginal people in Australia will tell you that police rarely pass up the opportunity to arrest them whether it is deserved or not.

Barak, G (ed) (1994) Media, Process, and the Social Construction of Crime: Studies in Newsmaking Criminology. New York: Garland.

Herman, E and Chomsky, N (1988) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media. New York: Vintage.

Merchant, R (2010a) Media representations of child abuse, in J. Te Rito and S. Healy (eds), Kei muri i te awe kāpara he tangata kē: Recognising, engaging, understanding difference: 241-244, 4th International Traditional Knowledge Conference, June 6–9. Available from

Merchant, R (2010b) Who are abusing our children? An exploratory study on reflections on child abuse by media commentators, unpublished Masters thesis, Massey University, Palmerston North.

Sloan, W and Mackay, J (eds) (2007) Media Bias: Finding it, Fixing it. Jefferson (NC): McFarland and Company.

Tauri, J (2004) Conferencing, Indigenisation and Orientalism: A Critical Commentary on Recent State Responses to Indigenous Offending, keynote speech to the Qwi:Qwelstom Gathering: 'Bringing Justice Back to the People', March 22-25, Mission, British Columbia.

Tauri, J (2009) The Maori Social Science Academy and Evidenced-based Policy, MAI Review (June - available online).

The Australian (2012) Enforcing One Rule of Law For All, 30 January.

Valverde, M (2006) Law and Order: Images, Meanings, Myths. London: Routledge.


  1. Submissions to the Green Paper on Vulnerable Children might interest you. We made a submission too.

    1. Those in the media, TV and News reporters, are there to relay quick digestible bites of information. The media is slanted whether in New Zealand of anywhere else.

      The media, TV and News reporters, is speaking to a well established audience that agrees with what is being reported in one way or another. The media is preaching to its choir.

      You will never get 100% truth out of the media because no one is watching the watcher. In fact you can say that about govenment as well.

      There will always be those that will believe the Maori and other indigenous groups are this or that. That is because they do not identify with those communities or people because that is not them. Which creates more strain on helping to improve the health and well-being of a community.