Fishing for Prawns – Maori TV & Mihi Forbes

After a recent allegation, aired in the media and provoking outrage on social media, that former Maori TV presenter Mihingarangi Forbes had without permission taken her employer provided wardrobe with her when she left the job, I penned a few words of disbelief about the whole controversy, including:

“The Indonesians have a pepeha “Ada udang dibelakang batu” which means literally “There’s a prawn behind the rock” or “There’s more to this than meets the eye“. And a long time ago, long long before TV and the Internet my grandmother taught me never to believe anything I read in the newspaper or heard on the radio, and to believe only half of what I saw and heard for myself. She might well have said don’t believe anything you read on Facebook or Twitter. Suspending judgement and waiting for the full story to reveal itself, sometimes digging for the full story myself, always works for me. I suspect there’s two sides to the real story and we haven’t heard either of them yet”.

“My advice to those who are upset by the allegation, even outraged, is to take a deep breath, to abide by the wisdom of my grandmother and don’t believe any of it; from either side. This wardrobe stuff is just a ripple on the surface of the pond. There’s a prawn behind the rock and we haven’t seen it yet”.

Thinking on it for a few days I decided to go fishing for prawns. It’s a small pond and it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a prawn behind a rock somewhere.

It all starts in 2013, I think, with the decision by former MTS CEO Jim Mather to move on. The media hints that his decision to seek new challenges might have been assisted by a difference of opinion with the chair of MTS, Hon Georgina te Heuheu. Whether or not that is the case he resigned and the board set about advertising for and appointing a replacement. Jim Mather had in his eight years as CEO stabilised the channel, installed sound management practices and built competent production and news teams. Maori TV was thriving.

Maori TV had also reached out to new audiences and it was reported from time to time that its Pakeha audiences at times outnumbered its Maori audiences. There has always been tension at Maori TV between those who would privilege its founding kaupapa of language retention and revival above all else, and those who would reach out to a broader audience; some of those with a more commercial bent. That tension has always been present at staff and board level. Under Jim Mather and his core team some saw Maori TV moving away from the original kaupapa, becoming “more Pakeha” even.

The truth of that position depends entirely on your own preferences and perceptions and not on any objective measurement. Maori TV is Maori TV still by Maori mostly for Maori regardless of its editorial direction. However perceptions are infinitely more powerful than substance. But whatever management and the public might think, it is the prerogative of the Board of Directors to set the strategic direction of the organisation including its editorial direction, without of course interfering in day to day editorial matters. Boards have that in mind when they select CEOs.

The Board of Directors set about the recruitment and appointment of a new CEO. There were quite a few applicants and four were shortlisted by a committee led by Deputy Chairperson Tahu Potiki. Chairperson Georgina te HeuHeu had, so it later transpired, declared a conflict of interest because of friendship with one of the leading applicants, and left the process to her deputy. The shortlisting of her friend Paora Maxwell, and the elimination of MTS executive Carol Hisrchfeld, kicked off a long running controversy in the media and in Parliament. Additionally in some quarters Maxwell was not a popular choice, especially among MTS staff.

The four on the shortlist were Paora Maxwell, Carol Hirschfeld, Richard Jefferies and Mike Rehu. After Hirschfeld and Rehu were eliminated it became obvious to most that Maxwell would get the job.

The only real contenders were Maxwell and Hirschfeld. Regardless of their likeability and professionalism they represented two entirely different philosophies regarding the future direction of Maori Television. It was those philosophies that clashed and broke out into a public controversy. The real issue of the future direction of Maori Television was never publicly canvassed and debated but was buried in the controversy that erupted about whether or not Georgina te Heuheu had acted improperly and promoted her friend onto the shortlist of four, into the shorter list of two, and then into the job.

In retrospect the MTS Board was making a controversial decision to change the direction of MTS as much as it was making a decision about who should lead it in that direction.

Some on the MTS Board did not agree with the decision. Ian Taylor resigned from the Board and it was reported that Rikirangi Gage had disagreed as well. But the real opposition came from MTS staff. And there is some evidence that the whole public controversy, in the media and in Parliament, was generated from within MTS itself. MTS staff organised a petition in opposition to Maxwell and it was reported that 68 of the 170 staff had signed it. Apparently it was never presented to the Board but mainstream media certainly knew about it. Someone was certainly feeding the media and stoking the controversy. The media also reported that Jim Mather had sent an email to Georgina te Heuheu warning her that if Maxwell was appointed several staff would resign.

Fuelled by leaks from within MTS it turned into a public controversy about Georgina te Heuheu’s (declared) conflict of interest and about accusations of editorial interference. The content of that public controversy was heavily influenced by MTS staff. The real issues were ignored.

The core staff that Mather had built into his news team and who were leading MTS in a certain direction were Carol Hirschfeld, Julian Wilcox, Annabelle Lee Harris and Joanna Mihingarangi Forbes. The media reported that Hirschfeld had presented a written proposal about the direction she thought MTS should take. It was obviously not accepted by the Board.

The media team had also been in a legal battle with Te Kohanga Reo National Trust (TKRNT) about its intention to air a Native Affairs programme alleging impropriety in TKTNT financial affairs. MTS won in court and the “scandal” went to air in two episodes. Lee Harris and Forbes were the public faces of that campaign. It caused considerable public controversy and some accused Native Affairs of becoming too Pakeha in attacking establishment figures in Te Ao Maori. The substance of the MTS allegations was later proven to be largely unfounded although based on minor impropriety within a subsidiary company. But the allegation against MTS about being too Pakeha was also way over the top.

Some saw it as an intergenerational thing with a stroppy young generation attacking and disrespecting their elders. I just saw it at the time as a group of journalists trying to make their mark but employing bad and biased journalistic practice. Their allegations were taken at face value and no-one bothered to look behind the story to the real story.

In my commentary on that controversy I found the journalistic professionalism of the Native Affairs team to be lacking.

However, that controversy was linked to the other controversy over the appointment of the new CEO with allegations of political interference and editorial interference. This is how it was reported in the NZ Herald on March 21st 2014:

“Native Affairs uncovered a scandal over mis-spending of Kohanga Reo funding, which led to the whitewash report from EY (Ernst & Young), commissioned by Education Minister Hekia Parata. Subsequently, the Government did a turnaround and asked for a Serious Fraud Office investigation, saying more information had come to light – though many failings had already been identified by the show.

“It was gutsy coverage and the Maori TV board has been troubled by this story. Sources say the board came under intense pressure from figures in the Maori establishment, unhappy with the allegations against high-profile Maori leaders.

“Supporters of Native Affairs and its assertive approach to the Kohanga Reo story are dismissive of the criticism, saying elements within Maoridom – including some on the Maori TV Board – are resisting modernity. In my opinion that is understandable, given the Herculean effort many people put in to get Maori TV established.

“Some people achieved that through activism, and those activists are now part of the establishment. They do not like the stroppy team at Maori TV who are not afraid to question authority and have their own definition of deferring to elders. The question now is whether the old school stomps on the new breed of Maori broadcaster”.

The real goings on in Te Ao Maori are more often than not quite nuanced and unstated, and often concealed behind the public manifestation of a disagreement or argument. More often than not journalists, politicians and commentators are easily misled and totally miss the nuance. So it was in this controversy.

Underneath it all this controversy was also about the cult of celebrity that now dominates mainstream media most noticeably mainstream TV. TV journalists/front persons and radio shock jocks (and some bloggers) build their visibility and salaries on celebrity and not always on journalistic substance. Two of the most successful in the celebrity stakes were the late Paul Holmes and the ever present John Campbell who did both bring substance to the screen as well as celebrity. There are now many minor celebrities of varying degrees of substance surfing the airwaves in their wake.

Maori Television was built from the beginning on an entirely different platform; a Te Reo revitalisation platform. At least four of the MTS Board members were long time proponents of and activists for that Te Reo platform. As Native Affairs developed under Jim Mather and his team Native Affairs became the face of MTS and MTS became more and more a platform for the minor celebrity of Ms Forbes. The Kohanga Reo story, apart from being poor journalism in that it concealed more than it revealed, did openly reveal Native Affairs as celebrity platform.

And that would have been the nail in the coffin for Native Affairs and those who had promoted it as the face of Maori Television. Intentional or not it directly challenged the primacy of the original platform or kaupapa based solely on Te Reo revitalisation, and would have directly challenged the governing philosophy of a majority on the MTS board.

“Political interference” and “editorial interference” became their war cry, shorthand obfuscation in the battle for control of the Maori Television kaupapa. They lost of course.

When Maxwell subsequently reorganised MTS and reorganised some of the senior staff out of a job it was portrayed as “political interference” and “editorial interference”. Given their fierce public opposition to his appointment and to the new direction the Board hired him to take, Maxwell was never going to retain Mather’s core news team. He would have been mad to try to work with them. Which is not a reflection on their competence but on their kaupapa.

I should point out that I don’t know Maxwell and have no opinion about his competence or suitability for the job.

It is his job to appoint staff who will implement the strategic direction of the Board and the CEO, then let them get on with it. It is his job to sideline or remove staff who might be opposed to that direction and to appoint staff who would implement that direction. The real underlying issues were the intrusion of the cult of celebrity, the amount of English language programming, and the future direction of MTS which is entirely the prerogative of the Board to decide.

Carol Hirschfeld, Julian Wilcox, Annabelle Lee Harris, Mihingarangi Forbes, Semiramis Holland and Jodi Ihaka all eventually moved on. They were replaced by Maramena Roderick, Ward Kamo, Billie-Jo Hohepa Ropiha, Matai Smith, Maiki Sherman, Rewa Harriman and Wena Harawira. And that should have been that. Just one team replaced by another with MTS heading off in a new direction. End of story.

Except of course for lingering personal animosities. In amongst that broader conflict over control of the MTS kaupapa some personal stuff developed. Given that the recent target of some of that animosity was Mihingarangi Forbes, and given that there are always two sides to a dispute, I would tend to believe a media report that it revolves around her and Maramena Roderick who replaced Carol Hirschfeld as head of news, and that neither side is blameless or free of conflicts of interest. An article in “Scout” on 13th April 2016 says in part:

“There is no love lost between Roderick and Forbes, who said she quit Maori Television last year amid concerns about editorial interference.

“Scout understands there is bitter bad blood between the two women, and Forbes had hoped she would get the role of news boss herself. Sources have said Mihi and her camp sought several OIA requests about Maramena’s appointment at the time”.

In the change of strategic and editorial direction Ms Forbes also lost her celebrity pulpit.

Whoever was responsible for airing the allegation about Forbes’ wardrobe was certainly stooping low; it was a low blow, way below the pito. On the other hand, whilst I accept completely that Ms Forbes did not steal or otherwise misappropriate her wardrobe, I am not at all convinced of her innocence in the unseemly dispute the tip of which became public in a most unfortunate manner this week. Whatever did she do or say to provoke such a low blow?

And whoever did decide to give it an airing the day before Ms Forbes new TV programme was to launch, in direct opposition to MTS’ Native Affairs, is an absolutely lousy strategist. It backfired badly and gave Forbes loads of sympathy and enormous free publicity. If Forbes were Machiavelli she might have organised the leak herself. Nah. She’s not that smart.

The Indonesians were right. I found a prawn behind a rock. I followed the smell and it was right off.