Academic bashing in the media – a first-hand account

Maori academics in New Zealand should be wary of talking to the non-Maori media. Flickr/geoftheref

Maybe it’s the lot of academics to be misrepresented, but when a single incident can nearly get you sacked it makes you reconsider whether to deal with the media at all.

Last year, comments of mine about Maori attitudes towards immigration were falsely reported in the New Zealand media. The way these were so severely mishandled and so inaccurately reported particularly highlights the failings of media in New Zealand to deal properly with Maori issues.

Fortunately, the reaction to my misquoted comments became an important part of my research into racism in New Zealand.

Misquoted and misrepresented

In early September 2011, I received a media request for comment on a Department of Labour report highlighting negative Maori attitudes to immigration – particularly that from Asia.

I responded, explaining that research conducted across a range of disciplines has shown that rather than immigration from Asian countries, it is immigration from English-speaking countries, which include Britain, USA and South Africa, had been the most damaging for Maori.

In particular, work conducted by and for the Waitangi Tribunal has shown that there have been gross and on-going human rights violations perpetrated against Maori by whites immigrating to New Zealand.

A number of white immigrants think they are inherently superior to Maori and have an attitude of white supremacy. Other white immigrants, of course, do not hold these attitudes and recognise and oppose racism against Maori. I recommended that screening procedures for all immigrants should include tests for such attitudes.

Wrong story

On Sept 4 2011, the main story on the front page of the Sunday Star Times was headlined “Curb white immigrants: academic”. Two subheadings underneath read: “SA, UK and US migrants racist, charges Maori scholar” and “Labour Department bears out ethnic fears”.

The article itself starts: “A Maori academic says immigration by whites should be restricted because they pose a threat to race relations due to their "white supremacist” attitudes.“ It reported that I had ”…called on the government to restrict the number of white immigrants.“ The article carried on in this vein, misreporting and misrepresenting the comments made.

The University of Auckland received numerous demands for me to be sacked and 30 complaints were laid against me with the Human Rights Commission. Maori media, in particular Maori radio and television, ensured that my comments were correctly reported. The University of Auckland reminded correspondents of the rights of academics as critic and conscience of society. The Human Rights Commission dismissed all the complaints.

Code of silence

Non-Maori media in New Zealand continues to exclude and demonise Maori, especially those who comment publicly on the negative impacts that racism continues to have on the indigenous people.

My own experience has confirmed how views on Maori issues can be misrepresented and twisted in the media, while the debate that we need to have on institutional racism in New Zealand continues to be ignored.

The media frequently calls on academics to comment. While Maori media frequently reports and debates the negative impacts of racism against Maori, non-Maori media often demonises Maori who raise the issue.

One result of non-Maori media attacks on Maori is they rarely speak with non-Maori media. Instead, they speak frequently and openly with the growing Maori media.

However, while non-Maori media is very powerful in influencing the attitudes of all New Zealanders, including Maori, Maori media has much less influence. As such, senior Maori academics do occasionally agree to talk about unpopular issues to the non-Maori media.

However, it is a risky undertaking, no matter how carefully worded the commentary is. Maori academics have a long history of being misquoted, misrepresented and demonised by non-Maori media. Maori academics who do speak to non-Maori media usually try to ensure that they do so only to those journalists who, along with their editors, are known to have the necessary training, expertise and experience to be able to report Maori issues accurately. But even with such caution, commentary can still be misrepresented, as in my case.

Racism database

In the month following the misreporting, I received a large number of email messages. Initially the emails related to the Sunday Star Times report and were predominantly negative. Subsequently they related to the media interviews I gave to both Maori and non-Maori media to correct the misreporting in the original article and the emails became predominantly supportive.

In the interviews, I provided a definition of white supremacy or racism and pointed out that it is not racist to talk about racism. I also asked the country to recognise and discuss its own racism, so that we could start finding solutions.

The email traffic grew into a fascinating database of racism against Maori in New Zealand. 157 individuals sent messages between September 4 and October 8. Of the email correspondents, 77 were supportive, six were neutral or asking for information and 74 were in opposition or were abusive.

62 of the 77 supportive correspondents identified their ethnicity. 27 were Maori, 14 were Pākehā, five were white, three were non-white South Africans, two were Indian and there was one each from a range of other ethnicities.

38 of those who opposed my comments or were abusive identified their ethnicity. As they defined it, 15 were white, seven were New Zealanders, six were Pākehā, three were Kiwi and one each was from several other ethnicities.

Big reaction

A colleague and I later carried out some preliminary discourse analysis on the messages themselves. There were supportive messages but the opposing and abusive messages provided for much more interesting analysis. 27 expressed hatred of Maori or anti-Maori sentiments, along with a range of other negative comments, many personal.

Notions of superiority and attitudes of white supremacy were evident in a large number of the messages. Many took offence at a Maori who had succeeded in the non-Maori world. Extracts from a number of these messages can be read here.

Every message received was replied to. Those who sent supportive messages were thanked. For the abusive and expletive-filled messages, the reply thanked them for contributing so eloquently to my database and research on racism against Maori in New Zealand.

For all those who expressed opposition, references were provided to generally accessible literature on the subject of white supremacy and racism, including a definition of institutional racism. But those who responded mostly maintained their original position.

The institutional racism of the non-Maori media and its contribution to racism among the New Zealand population continue. Maori attempts to combat the racism continue to bring about virulent racist attacks on those who speak out publicly, as non-Maori media persists with excluding or demonising Maori.