A window on a Maori world

  • John Tamihere
Maori Affairs

On Sunday we will finally see the launch of Maori Television. Better late than never, and for the first time we will have a window through television into the heart and soul of Maori communities.

A taxi driver asked me the other day why he as a taxpayer should pay for Maori to have their own channel, so I asked him why I as a taxpayer should
Pay to support the New Zealand Ballet, which I have never seen and don't ever plan to see. Millions of dollars of taxpayers' money is spent on Television New Zealand, Radio New Zealand and art, music and dance that largely reflects non-Maori culture, and few would question that public funding of such things is merited. Any country that is proud of its cultural heritage and identity must be willing to help pay for it.

While "mainstream" broadcasters do include Maori-focused programmes in their schedule, such as Te Karere and Marae, these programmes make up a very small slice of total airtime, and rarely screen in primetime. But a dedicated Maori channel will explore and unleash Maori talent and viewpoints in a way that mainstream television would never allow.

Maori have the right to see and hear Maori people, voices, culture and language. As a nation we have an obligation to preserve and promote our indigenous language and culture – and we are not alone in the world in doing so.

In Wales, bilingual Sianel 4 Cymru (and don't ask me how to pronounce that) has been a huge success since its establishment in 1982 as a Welsh/bilingual television channel, and has been credited with revitalising Welsh language and culture (despite the desperate and chronic national shortage of vowels in that country).

In New Zealand it was a previous Government that determined that a Maori television service was the best means to bring to life – as demanded by the courts - the intent of the Maori Language Act 1987. Television is a powerful medium – and I don't mean in its power to get us all addicted to NZ Idol. It is increasingly the main medium through which people get their information and their entertainment in daily life. It has huge power to change how we think and see the world and ourselves.

The Maori Television Service, through its mission to "provide an independent, secure and successful Maori television channel making, commissioning and broadcasting programmes that make a significant contribution to the revitalisatin of te reo and tikanga Maori," will be a powerful voice for Maori.

I am very pleased that that voice will be a bilingual one - Maori Television will be a bilingual channel with subtitles, and therefore not held hostage by the language Nazis. That is hugely important because the vast majority of Maori are not fluent Maori speakers, and a Maori language-only channel would have shut them out.

Some Maori have been lucky enough to be brought up in homes where they are taught Maori, or attend Maori language or bilingual schools and pre-schools. Others have not had the same opportunity to learn their language, and we must not shut them out of learning more about their culture, their communities and their people just because they don't speak Maori. The advent of Maori Television may be the beginning of learning the language for many Maori who would otherwise miss out.

Providing subtitles and bilingual programming lets in a much wider audience – when Te Karere added subtitles to its news bulletins, its ratings skyrocketed. And perhaps just as importantly a bilingual and subtitled channel allows non-Maori to also tune in. For the first time ever Pakeha, in the security of their own lounges, can view a whole vista of the Maori world. So many of our difficulties in race relations stem from ignorance and misunderstanding – a television service that overcomes that lack can only build bridges.

It is not just Maori who will benefit from a Maori channel – the success of Whale Rider demonstrates how distinctly Maori stories can place New Zealand on the world stage, with benefits to flow for us all.

The line-up of programmes on Maori television is cutting edge and covers a huge range of topics and genres. There is a lot more to Maori TV than kapa haka and kaumatua. You'll see programmes like documentaries on Dame Whina Cooper, the Maori Women's Welfare League and TW Ratana, The Best of Billy T James, shows on cooking, travel, business, religion and music, news, sports and current affairs, children's and youth programmes, comedies, gameshows, chatshows, sitcoms, drama, cartoons, language learning and other educational programmes, Marae DIY, and a whole bunch more.

Tune in free this Sunday – you might be surprised by what you see.

(I'd also like to thank the many people who wrote or emailed in response to my last column on what it means to be a New Zealander- I appreciate your thoughtful contributions.)