Telling the Truth – Media and the Treaty

Reprinted from The Common Good, no 48, Lent 2009

Robert Consedine

I am in this country, Aotearoa, because of the Treaty of Waitangi, which gave the British and others the right to settle here and build a relationship of equality with Maori. It was not intended for the subjugation of Maori or to give settler Governments the right to control Maori activities.

My purpose as a Treaty educator these past 20 years has been to enable Pakeha people to have an informed involvement in all the issues emanating from the wider Treaty debate. It is ironic in an age where well researched information on New Zealand’s colonial history and the Treaty of Waitangi is accessible, that there continues to be so much misinformation, cross-cultural misunderstanding, racism and ignorance. Why is this so?

I would contend this is because most New Zealanders are forming their opinions on local and global issues based on constant misrepresentation by the corporate media. Some of the themes that emerge regularly in my Treaty workshops are what I choose to reflect on today.

They are the way in which the corporate media, despite a few exceptional journalists, destroy any constructive public debate about Treaty issues; the way Maori and crime are treated in the media; the consequences of colonisation; child poverty and the rich/poor gap in Aotearoa.

The only bright area is the advent of more Maori media, particularly Maori television which reflects the dramatic changes in Aotearoa during the past 30 years.

Corporate Media – Flat Earth News

We now live in an age of what media insiders call flat earth news. In short it means if someone announced that the earth was flat the media would want another side of the story – it would not matter which version was true. Every day we are exposed, by all media, to ‘stories that appear to be true, widely accepted as true, is heresy to suggest that they are not true – even if they are riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.’[i]

The great blockbuster myth of modern journalism is objectivity; the idea that a good newspaper or broadcaster simply collects and reproduces the objective truth is a classic flat earth tale widely believed and devoid of reality. The primary goal of all media now is to cut costs and increase the flow of revenue.

Every day we are exposed, by all media, to ‘stories that appear to be true, widely accepted as true, is heresy to suggest that they are not true – even if they are riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.’

Recent research states that the rules for cutting costs include: running cheap stories, selecting safe facts, the need to be inoffensive to the rich and powerful, select safe ideas, giving both sides of the story – regardless of what is truth. This produces a bias against truth and understanding, it goes with the moral panic, and follows the motto: if others are printing it – print it[ii].

If this is our media, how can we possibly have an informed discussion about any major issue in a democracy? The corporate media has become a highly destructive force for any level of democratic participation.

Media in New Zealand

Four companies, all overseas owned, dominate the New Zealand print media. Two of those overseas owned companies are responsible for 90% of our daily newspapers. Media insiders tell us that all media in the most advanced countries …now revolves around cutting costs.[iii] There seems little evidence to suggest that New Zealand is any different.

The history of the Treaty relationship is riddled with flat earth news. The police raids in the Urewera in October 2007 are a good example. New Zealand and International media were rife with stories linking Maori and terrorism. Media-generated conflict and fear were endemic. The Crown chose to call this an anti-terrorist operation in its initial press releases; politicians and several sections of the media then continued to use this terminology – even after it became evident that the terrorist label was wrong.

Professional historian Professor Judith Binney offered a background article on the raids to the NZ Herald and then the Listener. Both turned it down. The only newspaper willing to publish was the Otago Daily Times in Dunedin – which happens to be the one independent newspaper in New Zealand. Perhaps it was the title that made it scary: Ignore the past at our peril.

Crime and the media

Another major example of flat earth news in New Zealand is the representation of crime and Maori. Crime sells. Linking Maori and crime in the media feeds moral panic, plays on emotion and drama – which equals higher ratings and profits.

We are all familiar with the crime statistics for Maori. There appears to be an almost universal unwillingness to look at the real causes of crime. It is far easier to respond to the event after the fact, than to look at the more complex issues that might enter into a prevention response. The elephant in the room is colonisation, dispossession and poverty.

Research states that Maori are frequently portrayed by the media as privileged, poor managers, financially incompetent and squabbling.[iv] Combine that with the fact that Maori are over-represented in nearly all negative social statistics, and it paints a poor picture.

There is rarely any context. Colonisation and the dispossession of Maori are seldom mentioned. History is forgotten, or judged irrelevant. We should not be surprised.

Consequences of colonisation

It is not hard to conclude that many major problems in New Zealand society go back to our failure to honour the Treaty and colonisation. The question is why, in our public debates, is this such a threatening statement for some to acknowledge?

In 1840 New Zealand became part of the British Empire – an empire built on slavery, the slave labour of the industrial revolution and the dispossession and subjugation of indigenous people throughout the world. It is an empire which created mass starvation in Ireland and India, concentration camps in South Africa and Kenya.

The British Empire was also the biggest drug pusher the world has ever seen. Opium was the world’s single most valuable trade commodity in the 19th century. This trade was promoted and controlled by the British Empire.

Consequently, as the late Michael King, sums up the present is ‘a complex outcome of acculturation, military defeat, land confiscations, contradictory legislation, population displacement, racism, personality conflicts and continuing cross-cultural misunderstandings.’

The corporate media continues to ignore the impact of New Zealand’s colonial history on the present.

The negative social statistics of Maori are the statistics of dispossessed peoples – and they are global. It is no accident that the 300 million indigenous people in the world belonging to 5000 indigenous groups in 70 countries ‘are nearly always disadvantaged relative to their non-indigenous counterparts. Their material standard of living is lower, their risk of early disease and early death is higher, their educational opportunities are more limited, their political participation and voice more constrained and their lifestyles and livelihoods they would choose are very often out of reach.’ Whilst poverty also plays a strong part in this, it is also enough to be simply indigenous to live with these outcomes.

The gains for Maori in the last 30 years have been significant. However, it is worth remembering and honouring the fact that every gain has only been achieved through struggle, and with courage

52% of the men in prison in New Zealand are Maori, 58% of the women in prison are Maori. It is no accident that most prisoners in New Zealand jails are also poor. In a land of plenty, their poverty in itself is a crime. Since 1987 we have doubled our jail population. Are we safer? I don’t think so. Our commitment to building more jails is based on the naïve belief that we will be safer; this is a tribute to our complete lack of imagination. It is also reminds me of the best definition of insanity I know – keep doing the same thing in the same way, and expect a different outcome.

The Global and Local – Rich/Poor Gap

Another significant issue facing New Zealand today is the rich/poor gap. In 2006 the United Nations published a first ever survey of world distribution of household wealth (figures 2000). This report reflects a terrifying global picture of the wealth/poverty gap. 2% of adults own half the global wealth; half the world’s population lives on 1% of the world’s wealth.

New Zealand is not far behind. In the last decades of the 20th century, the Child Poverty Action Group revealed New Zealand had the fastest growth in income and wealth inequality in the OECD. New Zealand is near the bottom of the rich nation’s index, for infant mortality, children’s health and safety, teenage pregnancy and immunization. In 2004 there were 175,000 children living in severe hardship and being left behind. This is a damning picture.

New Zealand’s widening income disparity is no accident. It is the predictable outcome of the economic upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s. Contributing factors include the deliberate strategy of reducing benefits relative to wage income. It makes no economic sense to keep people poor, and the social consequences are transparently predictable.

We are now faced with a global economic crisis created by the most educated and privileged people on the planet who cold-bloodedly used other people’s money for their own gain. This was a predictable outcome of a system inflicted on the world by some of those 2% who hold the world’s wealth. Their silence now is deafening. There will now be more human suffering on a huge scale.

Will the media provide commentary about the causes of this economic crisis and therefore real, humane solutions? Or will it merely rely on opinion pieces from each corner of the market and fulfil its flat earth news role by viewing the truth as irrelevant?

A hope-filled future

The gains for Maori in the last 30 years have been significant. However, it is worth remembering and honouring the fact that every gain has only been achieved through struggle, and with courage. The words of the slave abolitionist, Frederick Douglas remain as true as when he uttered them in the 19th century ‘power cedes nothing without a demand – it never did and it never will.’

Just as the men could not envision a world where women voted, slave-owners could not envision a world without slavery, and whites, a world where blacks had civil rights, so our society struggles to envision a world where power is successfully shared in the way anticipated in the Treaty. We have the opportunity of honouring the Treaty in our time. We are not short of vision. The Treaty is about relationships. Those who signed it envisaged Maori and Pakeha living peacefully together – sharing power and resources. That vision has not changed.

Despite the ongoing struggle, there is much to be hopeful about.

There is beauty and the sacred in every life which transcends how people look, behave and respond to the world. It is especially in the prisoners, the victims, the people who fail, the marginalized, the poor, the vulnerable. I am convinced the only way to live on this planet is to put aroha, love, at the centre of our lives – to see the divine spark in every single human being and to treat them accordingly. It is the only way humanity will survive.

Robert Consedine is a Treaty of Waitangi educator. This forms part of an address given at Te Tii Marae, Waitangi, 6 February 2009.

[i] The information in this section is based primarily on the book by Nick Davies; Flat Earth News; 2008; Vintage Books; London. Although the book is based on the British media its relevance to New Zealand is applicable given the large scale foreign ownership of the New Zealand media and the dependence of the New Zealand media on similar sources. Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media: David Edwards and David Cromwell, Pluto Press, London, 2008 is another outstanding critique of the Western Media.

[ii] It would appear that the Christchurch Press now provides a weekly column which corrects mistakes printed in the preceding week. From 7 – 20 January 2009 there were 24 corrections from 1626 stories

[iii] Bill Rosenberg, CAFCA;


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