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John Drinnan is the Media writer for the New Zealand Herald.

John Drinnan: Maori TV rejects change

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Board set on appointing Paora Maxwell as chief executive, and reining in news and current affairs programmes

Carol Hirschfeld (above) and Georgina te Heuheu have differing views on direction. Photo / Richard Robinson
Carol Hirschfeld (above) and Georgina te Heuheu have differing views on direction. Photo / Richard Robinson

The Maori Television board last month rejected major changes as it pushed for the appointment of a contentious applicant for the chief executive's job.

The proposals championed by production boss Carol Hirschfeld included more English language programmes and interactive services.

But insiders say the ideas were doomed, with the board set on appointing Paora Maxwell as the new CEO.

Staff approached by the Herald expect Maxwell to take a conservative approach and rein in the news and current affairs department.

The board is awaiting State Services Commission approval of Maxwell, whose application has been controversial from the start.

In September last year his bid for the job led to the resignation of a board member, a petition against his appointment signed by two-thirds of Maori TV staff, and dire warnings from departing chief executive Jim Mather. Board chairwoman Georgina te Heuheu has also acknowledged that Maxwell is a personal friend.

Finance Minister Bill English, one of the ministers responsible for Maori TV, is said to be wary of controversy, but Maxwell's appointment is widely expected to go ahead, as is tighter control over the current affairs show Native Affairs.

Significantly, Native Affairs' biggest win may also be its undoing. Its investigation of the Kohanga Reo National Trust has made it powerful enemies in the Maori establishment, including some who are influential with the Maori TV board.

Party games

Maori TV has long had to balance a tension between those who want to focus just on Maori viewers and others, like former CEO Mather, Hirschfeld and news and current affairs boss Julian Wilcox, who want to win a wider audience by appealing to Maori and Pakeha.

Maori Television's Julian Wilcox. Photo / Natalie Slade
Maori Television's Julian Wilcox. Photo / Natalie Slade

The traditionalists believe the channel has strayed from a main aim - promoting the Maori language - and that its hard-hitting investigations are a sign it has become "Pakeha-fied".

Hirschfeld and Wilcox were nurtured by Mather, who left last year after clashing with te Heuheu, partly over claims of board interference in editorial matters.

Both executives were candidates to replace Mather, though Wilcox was inexperienced in management and Hirschfeld may have suffered because of Mather's implicit endorsement. Another candidate, Maori educationalist Richard Jefferies, has been pushed out of the picture, as has John Bishara - head of the Maori funding agency Te Mangai Paho - who was seen as a safe bet as he had been shoulder-tapped by the Government.

The focus has always been on Maxwell, who as former head of the Maori and Pacific unit at TVNZ had the best qualifications. It now seems inevitable Maxwell will get the job.

In September, high profile board member Ian Taylor resigned over the selection process, especially the decision not to approach the chief executive of TVNZ for a reference. Then there was that petition from Maori TV staff, opposing Maxwell's appointment.

Mather sent the board an email advising against the appointment and saying some senior staff would leave if it went ahead.

Te Heuheu, a former National Party Cabinet minister, has been an advocate for Maxwell. A source says she was furious with staff for questioning the board, and with Mather's email.

Mather never handed over the petition, but staff are concerned that the board will see who signed it.

The board is made up of three government appointees and four from an iwi-appointed body, Te Putahi Paoho (TPP). The Maori Party member on the board - Donna Gardiner - has supported Maxwell's appointment, so Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples would have been kept informed.

However, it appears te Heuheu did not notify English.

It is understood TPP appointee Riki Gage has opposed Maxwell's appointment.

Under new rules, when the board cannot make an unanimous decision, the new CEO can be chosen by a majority.

Changes coming

The timing of all this could hardly be worse for Maori TV.

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.

The Maori Party has always had an influence over Maori TV and so far that has not undermined its editorial integrity. But back in October when the Kohanga Reo story prompted the EY inquiry, former party co-leader Tariana Turia admonished Maori TV for attacking Maori, saying that was not why people had fought for the establishment of Maori TV.

Amid early controversy about the Maxwell appointment, current co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell went in to bat for Maxwell over comments made in Parliament.

Generation game

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.

Ellis exit

Former TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis has stepped down from his role as head of the media business for Telstra, Australia's dominant telco. Ellis' departure after just two years is a surprise in the industry. He restructured the business with the sale of the directories operation, Sensis. Ellis, who made his name in New Zealand with two stints as CEO of TVNZ, told the Herald he will be seeking Australasian directorships.

Former TVNZ CEO Rick Ellis.
Former TVNZ CEO Rick Ellis.

Ellis has also played a role in Maxwell being a Maori TV frontrunner. He was chief executive of TVNZ during much of the time when Maxwell was general manager of TVNZ's Maori and Pacific unit, but was not around when he made a negotiated exit from that role.

Normally, a taxpayer-funded company making a significant appointment would seek the view of a former CEO, but on this occasion Maori TV did not take up the offer from TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick to discuss the reasons for Maxwell's departure.

Instead, Maori TV opted to take a reference from Ellis, who apparently had a good rapport with Maxwell. Maxwell also received a reference from the former TVNZ head of news and current affairs, Ross Dagan.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

John Drinnan is the Media writer for the New Zealand Herald.

John Drinnan is the media writer for the New Zealand Herald. A business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s. He is focused on the business side of the digital revolution in media.

Read more by John Drinnan

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