My favourite description of last week's Police Ten 7 furore was from RNZ's Mediawatch.
"Now in the end, this week's controversy over Police Ten 7 was all over in the media within 24 hours."
It erupted over a Sunday morning tweet which criticised the show for racial stereotyping. That segued into a fast and furious debate in the news over its merits.
Hey @TVNZ it’s time u dropped Police Ten 7. A couple of days ago I was watching tv & your ad cut promo’ing the program showed young brown ppl. This stuff is low level chewing gum tv that feeds on racial stereotypes & it’s time u acted as a responsible broadcaster & cut it.— Efeso Collins (@efesocollins) March 20, 2021
It petered out eventually, but not before a weird and unexpected twist. Hearteningly, that twist involved an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and stereotyping. Unfortunately, it came from someone who didn't really need to be apologising for these things.
Speaking to the Herald on Thursday, Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon discussed an earlier interview he'd done on the Police Ten 7 controversy. Foon clarified it had been incorrect of him to say police were racist. He then followed up with the comment "I shouldn't stereotype."
It took me a few scans of the page before I realised I hadn't misread the story. Mainly because of all the commentary which popped up about the show and policing that week, Foon's did not stand out as one which needed reassessing.
In fact, during his original interview, Foon rolled through statistics and developments which showed how Māori and Pasifika were scrutinised, charged and treated more severely by police.
But, as often happens with discussions about racism, the information gets muddled due to perceptions of unfairness and confusion around the issues from those at the heart of the problem.
Let's start with the show's former host Graham Bell. The retired detective went all out in his defence via a radio interview.
Bell leaned into his police experience, and talked about how the overrepresentation of Māori and Pasifika in crime statistics impacted on profiling and police work generally. "I think that it's very difficult not to develop a slight attitude towards a group of people that are constantly offending," he said.
In that vein, Bell did not believe Police Ten 7 was racist because it was simply showing what police did in their work.
There was also Philly de Lacey, chief executive of Screentime, which makes Police Ten 7. De Lacey focused on the production element of the show.
In an interview with ZB, she reiterated the amount of work that went into ensuring the finished product was a fair representation of what went on. She also said the accusations of racism had been quite upsetting and she'd asked her team for a "full assessment" of the show's ethnic representation.
Now, I'm sure nothing Bell and de Lacey said was an inaccurate account of their experience with Police Ten 7. Their views were also reflective of wider public support of the show (although Bell's account of police practices was definitely at the extreme end).
Unfortunately, they both steamrolled over the fundamental problem around why Police Ten 7 perpetuates offensive and harmful stereotypes of Māori and Pasifika. That is, it's a programme based in a system we know has worse outcomes for Māori and Pasifika because of how we're treated.
From interaction with frontline police officers to sentencing outcomes, the numbers show we're arrested and charged more often, force is used more readily, and we're imprisoned at a higher rate than Pākehā. Any show which portrays policing in communities is therefore going to demonstrate this treatment bias – even if it doesn't intend to.
When it comes to Police Ten 7, a good question to ask would be: "Because we know this exists, what can we do on the show to address that?" That starting point enables practical examination of what the show can do to combat bias and stereotyping. Of course, to do that, one must recognise they are part of a discriminatory system.
Notably, Foon did not believe the programme should be cancelled. Instead, he recommended it look carefully at who and what was shown, and whether a quota system ensuring Māori and Pasifika were not overrepresented be implemented.
It is a stance which I think presented the most reasonable and mature outlook on the situation. Perhaps it's also why, after all the noise, he seemed to be the only one willing to examine his own bias and comments, and apologise.