At the beginning of April earlier this year, one of the original stalwarts of Maori broadcasting, Tanara Whairiri ki Tawhiti Ngata, or Whai as he was most well-known, passed away. Amongst the legacy he left behind were the scores of Maori journalists who were able to break into the television industry, due to the initiatives and programmes Whai helped lobby for.
Erana Reedy, Chief Executive of Radio Ngati Porou, was among the first wave of Maori journalists who benefited from the opportunities created by Whai. In 1985 Erana was the first recipient of TVNZ’s News Internship – the very first training programme the public broadcaster funded to enlist more Maori into TVNZ.
As a Junior Cadet Reporter for Te Karere she completed a three-month crash course in television journalism alongside other new recruits such as Temuera Morrison, Iulia Leilua, Fiona Murchie, Eliza Bidois, Bradford Haami and the late George Stirling. A year later the Maori Programmes department at TVNZ was established, which led to the creation of Waka Huia, Koha and Marae. These initiatives strongly advocated for by Whai, provided further opportunities for the next wave of Maori journalists to develop their television broadcasting careers.
In the following story for Nati Link, Erana pays tribute to the life, work and legacy of her former boss, mentor and advocate, Whai Ngata.
The night they brought Whai Ngata home to lie at Hiruharama, the night sky came alive. Lightning flashed. Thunder rumbled in the clouds and around us while we waited at the marae. Then as they carried Whai on to his turangawaewae, the skies opened up and it poured. He tohu rangatira.
Nō nga kāwai rangatira o Ngati Porou me Te Whanau-ā-Apanui a Tanara Whairiri ki Tawhiti Ngata. Sir Apirana Ngata was his great grandfather. His dad Hori Mahue was the only child of Apirana’s eldest son Makarini and Maraea Baker. Whai also belonged to the Ngarimu whanau. His mum Mihihara, who passed away in July this year, was the big sister of the late Moana Ngarimu VC.
So he was destined for great things. As a gatherer of history and korero tuku iho. As a story teller of the highest quality in print, radio and television. And as a fighter.
You had to be a pretty good strategist to get TVNZ to resource a Maori language news programme the bulk of their viewers hated – Whai joined his whanaunga Derek Fox to ensure that happened. You had to be a relationship builder to establish a Maori and Pacific Island programmes department and get it resourced to produce programme content – a combination of the late Ernie Leonard’s gift of the gab and Whai’s expertise in programme making. And you had to be a scrapper to ensure both taonga survived within TVNZ.
Veteran Maori broadcaster Wena Harawira said just as well Whai loved a good fight. In the early days of Te Karere they dealt with an angry public who believed Maori language had no place on national television.
“The reaction of Pakeha viewers was outright hostility that never seemed to wane in vitriol or magnitude. Inside TVNZ the hostility was more carefully masked. Those who felt the need to voice their opposition of anything Maori would be taken on by Whai and Derek. Sometimes the duelling duo would turn the tables on their colleagues and pick a fight anyway,” she said.
When I met Whai in 1985 fresh out of university as a junior reporter for Te Karere, he scared me. He was grumpy. In fact I could not believe he was related to the beautiful Ngarimu aunties I had known all my life. But Whai had high expectations of every Maori broadcaster. You weren’t a reporter unless you had a story. You weren’t a good journo, if you couldn’t summarise your story in 25 words or less. Whai was all about quality standards. In fact, he wrote the manual for quality standards in reporting Maori news and stories. Broadcaster Hone Edwards worked with Whai for years and had a deep respect for him.
“I ahu mai te kaumatua nei i roto i te mahi nūpepa, i nga mahi reo irirangi, nō reira me tika te mau atu i te ingoa o te tangata, tāna ki a mātou. Kei mua i taua tangata āna kawai rangatira katoa. Kia tika te whakatakoto atu i nga patai ki mua i te aroaro o ia tangata. He momo.He tangata kaha ki te manaaki.”
Presenter of The Hui, Mihingarangi Forbes attributes Whai for launching her broadcasting career. He took rookies like her under his wing and mentored them.
“He supported us individually. He followed all our careers and was an inspiration to us all. We would not be where we are today if not for Whai. People like myself wouldn’t be operating in both broadcasting worlds and we just wouldn’t have the pull of resources.”
And I guess that’s why Whai was so respected in the industry. He straddled both broadcasting worlds comfortably.
“Nānā nei i para te huarahi e puta ai te ihu parehe o te Maori ki te whai ao, ki te ao marama,” said Reuben Collier of Maui Productions.
“E toru āna tohutohu ki a au mo te āhuatanga o te reo. Tuatahi kia māmā. Kaua e whakataumaha kaua e whakapōraruraru i nga whakaaro o te hunga whakarongo. Tuarua kia mārama, he korero tā te kaikorero he korero tā te kaiwhakarongo he mea nui kia mārama te kaiwhakarongo ki tāu e korero nei. Ka mutu, kia tika! Kāre he hāwhe-way o tēnei mea te tika.”
Whai was a stickler for the reo. In fact one day he pulled up outside Radio Ngati Porou and I started to panic. There was something about his ahua which made me think, ‘oh my God, what have we said wrong?’ Well the bad news was, he had come to growl. The good news was, it wasn’t at us. He had heard a term used in a news story we had broadcast from another Maori media outlet. He reckons, “What the hell does ‘whai muri mai’ mean? It doesn’t make sense. Are they following or leading?”
So language was important to Whai. Maori and English. No surprise then when Whai picked up his father George’s dictionary project after he died and saw it through to completion. Today the Ngata Dictionary is part of the arsenal of every Maori language student.
International diva and television producer Hinewehi Mohi said his loss to the broadcasting industry was immense.
“When someone like that is no longer in that role, it’s quite scary for the next generation of journalists or broadcasters to step up to the plate. He will most certainly leave an enduring legacy of being able to tap in to the huge networks he had. Maori communities really trusted him to tell them their stories. He was always very authentic.”
Whai initially worked as a teacher. He joined the Auckland Star as a reporter in 1968. He moved on to Radio New Zealand in 1975 and then in 1983 Whai moved to TVNZ, Network News and Te Karere. The TVNZ Maori Programmes department was set up in 1986 and a year later Waka Huia, his baby, was born. When Ernie passed away in 1994, Whai became the Head of Maori and Pacific Programmes at TVNZ.
Jeff Latch, Director of Content at TVNZ said over the next 24 years Whai influenced and guided the industry to recognise the place of Maori in broadcasting and the importance of honouring the Maori language.
“Whai’s legacy to our country’s broadcast industry is threefold. First, there are the programmes he helped create and support and that continue to shape Maori broadcasting in Aotearoa. Te Karere. Marae Investigates and Waka Huia in particular. Second, under Whai’s leadership the Maori Programmes department developed a new Maori Content strategy for TVNZ, a strategy which continues to guide the Maori content that plays across all TVNZ’s on-air and on-line assets. And thirdly, he helped to recruit, develop and inspire a new generation of Maori journalists, presenters and programme makers who have gone on to create leading Maori content across all New Zealand broadcasters,” said Latch.
Whai was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2007 before retiring a year later. By then he had helped nurture the next generation of Maori broadcasters. He was the Godfather of Maori Television. According to Hone Edwards Whai paved the way for the establishment of Maori Television.
“Tera pea, mei kore a Whairiri kua kore e tu a Whakaata Maori. Mei kore nga tikanga me nga akoranga me ana matauranga nana i homai ki a matou nga kaimahi kua kore matou e kaha ki te whakatu ki te whakarite ki te whai i te kaupapa i tu ai a Whakaata Maori.”
For someone whose work was so public, Whai Ngata’s funeral was very intimate, entertaining, thoughtful and to the point. He could not have told his own life story any better. If I was to sum it up in 25 words or less it would be ‘a fitting tribute to one of the pioneers of Maori broadcasting which celebrated his life, his family, his work and his legacy’.
Otira e te pāpā e Whai, takoto mai. Kua waihotia e koe, ōu tapuwae ki roto i te ao pāpāho hei whāinga mo nga uri whakatipu e haere ake nei. No reira moe mai ra i runga i te mohio kei te pūāwai tonu nga taonga kua mahuetia e koe. Kia au tō moe.