Mediawatch: Kiri Allan’s resignation sparks another ‘on principle’ at RNZ

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Resigned new RNZ board member Jason Ake on his key message
Resigned new RNZ board member Jason Ake on his key message . . . “21 Māori journos got it - more than the entire compliment [sic] of our two major media entities in Aotearoa, who between them have more than 700 reporters on the staff.” Image: Te Karere/RNZ

By Colin Peacock, RNZ Mediawatch presenter

A board member at RNZ appointed less than a month ago quit this week after making public comments on former Justice Minister Kiri Allan’s downfall and criticising media coverage of it.

RNZ had asked Jason Ake to stop and the government said he breached official obligations of neutrality, but he was unrepentant.

Jason Ake (Ngāti Ranginui) was one of the appointments last month to the boards of RNZ and TVNZ that represented “an exciting new era for our public broadcasters as they continue to tackle the challenges of … serving all people of Aotearoa now and into the future,” according to Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson.

“Looking forward to the mahi ahead,” Ake told his LinkedIn followers at the time.

“Hoping to bring an indigenous perspective to the strategic direction at the public broadcasting institution,” he added, honouring the advocacy of pioneers Whai Ngata, Derek Fox and Henare Te Ua “for a much more visible Māori perspective in RNZ’s strategic direction”.

But even before he could be inducted into RNZ or attend a single board meeting, Ake resigned this week in the wake of controversy over social media comments he made about the downfall of cabinet minister Kiri Allan.

“When there’s blood in the water the sharks circle, and they’re more than happy to digest every last morsel and watch the bones sink to the depth. It’s a bloodsport,” he said in a Facebook post.

Referenced mental breakdown
He also referenced former National Party leader Todd Muller, who recovered from a mental breakdown to resume his work as an MP.

Jackson told reporters in Parliament on Tuesday Ake had “often been quite vocal about issues and he’s gonna have to stop”.

RNZ chair Dr Jim Mather had already been in touch to remind Jason Ake of his responsibilities under the Public Service Commission’s code of conduct for crown entity board members.

“When acting in our private capacity, we avoid any political activity that could jeopardise our ability to perform our role, or which could erode the public’s trust in the entity,” the code says.

Ake’s initial Facebook comment was not explicitly or aggressively politically partisan. Most of the comments could be construed as a reflection on the media as much as on politics or politicians.

But there is heightened sensitivity these days because of Te Whatu Ora chair Rob Campbell, who was sacked after publicly criticising opposition parties’ health policies recently. (That was amplified when media commentaries of other government-appointed board members were scrutinised in the wake of that).

In a statement earlier this week, RNZ’s chair acknowledged that  Ake was “new to the board of RNZ”.

Communications professional
But he is also a former journalist and a communications professional who is currently Waikato Tainui’s communications manager. Along with his partner — Māori communications consultant Deborah Jensen — he is a director of a consultancy called Native Voice.

RNZ said no further comment would be made until Dr Mather and Ake had discussed the matter further.

But Ake did not wait for that.

He went on Facebook again insisting mental health was a topic that needed to be talked about, particularly because it affected Māori so much.

He also referred to “an ideological premise that we as Māori must conform”.

And while he thanked some journalists for “getting the key message”, he repeated his criticisms of the media.

“21 Māori journos got it — more than the entire compliment [sic] of our two major media entities in Aotearoa, who between them have more than 700 reporters on the staff.”

Unable to ‘stay quiet’
After that, Ake told The New Zealand Herald he had resigned from the RNZ board “on principle”, because he would have been unable to stay quiet about broadcasting decisions which impacted on Māori.

“Crown entity governance has its own tikanga and protocols that need to be observed,” Dr Mather said in a statement describing it as “a missed opportunity.”

That was reinforced by Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni.

“It’s really important that they seem to be impartial and they’re not getting involved in the politics in any way. They’ve got really important roles to play and so the public needs to have faith in them being impartial,” she told TVNZ’s Te Karere.

Whanua Ora Minister Peeni Henare told Te Karere that crown entity board members “must represent all of Aotearoa”.

Rob Campbell wrote a piece for The New Zealand Herald the same day, applauding Ake for in his words, “having the guts to speak his truth”.

“They should not remove people, or put pressure on people to resign while in a position because the public views are not mutually shared or inconvenient. Nor should they be censored or silenced. They can appoint new directors when their term has served,” he said.

Obliged to be ‘politically noisy’
In a piece for the Herald explaining his own decision, Ake said that membership of Te Whakaruruhau o Nga Reo Irirangi o Aotearoa, the umbrella group representing more than 20 iwi radio stations around the country, obliged him to be “politically noisy”.

“This would have placed me on a collision course with the political neutrality expectations as set out in the Crown Entities guidelines,” he wrote.

“I made it clear that I came with a deep commitment to the Treaty and ensuring that it is embedded into the fabric and culture of the organisation. The Treaty is by definition a political pact and this required uncomfortable and sometimes public conversations,” Ake wrote in The Herald.

My presence cannot be a distraction to the transformative mahi ahead of it. It would not be fair on the chair or the other board members and it will undoubtedly stymie progress for the entire organisation,” he added.

But commenting on mental health or broadcasting would not be a problem if he refrained from criticising political decisions or individual politicians, or discussing RNZ in public.

Jackson also appointed Ake to lead the Māori Media Sector Shift review back in 2020.

While in that role, Ake aired opinions on broadcasting broadly mirroring Jackson’s own aspirations for state-owned media.

Boost for Māori creators
“Where is the allowance for decent Māori stories? We’ve got an opinion and a view under a whole range of things that’s not reflected in the television in high rating programmes. It shouldn’t ghetto-ised into digital online platforms only,” Ake told Radio Waatea in 2021.

In another Radio Waatea interview, Ake said RNZ and TVNZ’s merger must be a boost for Māori content creators.

“The human capability and capacity out there is really, really limited. And it doesn’t make sense for the Māori sector to fight with itself in order to bring to the market good content. I think that’s where the merger ought to look for what a decent template would look like,” he said.

Ake also aired concerns about the commercial media organisations getting money from the Public Interest Journalism Fund for Māori journalism, content and topics.

“Why would you put yourself in front of an environment that’s diabolically opposed or structured in a way that doesn’t recognise the value that Māori bring to the discussion?

“The internal culture at some of these organisations is so ingrained that it has become part of the carpets, the curtains and everything else. So there needs to be systemic change inside these commercial organisations,” he argued.

Content funding increased
Māori broadcasting content funding was boosted by $82 million in the past two years, as part of the review which Jackson appointed Ake to oversee.

In the wake of the merger’s collapse, RNZ’s own funding has been boosted — in part to fuel the Rautaki Māori (Māori strategy) Jackson called for in the past and now supports.

Ake has rejected a governance role at RNZ at a time when his input and influence may have had its greatest effect.

He has not responded so far to Mediawatch’s calls and messages.

But his most recent post on LinkedIn announcing his resignation has this footnote for reporters: “Stop ringing me. I have mahi to do.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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