Garth Bray: How a trip to Australia opened his eyes to racism in NZ

Source: 1News

TVNZ journalist Garth Bray has pulled back the curtain on his infamous 2007 scoop on former MP Hone Harawira's disappearance in Australia, explaining how it helped open his eyes to racism and turned the spotlight on indigenous issues on both sides of the Tasman.

Garth Bray

Bray, now a reporter for Fair Go, spoke about the story in a recent interview with re_covering, a Media Chaplaincy New Zealand podcast produced for RNZ featuring New Zealand’s top journalists, each discussing the one story from their career that has shaped them most, personally and professionally.

Harawira, then of the Māori Party, had flown to Melbourne in August 2007 as part of a justice and electoral select committee trip to study Australia’s election spending laws and victims' rights.

However, on day two of the taxpayer-funded four-day trip, he left.

Telling none of his colleagues where he’d gone, his disappearance attracted major news coverage and speculation on both sides of the Tasman.

Bray, who was at the time covering the trip for 1News as their Australia correspondent, received a phone call the night before from Harawira himself, telling him he was headed to the Northern Territory to visit the Aboriginal population there.

"The backdrop to this was that the John Howard government was looking at an intervention. Effectively, they were using the military to go into remote communities, taking over control of how they were run," Bray told re_covering host and media chaplain Rev. Frank Ritchie.

"They were justifying that by saying there were rivers of grog flowing around them and rampant child abuse. And there were some real social problems, obviously - [but] that's kind of what you get when you have 200 years of colonisation weighing down on some people."

The unexpected phone call landed Bray a massive exclusive. As other media scrambled to track Harawira down, he’d caught the first flight into Alice Springs and was the only Kiwi journalist who knew the controversial politician’s whereabouts and what he was up to.

His coverage of Harawira over the following days exposed the grim realities of life for the Aboriginal communities there.

There was rampant alcohol addiction, poor-quality housing and inadequate social services to an extent Bray hadn’t seen back in Aotearoa, and the news stories put the merits of the government’s intervention under the microscope.

But when it was all over and they returned to New Zealand, it was clear issues for indigenous people weren’t limited just to Australia.

A cartoon in the Herald about Harawira’s jaunt in Alice Springs made for particularly eye-opening and uncomfortable viewing for Bray, exposing racist attitudes some Pākehā held about Māori.

"It showed someone that looked mysteriously like me and the cameraman in the middle of the Tanami Desert lifting up this beer can, and I’m saying 'This one's still cold, he can't be far away," Bray said.

"I can see why someone cartooning would’ve gone that way. But I mean, I know Hone hasn't touched a drink at that point in 15 years and I can tell you he's also been smoke free for more than 20.

"For me, it sort of said there's a strong dominant narrative in our media around making some very, very lazy assumptions about people, when actually there's a lot more going on in their character."

While he welcomes the increased acknowledgement of and respect for te ao Māori in recent years, he urges Pākehā to accept the discomfort of it not being their culture to adopt and identify with.

"You can be as interested as you like about Māoritanga, you can be as engaged in the culture as you like, but if you don't whakapapa back in some way, there is always that sense that you're a little bit of an outsider," he said.

"I think you've just got to be comfortable with that idea and go, 'Okay I'm interested, I'm keen to be a bit of an ally here'… It's recognising, I guess, that it's okay to be curious but not to feel like you're the guest of honour or the main participant in the story."

That attitude feeds into Bray's hopes for journalism in Aotearoa heading into the future.

"If we can capture some of that excitement [about Māoritanga], we realise there's not that much to lose but there's a lot to gain. It makes the storytelling richer.

"If we can walk a little bit in the shoes of the people that we are reporting on, if we can try and see things a little bit from their motivation rather than just coming in with our own story, then I think that’s the whole point."

Re_covering sees Rev Frank Ritchie sit down with some of New Zealand's top journalists to unpack the one story from their career that has most impacted them, personally and professionally. Listen to the rest of the series here.