Whai Ngata was putting Māori language and issues on NZ television screens over a period of major expansion in Māori programming. When Ngata retired in 2008, TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis argued he had been "a rock in turbulent waters", and one of a handful of key figures in the "revitalisation of Māori language and culture".
Tanara Whairiri ki Tawhiti Ngata certainly knew his te reo. The great grandson of legendary Ngāti Porou politician and scholar Sir Apirana Ngata, he was son of the late Hōri Mahau Ngata, who lectured in Māori at Auckland University.
Whai went to teacher's training college in Auckland. He spent time working at housing body the State Advances Corporation, in public relations, and on the family farm in Ruatoria.
In 1968 he joined The Auckland Star as a journalist, keen to cover Māori issues. It was a different time. Māori journalists were few and far between — there were as few as five in New Zealand, Ngata later estimated— te reo was rarely taught at primary schools, and the Waitangi Tribunal was yet to be born. Ngata spent three years at the Star, before going freelance.
Many of the stories he worked on involved protest. Over three decades in print, radio and television, Ngata reckoned he was on the ground on Waitangi Day for most of them. When protests began occuring at Waitangi, he noted that reporters rarely went beyond surface coverage to investigating what might have motivated it. "Good reporters would see the reasons for protest and say 'what's going on here ... there are 200 people in that march. What lines are they thinking along? Have they been put up to it? If so who by? Let's dig into this.'"
After a period editing magazines, Ngata joined Radio New Zealand in June 1975. Over seven years he travelled extensively around Aotearoa, working on a range of Māori radio programming. Ngata covered the 1975 Land March, and made an award-winning documentary on the 28th Māori Battalion. He was at Bastion Point in 1978 when hundeds of police began evicting those present. He later described it as "the biggest bit of 'overkill'" he had witnessed over 40 years in the media. "It was a terrible sight, seeing our old people being marched or carried off their land".
In 1983 Ngata moved to Television New Zealand. He would be at the organisation for 25 years, rising to become General Manager of Māori Programming.
Ngata began by covering Māori stories for the Network News, before joining fellow reporter Derek Fox on recently launched te reo news bulletin Te Karere. The programme's main aim was "to put out the news that would be of importance to Māori, and do it in the Māori language". Ngata remembers "a huge reaction to Te Karere because a lot of people saw it as invasive, they didn't want the Māori language on their TV". Others found it hard to get a drink in some pubs at five minutes to six, because everyone was watching it. The show is still running today.
A lack of resources meant Te Karere crew often worked on weekends, in order to access the limited number of available camera crews. Sometimes they piggybacked on stories for the primetime news, with interviews being shot in both languages. In 1984 Ngata travelled to America to cover landmark touring exhibition Te Māori, where he witnessed young Americans arriving "in their droves" to learn more about a culture they did not know.
At the end of 1986, Ernie Leonard recruited Ngata to help establish TVNZ's Māori Programmes department. Leonard had only agreed to take on the job if the new department was put on an equal footing with existing departments. As deputy head under Leonard, Ngata found himself working on programmes from all angles — from funding and producing, to iwi liaison and live broadcasts.
Waka Huia began in 1987, after Ernie Leonard pondered all that would be lost if the planes carrying kaumātua to Te Māori crashed on the way. Ngata and Leonard created the show; Ngata would go on to produce literally hundreds of episodes. Presented completely in te reo Māori, Waka Huia travels across Aotearoa to interview and preserve the knowledge of Māori elders. Ngata wrote here for NZ On Screen about persuading elders to do interviews, and getting the funding to go on air. Tainui Stephens has described the programme as "unique in the world as a broadcast record of a people's knowledge and belief systems".
In 1994 Ngata became Head of Māori Programmes, overseeing funding proposals, production budgets and staffing of programmes for Māori and Pacific Island people. As well as his continuing involvement in Te Karere, Waka Huia, and Tikitiki, he was instrumental in creating Māori current affairs programme Marae (launched in 1992) and youth show Mai Time (which debuted as part of Marae, before becoming a standalone show in 1996).
Marae saw the Māori Programmes department establishing an ongoing presence in the only slot they had been offered — Sunday mornings. Ngata argued in this backgrounder on Marae that the time slot offered pros (editiorial independence, a genuine hour-long running time due to reduced commercials) and cons ("it is not a good time to watch TV"). After 18 years, Marae relaunched as Marae Investigates.
In 1998 Ngata was associate producer on primetime series The New Zealand Wars, after working for eight months with producer Colin McRae to win funding. Ngata recalled low expectations from TVNZ that the James Belich-presented historical documentary would win viewers. Ratings for the first episode were "huge", and remained high. Said Ngata: "I take my hat off to Colin McRae for persevering with the project".
Ngata was often the person sent to negotiate on TVNZ's behalf, so the organisation could provide coverage of many important Māori hui and events — including tangi for Dame Whina Cooper and The Māori Queen. He also collaborated with Japanese public broadcaster NHK on Māori content for the Japanese market, and visited China to work on programmes for Marae and Te Karere on ex-race relations conciliator Hiwi Tauroa.
In 2007, the year before Ngata retired from TVNZ, he was made an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit for services to broadcasting and television.
In a retirement interview for the NZ Herald in June 2008, Ngata spoke about how advances in the use of te reo had been fuelled by protest, then later normalised by education and broadcasting. He was glad the audience for Māori programmes now contained more non-Māori than Māori. But the journey wasn't over. "Once all the issues that were subject to protest 30 years ago are no longer an issue and they are part of the New Zealand psyche, then we have arrived at our goal."
In the same article, longtime TVNZ colleague Stephen Stehlin praised Ngata, and his ability to straddle both Māori and Pākehā worlds. Stehlin said there were times Ngata had been called on to defend both TVNZ and Māori. "He brought national identity to our screens." Te Karere veteran Tini Molyneux later argued that Ngata had fought hard to ensure TVNZ's Department of Māori and Pacific Programming wasn't dismantled (TVNZ announced in late 2014 that most of its Māori and Pacific programming would be handed to independent producers — daily programme Te Karere continues to be made in-house.)
Ngata summarised key moments in the history of Māori Broadcasting for NZ On Screen here (scroll down to second piece), including the birth of Māori Television.
In the 90s, he spent four years burning the midnight oil, finishing the English-Māori dictionary his father Hōri Mahue Ngata and family had worked on for many years. Hōri Ngata died on February 1989, before it was completed. At the 1994 Montana Book Awards, the English-Māori Dictionary won the Award for Best Non-Fiction Book.
In 2007 Ngata was made an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit, for services to broadcasting and television.
Whai Ngata passed away on 3 April 2016. He was 74.
Moe mai e te rangatira, moe mai.
'Whai Ngata: Maori broadcasting pioneer' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded July 2010. Accessed July 2010
Whai Ngata, 'Marae - The Producer's Perspective' NZ On Screen website. Loaded 12 June 2009. Accessed July 2010
Whai Ngata, 'Waka Huia - The Producer's Perspective' NZ On Screen website. Loaded 12 June 2009. Accessed July 2010
Harata Brown, 'Former colleagues pay tribute to veteran broadcaster Whai Ngata' Māori Television website. Loaded 3 April 2016. Accessed 4 April 2016
Tainui Stephens, 'Māori and television – whakaata - Growing capacity: 1980s and 1990s', Te Ara website. Updated 16 October 2014. Accessed 4 April 2016
Carolyn Thomas, 'Dictionary fresh step in long trek' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 21 June 2008
Piripi Walker, 'Māori radio – reo irirangi', Te Ara website. Updated 22 October 2014. Accessed 4 April 2016
'About the Ngata Dictionary' Learning Media website. Accessed 26 February 2013
Unknown Writer, 'TVNZ to outsource Māori and pacific programmes'' TVNZ website. Loaded 23 October 2014. Accessed 4 April 2016