Saturday, June 19, 2021

How the 'voice of the voiceless' kaupapa became derailed at the Pacific Media Centre


Screenshot from the Pacific Media Centre video The PMC Project
by former student project editor Alistar Kata.

COMMENT: By DAVID ROBIE, founding director of the Pacific Media Centre

It really is bizarre. After 26 months of wrangling, stakeholders’ representations and appeals by the Pacific Media Centre participants to Auckland University of Technology management, in the end the innovative unit remains in limbo.

In fact, sadly it seems like a dead end.

In my 28 years as a media educator across four institutions in four countries I have never experienced as something as blatant, destructive and lacking in transparency as this.

Six weeks after I retired as founding director of the centre last December, the PMC office in AUT’s Sir Paul Reeves building was removed by packing up all the Pacific taonga, archives, books and files supporting student projects without consulting the stakeholders.

And then the award-winning staff running the centre on a de facto basis were apparently marginalised. 

As former Green Party MP Catherine Delahunty noted: “I am really shocked that a vibrant well developed centre is being treated like this - what is wrong with this institution?”

Academics such as Waikato University’s former associate professor in film and digital studies Geoff Leyland, who produced several landmark research studies on the nature of New Zealand journalism and journalists, complained: “AUT have acted woefully [and the PMC’s heritage] has been treated shamefully.”

Across the Tasman, former Monash University head of journalism and creator of Australia’s first doctorate in journalism programme, Professor Chris Nash, said: “Disgusting … A focus on so-called ‘new’ or digital media is a stalking horse for displacing journalism with apolitical communications studies.” He is author of the challenging What is Journalism? The Art and Politics of a Rupture.

And in the Pacific, the doyen of Polynesian publishing, Tonga’s Kalafi Moala, Taimi ‘o Tonga founder and author of The Kingdom Strikes Back, remarked: “That's unbelievable. What kind of people are running AUT now? We are still trying to get over the Gestapo-style deportation of the [University of the South Pacific vice-chancellor] from Fiji, and now this? Without any consultation? How shameful!”

Head of the Pacific’s regional journalism programme at the University of the South Pacific, Associate Professor Shailendra Singh, wrote: “It's a cruel irony that at a time when Pacific journalism is at the crossroads – if not on its knees – and needs to be better understood to be helped and strengthened to face new challenges, specialised Pacific journalism and research programmes in one of the centres of excellence in the region face an uncertain future. It just feels sad and surreal.”

In a perceptive article arguing that the Pacific Media Centre : Te Amokura “must break free to survive”, media analyst Dr Gavin Ellis, a former editor-in-chief of The New Zealand Herald, wrote that it ought to be “re-established as a stand-alone trust. It should continue its original remit … It may be time, however, to find a new university partner. I fear AUT has damaged its associations beyond repair.” 

Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Pasifika) Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban of Victoria University,
who opened the PMC as a cabinet minister a decade earlier in 2007, and director
Professor David Robie at the 10th anniversary celebration in 2017.
: Del Abcede/APR

Opened by then Pacific Affairs Minister Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban in October 2007, the centre embarked on a vibrant, high profile campaign over 13 years with award-winning student media productions; projects such as Pacific Media Watch on media freedom and Bearing Witness on climate change; student internships in the Asia-Pacific region stretching from Beijing, China, to Suva, Fiji, Port Vila, Vanuatu, and the Cook Islands; partnerships with the University of the South Pacific and Universitas Gadjah Mada journalism and communication programmes and others; book and journal publications such as the SCOPUS-ranked Pacific Journalism Review and Pacific Journalism Monographs; and quality research (two out of the School of Communication Studies’ three A researchers ranked by the Performance-Based Research Fund [PBRF] in 2018 were based in the centre). (1)

Conflict, Custom & Conscience: Photojournalism and the Pacific Media Centre 2007-2017
published to mark PMC's 10th anniversary.

It celebrated a decade of achievement in 2017 with the publication of a photojournalism book, Conflict, Custom & Conscience (Marbrook, Abcede, Robertson & Robie) (2), and an international media freedom conference featuring Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) executive director Malou Mangahas and RNZ Melanesian affairs editor Johnny Blades as the keynotes.

A short video about the Pacific Media Centre made by graduate Sasya Wreksono to mark the 10th anniversary of the centre.

The development communication kaupapa of the centre (established by the faculty as part of the Creative Industries Research Institute based on a Pacific media and politics research cluster in the 2006 PBRF) was: “Informed journalism and media research contributes to economic, political and social development and [the centre] … seeks to stimulate research into contemporary Māori, Pasifika, Asia-Pacific and ethnic/diversity media and culture production.” 

The latest PMC 2020 Annual Report.

However, the elephant in the room was, as Professor Mark Pearson noted in a comprehensive external review of the centre in 2013, that while the centre had become a research and education “jewel in the AUT crown”, its operations “will not be sustainable beyond the tenure of the current director, Professor David Robie, without institutional, faculty and school commitment”. (3)

Sadly, that long-term commitment was not sustained in spite of various management promises, especially under the current school leadership in the past two years. The centre has been effectively derailed by a series of inept decisions.

We fear for the centre's future in spite of the hard and dedicated work by the voluntary team at PMC, my former colleagues, over many months.

Consider the following:

  • In April 2019, a deputation from the centre’s cross-disciplinary advisory board (PMCAB) met the faculty dean, Professor Guy Littlefair, then also acting as head of school (HOS), and then deputy HOS Dr Frances Nelson to discuss the future of the centre following the deputation’s appeal to the vice-chancellor. Representing the centre were me as then director; the chair of the PMC Advisory Board Associate Professor Camille Nakhid – who has helped guide the centre since it began; and senior board member Khairiah Rahman.
  • We were assured that the PMC would continue as a “named” research centre, but my proposed succession plan which would have guaranteed the recruitment of a high profile Pacific-born media researcher, educator and journalist to continue the work of the centre was ignored.
  • Instead, I left New Zealand in July 2019 on a half-year research sabbatical in Europe, the Middle East and Asia with the management failing to provide any staff relief for the centre with a view to the future.
  • In March 2020, after I returned from sabbatical, the PMC provided the head of school with a “voice of the voiceless” vision statement and operations plan for the centre (prepared by advisory board member and Bearing Witness climate project documentary co-leader Jim Marbrook, Khairiah Rahman, A/Professor Camille Nakhid and me). Nothing was done.
  • Funding was cut for one of the core Pacific Media Centre projects, the award-winning Pacific Media Watch, by a change in policy without consultation. (However, the PMC negotiated in June 2020 a climate and covid project to fill the gap with a US$10,000 international climate change and covid-19 grant by Internews/The Earth Network). 
  • On 18 December 2020 – the day I officially retired – I wrote to vice-chancellor Derek McCormack (after earlier letters in the previous three years), expressing my concern about the future of the centre, saying the situation was “unconscionable and inexplicable”. I never had the courtesy of a reply.
  • On 16 February 2021, the Pacific Media Centre office was closed on the instructions of the head of school, Dr Rosser Johnson, and emptied of its archives and Pacific taonga without consultation with any staff involved in the centre. This action prompted a “please explain” letter being sent by the Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative (AAPMI) watchdog to vice-chancellor McCormack. This prompted journalist Michael Field of The Pacific Newsroom to ask: “Who is killing top Pacific journalism – and why?”
  • It took the school management three months after I retired to come up with a job description and call for expressions of interest in the director’s role on March 19. The EOI criteria had no reference to any specialist knowledge of “Asia-Pacific” research or publication being required.

Some of the PMC team with faculty dean Professor Guy Littlefair (second from left) at a
creative showcase in 2019. From left: Del Abcede, Dr David Robie, Dr Philip Cass,
Khairiah Rahman and Associate Professor Camille Nakhid. IMAGE: The Junction

When the AAPMI wrote to McCormack, the watchdog’s co-convenor Jemima Garrett, a former Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Pacific business correspondent and long a leading journalist and trainer in the region, was quite blunt.

But she was also generous about what AUT had contributed to Pacific media and journalism – “at a time when Pacific journalism is under existential threat and Pacific journalism suffer from underfunding” – and called on the university to continue to play a globally pre-eminent role in supporting journalism education, research and collaboration. 

“AUT’s Pacific Media Centre (including its associated projects in audio, video and online production and its engagement with Asia and Pacific academic institutions and communities within New Zealand) is the jewel in AUT’s crown,” wrote Garrett.

“As you know, the PMC is the world’s leading Pacific journalism programme [and] is looked to by media professionals and academics from around the world, including in the Pacific and here in Australia. The centre’s research publications and staff and postgraduate student journalism websites (such as PMC Online are valued highly by Australian media professionals and they are frequent contributors.”

The AAPMI thanked the PMC Advisory Board, our volunteers and me for our “pioneering work” in developing the PMC.

“Since Professor Robie’s long expected retirement (at age 75) we are concerned to see the centre without a director and its office relocated without adequate consultation with its stakeholders,” Garrett wrote. “To continue to play its cutting-edge role we believe the Pacific Media Centre needs a world-class director and urge you to advertise the role globally.” 

Dr David Robie with books produced at the PMC during his 13-year tenure.
IMAGE: Laurens Ikinia/APR

Communication Studies head Dr Rosser Johnson replied on behalf of the vice-chancellor and faculty dean on February 26, saying that “everything that the school is planning will, we believe, enhance its status and increase its visibility”.

Dr Johnson wrote that as part of an office relocation plan involving “16 staff” (none actually directly involved in the PMC), the centre was being relocated from the 10th floor in the Sir Paul Reeves Building (where it had been since 2013, next door to its postgraduate student stakeholders) to the 12th floor (near the administration and staff offices, far from the students and the PMC newsroom).

“This move will mean a one hundred per cent increase in the dedicated PMC office space (from two single offices to two double offices) and guarantees at least as much space for postgraduate students enrolled in research degrees related to Pacific media topics as there was on WG10),” Dr Johnson claimed.

Gone ... the Pacific Media Centre office as it was.

“The school staff who moved the items did so under my direction and with the utmost care and professionalism, and the items are safely stored in a locked office in WG12,” wrote Dr Johnson. (There was no inventory drawn up and no consultation with the stakeholders).

“There is no plan to advertise the role of the director of the PMC globally,” continued Dr Johnson.

“Finally,” he said, “let me reassure you that there is no plan to downplay the importance of the Pacific Media Centre.”

Dr Johnson later told the AUT student magazine Debate in its May edition that the PMC office had been relocated for “security reasons” and that the “new leadership” would be announced in April.

Departing Professor David Robie with singing West Papuan students at the final PMC
public seminar in December 2020. IMAGE: Del Abcede/APR

That was more than two months ago – and the centre team is still awaiting any word. Kudos to Jim Marbrook, Khairiah Rahman and Camille Nakhid for keeping the fight alive.

In the meantime, most media operations of the centre appear to have evaporated with the PMC website, YouTube video channel and Soundcloud radio channel not being updated since December 2020.

Does the Pacific Media Centre still actually exist? And where? Ask the AUT School of Communication Studies. And, if it doesn't, why not? Let us be honest about the fate of this enterprising journalism research and publication venture.

Dr David Robie is a former head of journalism at the University of Papua New Guinea (1993-1998) and University of the South Pacific (1998-2002), and was founding director of the Pacific Media Centre and the first journalism professor at Auckland University of Technology. He retired from AUT in December 2020 after 18 years at the institution.

1. Pacific Media Centre Annual Review 2020. Retrieved from

2. Marbrook, J., Abcede, D., Robertson, N., & Robie, D. (2017). Conflict, Custom, & Conscience: Photojournalism and the Pacific Media Centre 2007-2017. Retrieved from

3. Pearson, M. (2013). Pacific Media Centre: Report of external moderation conducted 29/4/13 – 4/5/13.

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