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Pacific Media Centre still in limbo

Del Abcede  David Robie
Del Abcede and David Robie at the Pacific Media Centre

TEUILA FUATAI
| The Spinoff | Edited extracts

AUCKLAND - Since 2007, the Pacific Media Centre at Auckland University of Technology has built a solid reputation for its research and reporting on issues throughout the Asia Pacific region.

It has also been a productive training facility for Pasifika journalists and academics.

However, soon after veteran Pacific correspondent and researcher, Professor David Robie, retired as director late last year, the centre was packed up.

The university did not provide remaining staff members associated with the Centre with any formal notification or explanation.

The move prompted a social media outcry among supporters and regional journalists, who raised concerns about the Centre’s closure and the lack of communication from the university.

Now, in response to queries raised by The Spinoff, the university’s head of the school of communications, Dr Rosser Johnson, has denied the Centre is being closed.

Dr Johnson said the contents of the office had been packed up and relocated to a new space beside other key departments elsewhere in the university’s communications department.

“I made the decision that we were going to get all our staff of Pacific heritage in the same sort of place, which is on this [12th] floor,” Johnson said.

“We’ve got five staff of Pacific heritage – one won’t be moving because he’s in a department that’s on another floor. The rest are going to come up to here in the school of communications.”

Johnson also said the decision to relocate the Centre from the space it had always occupied was made by the school’s “senior leadership team”. Staff were notified by email only after it was done.

Senior lecturer and Pacific Media Centre research associate Khairiah Rahman, said it “would’ve been nice” to have been notified about the shift beforehand.

A university staff member for 15 years, Rahman’s involvement with the Centre spans nearly a decade and she is also a member of its advisory board.

She said the lack of information to staff members has fuelled concerns about the school’s intentions for the Centre’s future.

Former Pacific Media Centre
Shambles - what was once the Pacific Media Centre

Rahman also said that the absence of a succession plan for Professor Robie’s replacement prior to his retirement had been particularly worrying.

“Ideally, [the transition] should be seamless. But Professor Robie retired at the end of last year… and we didn’t have a ready successor.

“I think it’s not a matter of blame but of strategic planning. Was it up to him [Robie] or was it up to the university?”

According to Robie, he had tried several times to engage with the school regarding a transition plan in the past few years, but nothing had happened.

Johnson attributed the delays to the impacts of Covid-19. By September last year, a decision had been made by senior leadership staff “that we weren’t going to do anything new before the end of the year,” he said. The process was delayed again by this year’s lockdowns.

In March an internal advertisement was circulated among university staff seeking “expressions of interest” for the role of director. Applications have now closed.

Robie, founding editor of the research journal Pacific Journalism Review and who continues to publish work through various outlets, has been critical of the treatment of the Pacific Media Centre since his departure from the university three months ago.

He is adamant those with long-standing links to the Centre not be sidelined in planning for its future.

“On every parameter, the Centre’s done incredibly well,” Robie said. “If they follow through with the team they’ve got, I see a great future.”

A multi-disciplinary research unit, the Centre focuses on media and communications in the Asia Pacific region and has a special focus on communities and journalists who have been marginalised or censored by authorities and power structures.

Robie brought considerable experience to the Centre, having lived and worked extensively in Papua New Guinea and Fiji, and covered significant human rights and media abuses throughout the region over a 40-year career.

The Centre was established as an outlet to continue that work and for journalism students to research and cover regional issues largely neglected by New Zealand’s mainstream media.

Don Mann, chief executive of the Pacific Media Network which runs 531 PI and Niu FM, said the Centre’s current transition was an opportunity for the university to assess other ways it could strengthen Pacific media.

“First and foremost, I think to have an organisation that stands for what the Centre was originally set up for is very worthy,” he said. “A watchdog organisation that protects the freedom of journalism and its role in the democracy.

“I think the issue which the university is possibly facing is whether that’s its role.”

Moving forward, Mann said a focus on developing Pacific people in media and journalism at the university would be great to see.

The underrepresentation of Pacific people who are experts in their communities in media spaces has been a problem for far too long, he said.

“It would be a really opportune time for AUT to look at a centre of excellence for developing Pacific people in broadcasting, new media, journalism and multimedia.”

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