It has been said before but it bears repeating: the only television channel that consistently conveys a sense of New Zealandness, of what it means to be a New Zealander, is Maori TV.
Last night it screened an absorbing one-hour documentary about a return by former New Zealand servicemen to Malaysia, where they had served during the Malayan Emergency and the Confrontation with Indonesia in the 1950s and 1960s.
These are two rarely visited backwaters of New Zealand history. For 12 years New Zealand soldiers, sailors and airmen helped the British colonial administration in Malaya combat a determined communist insurgency. Of the 1500 New Zealanders who served in Malaya, 15 never returned (though only three of those were killed by hostile action).
From 1964 till 1966, in what became known as the Confrontation, New Zealand servicemen helped the newly independent state of Malaysia to resist Indonesian attempts at grabbing a portion of Borneo. The campaign included covert raids across the Indonesian border by New Zealand SAS troops.
Last night’s doco, unimaginatively titled Malaysian Memories Tour 2007, was amateurish and low-budget. It lacked even a basic explanation of New Zealand’s military involvement in the region. But for all that, it was far more rewarding than the customary meretricious tat on the mainstream channels.
What was most impressive was the great dignity of the former servicemen, most of whom (in the documentary, anyway) were Maori. These were ordinary men who told their stories with unpolished, unpretentious eloquence. It would have been a stony-hearted viewer who didn’t feel proud of them.
It pays to keep a close eye on the Maori TV listings for modest little gems like this. When the channel was launched, I dismissed it as an expensive, politically correct sop. I am happy to admit I was wrong. As long as state-owned TVNZ treats the much-vaunted public broadcasting charter with contempt, Maori TV will be the default channel for viewers who want to know which country they’re in.