The Kiwi who voiced a communist regime
How a Māori woman ended up broadcasting communist propaganda in 17 languages at one of the largest broadcasters in all of Europe – and gained a cult following
New Zealanders have long participated in geopolitical struggles overseas, drawn by adventurism, ideology, or both.
In the Spanish Civil War, Aucklander Griff Maclaurin was one of the first international volunteers to perish. Another Aucklander, Paddy Costello, after spending time at the New Zealand Legation in Moscow, was accused of being a KGB agent due to his clear sympathy towards the Stalin regime. Meanwhile, Cantabrian Rewi Alley gained domestic and international fame for his long devotion to the Communist Party of China.
One, largely unknown, Māori woman, June Taylor, is another Kiwi who left a mark overseas by becoming the international voice of Communist Albania in the Cold War era.
I came across Taylor’s broadcasts while researching the public diplomacy efforts of Communist countries during the Cold War for a book I was writing. I was struck that the newsreader of the broadcast of Radio Tirana – Communist Albania’s public diplomacy radio service – had a Kiwi accent.
It seemed a puzzle how a New Zealander would end up as the voice of Communist Albania’s propaganda efforts, so I set about trying to discover the person behind the voice.
In Taylor’s own words, her relocation to Albania as a 16-year-old in 1967 was due to her father Ron having “very pro-Socialist ideas and concepts”. Owing to his skills as a dental surgeon, he was able to move with her to Albania – a country he believed to be a Communist paradise – as a guest of the regime.
Unsurprisingly, Taylor talks of initial extreme culture shock on her arrival in Albania, calling it akin to “going backwards in time”.
Albania, then officially the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, was entering its third decade of Communist rule, under the leadership of Enver Hoxha. Hoxha is best described as a blend of a megalomaniac and a paranoid delusionist and, under his rule, Albania became one of the most peculiar (and repressive) countries during the Cold War.
After initially aligning with Titoist Yugoslavia, Hoxha switched allegiance to the Stalinist Soviet Union in 1948 due to fears of potential Yugoslavian expansions and the perceived degeneracy of Josip Broz Tito’s ‘Communism’. However, during the Sino-Soviet split that ostensibly began in the late 1950s and coincided with the warming of Soviet-Yugoslav relations along with Nikita Khrushchev’s destalinisation, Albania made the somewhat radical decision to switch allegiance from the Soviet Union to Maoist China in the early 1960s.
Taylor’s arrival in the late 1960s occurred during the start of a further shift of Albanian allegiance, this time the beginning of a move away from alignment with China to embarking on a path towards autarky: a state of complete self-reliance. Propelling this shift was Hoxha’s growing paranoia which saw him famously build more than 170.00 bunkers throughout Albania in preparation for an anticipated attack from one of Albania’s many perceived enemies.
Below: June Taylor announces the death of Albania’s communist leader Enver Hoxha
Taylor’s father’s decision to move to Albania was likely heavily influenced by his membership in the New Zealand Communist Party (NZCP). Somewhat curiously, the NZCP decided to follow Albania’s lead internationally, first switching allegiance with Albania from the Soviet Union to Maoist China in the 1960s and then, later, splitting with China entirely after Mao’s death in 1976, becoming mostly “Hoxhaist” thereafter until the collapse of Communism in Albania in 1991.
Although her life in Albania was initially heavily controlled by the Communist party, Taylor involved herself in voluntary youth actions common to such countries – such as building railroads – and eventually enrolled at the University of Tirana to study foreign languages.
After university and likely through her links to the Communist party, she found work in 1974 as an announcer and translator at the government-run Radio Tirana. Despite Albania’s relative obscurity and diminutive stature, Radio Tirana grew from purely an internal propaganda operation to acquiring a significant global aim and scope by the time she joined.
Through the help of its ally at the time, China, Radio Tirana gained the infrastructure to broadcast internationally and by 1969 it was regularly broadcasting propaganda in 17 languages and became one of the largest broadcasters in all of Europe. By the late 1980s, this had increased to 20 languages, including Indonesian and Hausa, and 66 hours of content broadcasted daily.
However, rather than being a public diplomacy success story, Radio Tirana was mostly nothing more than a white elephant. In an interview with Reuters in 2002, Taylor recalled how “news arrived at the very last minute. The quality of translation left much to be desired and they were packed with boring slogans”.
Taylor admits that she knew at the time that her work was propagandising on behalf of the Hoxha regime and that everything she read was “blatantly false”.
Her efforts to lighten the mood at Radio Tirana with some transgressive Western music backfired when a colleague played some Tom Jones on a live broadcast. This led to an ingenious justification to disgruntled communist officials that because Tom Jones was a miner’s son, he was, therefore, from the “proletariat” and his music was communist-appropriate. Sadly, however, the justification did not work and the colleague was fired.
Taylor spent almost two decades at Radio Tirana and during that time she managed to develop a bit of a cult following abroad, particularly in the United Kingdom, due to her accent. Remnants of this can be found on online forums and YouTube comments.
Perhaps most notably, Taylor had the task of announcing the death of Enver Hoxha to the rest of the world on April 11, 1985. The broadcast has the typical hallmarks of Albanian propaganda at the time as it proceeded to offer a slogan-filled 20- minute hagiography of Hoxha and the legacy he left through the Communist Party of Albania.
But, unlike her father, Taylor was no true believer in communism and in the wake of Hoxha’s death, she became involved in the nascent democracy movement that emerged in Albania in the late 1980s, taking inspiration from the movements that were sweeping across Central and Eastern Europe at this time.
In her last days working for Radio Tirana, Taylor was involved in the reporting of the topping of Hoxha’s statue in Tirana in early February 1991, which precipitated the country’s first democratic elections in more than 60 years. These elections would signal the official end of Hoxhaism in Albania.
The emergence of a fledgling democratic Albania resulted in her father, the communist true believer, fleeing Albania, but Taylor initially stayed. However, due to growing concerns about her links to the Communist party and the economic turmoil brought about by the transition away from communism, she eventually left with her children, returning to New Zealand.
In New Zealand, while Taylor re-discovered her Māori roots, she struggled to settle and eventually returned to Albania with her family in 1997, finding work at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an international organization charged in 1990 with liberating Europe “from the legacy of the past”.
Like many other post-Communist countries, Albania’s democratization efforts were fraught with difficulties. In 1997 after a period of catastrophic financial mismanagement by the incumbent regime, including the failure of numerous pyramid schemes, a brief civil war ensued as a motley crew of disgruntled communists and local gangs tried to take power. However, despite this, Taylor stayed and has remained in Albania with her family since.
Albania today is still far from being considered a consolidated liberal democracy, but its future is perhaps the brightest it has ever been as on July19 this year, the EU formally started negotiations with Tirana about Albania’s accession into the EU. And although membership in the EU is far from guaranteed given that Emmanuel Macron, the current French president, is a noted enlargement skeptical, Albania is seemingly on the cusp of fulfilling the dreams of democracy that helped Taylor switch from government propagandiser to democratic activist.
Although Taylor’s story seems like a one in a million – a coincidence brought about by a unique interaction of time and space – it is also, to my mind, somewhat emblematic of the Kiwi “no.8 wire” and “she’ll be right ” Attitudes that we are famous for and have enabled Kiwis to leave a mark internationally.
Indeed, her story might cause readers to find parallels with another Kiwi currently gaining attention for his apparent propagandising efforts on behalf of the Communist Party of China: Andy Boreham.
Boreham, a columnist for Shanghai Daily and a Twitter influencer, has received some criticism for his perceived parroting of official CPC narratives, especially regarding the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Regardless of whether Boreham is a paid shill or not, one could also imagine that Taylor would have received similar criticisms in New Zealand if her work for Radio Tirana had been as well documented as Boreham’s. What is not in dispute is that Boreham, like Taylor, has become an important figure within official Chinese media circles and where this lead will be interesting to observe.
After a period of relative stability, the world is now seemingly on the cusp of a new Cold War – this time ostensibly between China and the United States. Perhaps Boreham will be part of an emerging new generation of Maclaurins, Costellos, Alleys, and Taylors waiting to be added to New Zealand’s folklore.