The Paul Henry controversy has ended any pretence of it being a public service broadcaster
He was voted the People’s Choice in the recent Qantas-sponsored New Zealand television awards. He revelled in controversy, seizing his acceptance speech at the awards ceremony as an
opportunity to read, on live television, an expletive-laden hate letter from a viewer. But when Television New Zealand’s Breakfast show host Paul Henry besmirched the ethnicity of New
Zealand’s Governor- General, he created a firestorm that not only incinerated his career with TVNZ but also sucked in Prime Minister John Key and threatened to singe sensitive trade
negotiations with India.
Henry’s bigoted remarks about the low-key but well-liked vice-regal representative Sir Anand Satyanand had the further effect of releasing pent-up hostility toward state-owned TVNZ, which,
after initially excusing its rogue presenter, later buckled under public pressure and took him off the air for two weeks. When it became clear that mere suspension wasn’t enough to silence
the outcry, Henry fell on his sword last weekend and resigned. But the row continued to reverberate this week, and now it has escalated into a debate about TVNZ’s future as a public
The bespectacled, slightly nerdish- looking man at the centre of this furore is a clever and often engaging host with a big ego and a habit of saying what he thinks. His female co-hosts frequently
cringe at his comments and try in vain to rein him in. His own employer has twice upheld complaints against him, as did the government- appointed Broadcasting Standards Authority, after Henry
described Britain’s Got Talent winner Susan Boyle as ‘retarded’. On another occasion he escaped censure after ridiculing a Greenpeace spokeswoman for her facial hair and asking,
‘How hard can it be to wax?’
Many viewers love Henry for his defiance of conventional propriety. (Women especially like him; the People’s Choice award was decided by New Idea readers.) He has 77,000 Facebook friends, and
a website calling for his reinstatement attracted more than 30,000 names. TVNZ, though it makes occasional half-hearted attempts to pull him into line, can’t conceal its delight at the
programme’s ratings, which have doubled since Henry arrived. All this adulation may have led the host to assume he was bulletproof — but as the events of the past fortnight showed,
there are boundaries even Henry shouldn’t cross.
He blundered over one such line when he asked Key whether the dark-skinned Satyanand was ‘even a New Zealander’ (he’s New Zealand-born and raised, though of Fiji Indian parentage)
and then pressed the point by asking the Prime Minister whether the next governor-general would ‘look and sound like a New Zealander’. TVNZ fielded more than 700 complaints — a
Arguably more damaging, in terms of relations with India, was the subsequent airing on YouTube of an earlier Breakfast show in which Henry amused himself over the name of Delhi’s respected
chief minister, Sheila Dikshit. Cackling maniacally, he repeated her name several times and observed that it was appropriate ‘because she’s Indian’. He then added, for good
measure: ‘So she’d be dick-in-shit, walking along the street.’
Small surprise that the Indian government, already smarting over criticism from New Zealand over hygiene standards at the Commonwealth Games village, summoned New Zealand’s high commissioner
to New Delhi for a ‘please explain’ (just as it did only days later to Australia’s top diplomat in India, Peter Varghese, following the circulation of an allegedly racist email
among Victorian police officers).
Henry’s verbal infelicities have had political consequences, antagonising Indians just when New Zealand is attempting to negotiate a free trade deal with Delhi. He has also embarrassed Key,
who has been sharply criticised for not immediately slapping Henry down for his attack on Satyanand.
The affable Key is vulnerable on this point because he has a reputation for avoiding hard media interviews, preferring chatty, non-threatening encounters on shows like Breakfast. Key’s
critics have pointed out that his predecessor, the steely Helen Clark, asked the same question about Satyanand, would almost certainly have silenced Henry with her legendary death stare —
assuming he would have dared raise the issue with her in the first place, which is unlikely.
The other, unforeseen consequence of the row over Henry is that it has triggered a long-overdue debate about TVNZ’s place in New Zealand’s broadcasting arrangements. The state-owned
broadcaster — nominally the equivalent of Australia’s ABC — inherited a strong public broadcasting tradition, but has long since shed all trace of traditional public broadcasting
values. Unlike the ABC, it is sustained by commercial revenue and is so relentlessly ratings-driven that even previously staunch defenders of public service broadcasting — such as former TVNZ
chief executive Ian Fraser, once the country’s best-known current affairs interviewer — are saying the time has come for the government to flog it off to the highest bidder. Another
commentator (me) said the government might as well own a chain of sex shops or fast-food outlets.
TVNZ’s transformation was set in motion when the reformist Labour government of the 1980s deregulated broadcasting, along with most other sectors in the formerly state-controlled economy, and
charged TVNZ with delivering commercial returns. The deterioration first became evident in news and current affairs, where American consultants oversaw the adoption of a tabloid-style, touchy-feely
approach to presentation that one commentator dubbed ‘the coochie-coo news’.
The Clark government saw where things were going and tried to arrest the decline by imposing on TVNZ a public service charter, which was largely ignored. Today, the unremitting diet of banal,
so-called reality shows and American crime dramas on the two publicly-owned channels is indistinguishable from the offerings on their privately-owned rivals, and disillusioned viewers have been
driven into the welcoming arms of Sky TV.
TVNZ’s values were tellingly revealed by its initial reactions to the latest Paul Henry controversy. A spokeswoman defended Henry’s comments about Satyanand — and effectively made
all New Zealanders complicit in his bigotry — by saying: ‘The audience tell us over and over again that one of things they love about Paul is that he’s prepared to say the things
we quietly think but are scared to say out loud.’ Hmmm… possibly not the most winning PR line, in the circumstances.
As for Henry’s belittling comments about Dikshit, TVNZ was so proud of them that it put them on its website. Only later, when the extent of the backlash became apparent, did it pull the video
off. Critics argue that such crassness is an embarrassment to the taxpayers who own TVNZ, and strengthen the case for its sale. And after being stung by the reaction to Henry’s inanity, Key
and his government might just be inclined to agree.
Karl du Fresne is a writer from the Wairarapa region of New Zealand.