Media Freedom and Racism in New Zealand: I

Paul Henry, Media Ratings and NZ Politics
By Subhash Appana

The ganging up in the NZ media goes on as most influential media personalities continue to rue the Paul Henry saga – HenryGate – where the TVNZ breakfast show host took repeated digs at things Indian in the lead-up to the XIX Delhi Games and exposed a latent negative sentiment that appears to be gaining traction in NZ. I do not wish to rehash what happened as that appeared in my earlier piece on 17/10. What troubles me is the fact that the issue is not being allowed to rest by the same people who supported it.

In one of the latest in print media, NZ Herald’s Deborah Hill Cone waded in (15/10) saying, “it's not really freedom if you can only say things which are respectful and don't offend.” She then added rather indignantly that reporting responsibly and correctly would render reporters “a bunch of poofters”. This last bit clearly shows what she thinks about media responsibility – that’s how twisted contemporary media reporting has become in NZ’s “democratic” environment.

The more balanced Paul Thomas took it a step further by saying, “Henry and Laws didn't mean to cause offence or set out to be insulting, it just happened that way. Sir Anand would be well-advised to stop drawing attention to himself because if they can be that offensive without even trying, imagine what they could do if they put their minds to it.” It’d be hard to read this as anything else but an attempt to lighten guilt and move its burden from the offender to the victim.

Coming back to the issue of racism in the NZ media, we need to evaluate reactions to gauge just what this entails for the country of the Long White Cloud. After Paul Henry’s dig at the GG’s Kiwiness finally prompted the flood of protests against his serial offending, his bosses put him on a reluctant-looking 2wk suspension; PM John Key said his government would not interfere in the internal decision-making at TVNZ, and all was supposed to be whisked away with time like when he called Scottish singing sensation, Susan Boyle a “retard” or when he said homosexuals were “unnatural”.

Unfortunately for some and fortunately for many, the issue refused to fly away even though Paul Henry was finally forced to fly away. For a while his sidekick, Pippa Wetzell, continued to show stacks of supposedly 95% support letters for the maverick – that has now stopped, but Henry is set to appear on a radio show and continue his contamination. Apparently, his popularity cannot be ignored for ratings.

Is this perhaps the right time to take stock of what this means for NZ? An organization-sanctioned statement made earlier by TVNZ spokeswoman Andi Brotherston is quite revealing, she defended Henry, saying that he often said what "we quietly think but are scared to say out loud". In other words, Henry’s sentiments reflected those of mainstream NZ – that the GG really didn’t look right for NZ, that the Indians could never deliver the Delhi Games with a Chief Minister having a name like DickShit, etc.

In the case of RadioLive, when host Michael Laws called NZ Governor General, Sir Anand Satyanand, a “large, fat man” who has “never left” the buffet table, his boss Jana Rangooni’s belated response to complaints from Race Relations Commissioner, Joris de Bres was, “I am comfortable from the tone of the comments that they were not intended to be offensive.” She had earlier said she was not concerned about the incident! Again, was this a reflection of a particular racist sentiment in NZ?

This is particularly sad because Sir Anand Satyanand was born at 37 Dryden Street, Grey Lynn at the Bethany – he’s a New Zealand-born New Zealander with parental links to Fiji. This makes many people extremely proud and sets a healthy mental orientation towards what can be achieved with focused effort in an environment free from prejudices. In fact it makes an emphatic statement for democracy.

Looking a little more closely at politics in NZ, it is not difficult to see that there is a right-wing orientation among the public. This shift stemmed from performance/policy shortcomings seen in the Labour camp. Given the composition of the electorate and nature of the voters, it is not beyond comprehension that critical votes could swing either way come elections and remove government.

That’s what any PM has to be worried about – John Key is no exception. It is in these environments that the importance of the media cannot be ignored. John Key made it a point to appear on Paul Henry’s breakfast show on Monday mornings. This allowed him a very important link to keep connected to the public, and it has been working wonders. It’s difficult to dislike the man after watching him on TV!

There’s one other little angle to this connection, very few people outside NZ know that Paul Henry was a National Party candidate who was soundly defeated by the world's first trans-gender MP, Georgina Beyer in the 1999 elections. Since then, he’s been the main TV cheerleader for National and this naturally led to those potent Monday morning slots for his buddy and National Party leader, PM John Key. After all, publicity is free-advertising!

The Key-Henry Monday morning banter was good while it lasted. It brought Key tremendous publicity, and Henry lots of popularity. Hell, the PM even brought him a personal vuvuzela from South Africa after the hugely successful soccer WC. Unfortunately for NZ, Paul Henry was allowed to operate too far out of the parameters of acceptability – the long-term fallout of this should be revealing. 

The opinions contained in this article are entirely those of the author and not necessarily shared by any organizations he may be associated with both in Fiji and abroad.

Email appanas@hotmail.com. Sent: 19/10/10

Comments

Saving NZ from itself said…
If Paul Henry has called Susan Boyle a retard and says gays are unnatural, then I guess he's not just targeting Indians. They're just the latest to find themselves the target of his boorish, infantile behaviour. I think the whole point about this is his fitness to to be star talent on a public broadcaster. He sees himself as an entertainer but breakfast TV isn't some irreverent late night variety program. It's mainstream information television watched by whole families. So the concern has to be that his neanderthal attitudes are embraced by the young and stupid and God knows there are plenty of both in NZ, That's when he becomes a public menace. The level of public support for him, even among the intelligentsia, indicates that that point had already been reached. Let's face it, it was the international outcry that cost him his job, not the local clamour for his head. Paul Henry now has the notoriety to make a success of himself in politics. I don't think the Nationals would touch him for fear of alienating the immigrant vote but he might consider standing as some kind of Pauline Hanson independent. There's obviously a big constituency in NZ for racist, egocentric, homophobic baffoons.

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