The appropriate response

UPDATE 1225: have taken my advice and suspended without pay until 18 October. Okay, may not be on my advice, but I do note that most people were calling for either just a better apology or outright sacking. As far as I know few people advocated suspension as the appropriate response.

A sacking would make Paul a martyr. The suspension both is humiliating for him, but also sets a very clear boundary. If he does similar in the future, then clearly the response needed from TVNZ will be stronger than suspension.

ORIGINAL: I’ve been thinking about what would be the appropriate response from TVNZ in relation to Paul Henry’s comments yesterdays. A “sorry if you were offended” apology does not come close. However I’m not in the camp demanding he must be sacked, and never work in broadcasting again. I do respect greatly the decision of Ben Gracewood to quit his beloved spot on Breakfast reviewing gadgets – a very principled gutsy call which will have far more impact on TVNZ than the few hundred people who have joined the anti Paul Henry facebook group (his pro one has 35,000).

What TVNZ should do, is the same as radio stations do when a “shock jock” steps over the line. They should suspend Paul Henry from on air duties. That sends out a very clear message about what is acceptable, without being commercially reckless. It may also serve as a learning exercise about boundaries.

I enjoy Paul Henry’s humour greatly, and think he is remarkably talented broadcaster. However what he did yesterday was not humouous. It was simply ugly. And I don’t think TVNZ (or Paul) have realised how different this is to other incidents.

If humour is sincere, you can get away with a lot. For example when friends ring me up and tell me awful Jewish jokes, I don’t mind a bit – because I know it is 100% humour and they don’t really have an anti-semitic bone in their body. If however some neo-nazi skin-head was telling the joke, it would be creepy as genuine dislike or contempt or even hatred is what motivates them.

And that is the challenge with watching Paul Henry in future. He no longer will be that funny offensive guy Paul Henry. He will be that guy who looks down on people with a different skin colour, and you will wonder if what motivates his humour is ?

There’s a fair bit I don’t agree with Joris de Bres on, but his quotes in the Herald are spot on:

Mr de Bres said Henry often said things to challenge or shock people “but this one was off the planet”.

“What he was saying was that if you were an Indian New Zealander and you were born here, you went to school here, you went to university here, you practised law here, you became a judge, you became an ombudsman and you became a Governor-General, that a key presenter on national television still thinks you don’t look like or sound like a New Zealander.”

Mr de Bres said Sir Anand probably knew Henry well enough to ignore his comment, “but I know that it does have an impact on other Indians and other New Zealanders”.

This is the truly sad thing. We should celebrate Sir Anand’s achievements. He was born in New Zealand to immigrants from Fiji. He succeeded at school, at university, was a successful lawyer, became a Judge and then a hugely respected Ombudsman. Finally he is appointed Governor-General. But despite all of that, some people think he is still not a real New Zealander. Now think about the awful message that gives to young New Zealanders who have immigrant parents. It is that no matter how well you achieve, there are some New Zealanders that will think you are not a real Kiwi because of your skin colour.

This is not about offending a singer from the UK. This is about a statement that really will affect  lot of Kiwis. This is not an issue of freedom of speech – because that is not the same as freedom from consequences.

TVNZ issued a separate statement defending Henry – a release that Mr de Bres said was more “discouraging” than Henry’s original one.

Issued by spokeswoman Andi Brotherston, it said: “The audience tell us over and over again that one of the things they love about Paul Henry is that he’s prepared to say the things we quietly think but are scared to say out loud.”

I agree that the statement in defence was disgraceful. TVNZ badly miscalculated. This is very different to Paul’s other complaints.

A stronger response is needed than an apology. I think an on-air suspension would be the appropriate response. Anything less, and TVNZ looks like it condones racism. Because this is not just about Paul Henry, but also about TVNZ’s initial response defending him as saying he is prepared to say out loud what we think quietly.

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