TVNZ has retarded attitude to Paul Henry

I wasn’t going to write about Paul Henry. I didn’t see the point in saying the obvious about his mocking of UK singer Susan Boyle as a “retard”. But the failure of Television New Zealand to act on its own behalf (and our behalf because it is a state broadcaster) and deal with him is deplorable.

We are now two weeks after the event and there’s still no sign of criticism from the TVNZ leadership for Henry’s boorish behaviour. And no apology from Henry either. It’s been left to his colleague Peter Williams to issue a public criticism. Williams told the audience at last Thursday’s Attitude Awards, to honour New Zealanders with disabilities, that “I completely disassociate myself from Paul Henry. I only wish he could be at nights like tonight, to be inspired by people with amazing attitudes.”

Henry’s comments have been excused by saying Boyle suffered oxygen deprivation at birth and was therefore technically retarded. But Henry went much further, saying “here’s the really interesting revelation: she is in fact retarded….And if you look at her carefully, you can make it out”.

Retard is now used as a broad term of abuse from the days when it was used to describe a mental deficiency. But it was Henry’s mocking use of the term which was offensive and obnoxious. He laughingly used it as a term of ridicule and thought it was all a joke.

He did the same earlier this year mocking a woman guest on his show for having what he described as a moustache.

These are the sorts of things one might expect to hear from immature adolescents in a school playground. Why should we have to put up with it from a host on broadcast television?

In all likelihood TVNZ has given Henry a nod and a wink and encouraged him to be a bit “edgy” and “push the boundaries” in a pitch for his programme to be the breakfast television equivalent of talk-back radio.

Whether or not that’s true the latest Henry incident marks a new low point for TVNZ. It’s hard to see it as other than another marker in how far the broadcaster has slipped into terminal decline.

I watch very little television and can’t remember the last time I watched TV1 or TV2. They have been used as a political football by governments for a long time and it shows.

Most recently Labour gave TVNZ the impossible job, via so-called Charter obligations, to be both a high quality local programmer while at the same time providing a dividend to the government through advertising income as a commercial broadcaster. To cut a long story short this was a failure and the demand for dividends from successive governments has led TVNZ in a race to the bottom as it pitches lower and lower. The latest Henry saga is the lowest watermark yet for this once impressive organisation.

Meanwhile the government is using the recession as an excuse to slash public spending and is taking the axe once more to TVNZ with reports the broadcaster needs to make $30 million more in saving after it cut 80 staff positions in March following a $25 million shortfall in advertising revenue. It’s a fair bet that after the next election the National Government will move to privatise all or most of TVNZ and it’s hard to see there will be much of a public outcry. Is there anything worth saving from this broadcaster we could once have felt some pride in? I don’t think it’s salvageable as a state broadcaster.

Any self-respecting organisation would have taken Henry off air till the whole issue was dealt with. With his past transgressions I’d have expected him to have been cast adrift permanently a long time back.

Instead of acting on its own behalf TVNZ says it will wait for formal complaints to be lodged and will then follow through with a process to decide if Henry’s behaviour was offensive and warrants further action.

It seems TVNZ is beginning to reflect the standards of the cheap reality TV shows it broadcasts which celebrate the ritual humiliation and degradation of competitors in subject areas as diverse as cooking, survivalist camps, pop shows and modelling. We are seeing more and more extreme versions of these shows as they seek to outdo each other and win the ratings battle on behalf of corporate advertisers.

So instead of working to provide quality television TVNZ is looking for cheap distractions to keep viewers watching between the adds. Paul Henry fits the bill.