Someone recently accused me of being judgmental and cruel in comments I had made about some of the leading lights in the recent ‘march for democracy’. I took the criticism to heart. I abhor cruelty to anyone or anything. If I make an exception it is to be strident in my criticism of those whom I see as advocating or practising cruelty themselves. I can appreciate that there’s a contradiction in that, but I’ve not yet reached that Christian or Buddhist state of consciousness where I can readily extend compassion to those lacking in compassion. I’m about to criticise Paul Henry whom I defended in the very first blog which I published on this site. My thesis was that, despite his occasional gratuitous, offensive and personally hurtful comments about other people, his exceptional talents as a broadcaster justified his continued employment by Television New Zealand. That is no longer my view. Henry is a bully who is abusing his position as a public broadcaster. He should be sacked.
Reading the report in today’s Sunday Star Times of Henry’s most recent remarks about Susan Boyle, it occurred to me first that the three examples of his obnoxious on air comments, cited in the paper, all involved abuse of women – Stephanie Mills for her ‘moustache’, a teenage mother for being ‘a slapper’ and Susan Boyle for being ‘retarded’. One is tempted to conclude that misogyny lies at the core of Mr Henry’s personality. Like most misogynists he appears to like pretty women, but has no time for those who do not conform to his superficial ideals of beauty and femininity. Ugliness seems anathema to him. Even the supposed ugliness of obese children who should ‘be taken away from their parents and put in a car compactor’. The Nazis would have been comfortable with that one. They had their ideals of beauty too. They would have been comfortable with his comments about Susan Boyle as well. The singer, he told viewers, was ’starved of oxygen at birth…
If you look at her carefully, you can make it out. Here’s the interesting revelation: she is in fact retarded. And if you look at it carefully, you can make it out, can’t you?’ You might have to wonder at the intellectual or emotional maturity of someone who looks at people ‘carefully’ to determine whether they are retarded. Henry says his remarks about Boyle were ‘light hearted’, which may explain why he laughed when he said she had been ’starved of oxygen at birth’. But there is absolutely nothing ‘light-hearted’ or funny about a child being ’starved of oxygen at birth’ or about intellectual disability of any sort. That sort of prejudice has no place in a civilised society. Hosting a television programme endows the presenter with considerable power. And with that power goes the responsibility not to abuse your position by disparaging those with less power and less opportunity to respond. Henry seems unaware of that responsibility.
He responds to criticism with the crass bluster, so typical of the bully:
‘To be honest, this is water off a duck’s back to me… There’s a question of free speech here… I’m just saying what’s on my mind, what I think, I’m trying to be entertaining.’ And there you have the real issue: not freedom of speech which can never be unlimited in a civilised society, but the freedom to increase your ratings and advance your career by tapping into the deep-seated prejudices of your audience. There’s an element of cowardice here too. I doubt that Henry would have described anyone in New Zealand, anyone he thought likely to see his programme, in the terms in which he described Susan Boyle. What he said was massively defamatory and would almost certainly have attracted a writ and a claim for substantial damages, naming him and Television New Zealand. But Henry doesn’t expect Susan Boyle or her producer, the enormously powerful Simon Cowell, to have heard of some jumped-up breakfast host with a tiny audience in New Zealand. I think I’ll remedy that. I think I’ll contact Simon Cowell and draw his attention to Henry’s remarks. I’d find the outcome of that very entertaining.