I am reluctant to return to the topic of Paul Henry. In talking about him at all one pays him a degree of attention which he almost certainly does not deserve. But he is employed by the state broadcaster as an entertainer and is well rewarded for his efforts. And it is this aspect of the debate that I wish to address. The central question concerning Henry, it seems to me, ought to be: Does Television New Zealand accept responsibility for Henry’s regular abuses of his privileged position as a broadcaster on national television? Or does it take the view that his ratings – and potential ratings if he is given his own prime-time show – more than compensate for the insult that he so cheerfully pays to so many groups and so many viewers? And is the censure of the generally weak-kneed Broadcasting Standards Authority, with its totally inadequate penalties, actually a convenient way for TVNZ to absolve itself of responsibility for Henry’s uncivilised opinions?
It might be thought that none of this matters since Henry is the co-host of a breakfast show which, by definition, has a very small audience. But common sense dictates that the only reason for TVNZ to put up with the regular fallout from their host’s disagreeable utterances is the substantial future revenue which it might expect to generate from the high viewing figures which any show designed to offend public sentiment will be guaranteed to attract. For the simple fact of the matter is that if the mooted prime-time Henry programme proves to be inoffensive, it will disappoint and fail. Tolerance of the things Henry says appears to be based on the view that he’s a bit of a larrikin and a colourful character and we have too few of those in New Zealand. I’m inclined to agree with that as a general proposition. But Henry’s throwaway lines also wound individuals and groups and validate moral positions which are damaging to an enlightened democracy.
When Henry expresses the view that it would be less troublesome to slit the throats of Afghani prisoners of war than to hand them over to Afghanistan’s infamous National Security Directorate, he advocates the murder without trial of prisoners of war, in breach of the Geneva Convention to which this country subscribes. But more importantly, he expresses a view which must surely be anathema to any civilised person. In so doing, he reduces, albeit in a small way, the moral integrity of New Zealand society as a whole. I am a debater and I love to debate. I am an arguer and I love to argue. I approve of and welcome the forceful expression of ideas. But if a guest at my table were to express the view that slitting the throats of prisoners of war was an acceptable and convenient way of solving a difficult diplomatic problem, I would show them the door. There are some people, however clever, however talented, however amusing, however charming in person, who are simply not worth knowing.