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Did Paul Henry breach broadcasting standards?

By Steven | October 7, 2010

As you know, TVNZ Breakfast presenter Paul Henry asked the PM whether he would appoint someone to Governor-General who looked and sounded more like a New Zealander, plainly suggesting that because Sir Anand Satyanand is ethnically Fijian-Indian (though born and bred in NZ), he’s not appropriate for the job.

I think that’s racist.  But I’m not entirely sure it breaches the Free-to-Air TV code.

It strikes me that there are three possible grounds of complaint:

Discrimination and Denigration

Under this standard, broadcasters should not

encourage discrimination against, or denigration of, any section of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief.

The threshold for a successful complaint is high. The BSA says there must be a “high level of invective”. Inflammatory comment won’t necessarily breach it. Expressions of genuinely held opinion are exempted. The broadcast must “blacken the reputation of a class of people”. It must “encourage negative treatment” of them.

I’m not at all sure that’s the case here. Henry’s really suggesting that our Constitutional head should live up to his idea of kiwiness, which is presumably white. I suppose this could have the effect of causing people to think ethnic minorities are less kiwi. But it seems a stretch to call this “encouragement” of racial denigration. It seems a long way from Voice of Islam’s televised condemation of gay people as “sick”, criticising their “filthy practices”, noting that the Islamic position on homosexuality is death and calling on people to “take a stand – and it’s not enough to call names”… or Michael Laws’ tirade against the Exclusive Brethren as “strange and weird beasties”, “dangerous little buggers”, “not normal people”… “you just want to take them outside and de-knacker them so that they can’t breed”. The BSA upheld denigration complaints in both cases. But here…?

Fairness

The code requires broadcasters to “deal fairly” with any person referred to. Sir Anand was surely referred to. Unfairness usually involves misleading portrayals, broken promises, bullying interviews, distorted editing, one-sided programmes and the like. It’s aimed at harm caused to particular people featuring on programmes.

How was Sir Anand treated unfairly? By suggesting he wasn’t even a New Zealander? (The PM put Henry right on that score). By implying that he wasn’t qualified for Governor-General because of his ethnicity? This feels more like an opinion, and it was also countered to some extent by the PM. The criticism wasn’t really targeted at Sir Anand personally. The guts of the problem doesn’t feel like unfairness to me.

Taste and decency

Broadcasters must “observe standards of good taste and decency”. They should take account of “current norms” of taste and decency. This standard is mostly about sex, nudity, graphic pictures and swearing. The threshold again is very high. Not many taste and decency complaints are upheld. There was nothing smutty about this interview.

Broadcast material that is personal or abusive can be offensive. Programmes that are humiliating to crime or accident victims, the vulnerable or those suffering grief or distress. Very offensive jokes. Shock jock pranks. Whatever you think of Henry’s remarks, they don’t seem to belong here.

I note that TVNZ’s statement about its punishment of Paul Henry slides around the question of whether he breached any broadcasting standards (and if so, which ones) by simply describing his conduct as “inappropriate”.

In the end, while I think Henry is fostering a stupid and dangerous attitude that people with different racial backgrounds are different and inferior to everyone else (akin to National’s “mainstream New Zealanders” concept), I think what I’m ultimately doing is disagreeing with his opinion. Maybe it’s right that broadcasting standards shouldn’t reach this. The proper remedy is public reaction, and I’m heartened by how that’s gone.

I’d be interested in what others thought.

[Update: TVNZ has upheld the complaint on all three grounds, probably a sensible move strategically. It doesn’t make me change my mind about anything above, and I wouldn’t be quick to assume it represents a change of TVNZ’s usual attitude to complaints under these grounds.]

Topics: Broadcasting Standards Authority | 14 Comments »

14 Responses to “Did Paul Henry breach broadcasting standards?”

  1. ross Says:
    October 8th, 2010 at 7:21 am

    Steven

    I’m not sure where you get that Henry is fostering the attitude that people with different racial backgrounds are “inferior to everyone else”.

    I thought Henry was being somewhat facetious at the time of the interview with Key. He seemed to have a smirk on his face which suggested his question wasn’t entirely serious. Second, assuming that Henry is racist, I don’t see the connection between disliking someone who isn’t white and assuming that they’re inferior. If Henry thought the current GG was doing a great job, I’m not sure that he would dislike him any less.

  2. Steven Says:
    October 8th, 2010 at 8:34 am

    Oh, I just think that when someone says non-white people aren’t good enough to be Governor-General, that suggests they’re inferior. Obviously you have a different take.

  3. poppadom Says:
    October 9th, 2010 at 1:01 am

    I think people in a position of influence should act with a higher level of responsibility. Particularly when the organisation they represents claims to be the voice of New Zealand, and hence the voice of the common man… While I believe in the virtue of freedom of speech and its sanctity it is offensive to the hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who are not white or who have an accent to be proclaimed as less-kiwi than their paler skinned neighbour. what a load of crap really. the only true NZ’rs are the Maoris and the rest of us are all immigrants.

  4. ross Says:
    October 9th, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    Steven,

    Did Henry say that non-white people aren’t good enough to be Governor-General? I wasn’t aware he did. He did ask if someone “who’s more like a New Zealander” would be appointed G-G. Henry’s apparently got his own take on what a NZer is. But there’s no hint that a non-NZer is inferior to a NZer. If that were the case, Henry would presumably think that Americans and Poms were inferior to NZers.

  5. Graeme Edgeler Says:
    October 10th, 2010 at 10:00 am

    I doubt the TVNZ standards people will take this view … they’d be stupid not to uphold the complaints, whatever their merits. But given their fining the Broadcaster in question $4000+, etc. I think the BSA – where this will surely end up – will find they can’t do anything, because TVNZ’s reaction will have been sufficient.

  6. Steven Says:
    October 10th, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Ross: obviously we disagree.

    Graeme: the interesting question will be what grounds TVNZ upholds it under. Smart complainants will refer the other ones, and the BSA will then need to resolve those issues. I’m inclined to agree that an “insufficient action taken” complaint is unlikely to succeed, though.

  7. Matt Murdock Says:
    October 14th, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    Clear breach of standard 7:

    Henry inferred that a New Zealander of Indian ancestry/ethnicity cannot not look, sound, or be like a New Zealander.

    By legitimising this notion in the eyes of many other New Zealanders (just check out any related feedback online for evidence), Henry’s comments have obviously encouraged discrimination on account of race and culture – a breach of Standard 7 of the Free To Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

    And then there’s his use of the word “Gypo”….

  8. Graeme Edgeler Says:
    October 18th, 2010 at 11:24 am

    And there is apparently a result.

    TVNZ’s broadcast of Paul Henry’s comments about Anand Satyanand, and about Sheila Dikshit, both involved breaches of standards ‎1 (good taste and decency), 6 (fairness), and 7 (discrimination and denigration).

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