Blatant racism has been the downfall of a popular Kiwi broadcaster, but there’s no doubt that he got his just desserts, notes MARK SHARMA.The recently concluded Commonwealth Games in Delhi have had their fair share of controversies from the start. But one controversy that could have been avoided took place in New Zealand. Outspoken Kiwi broadcaster Paul Henry is known for his disregard for cultural sensitivity. This is not the first time that he has offended some or other section of society, but he crossed the line when he targeted Indians twice in the span of one week. First, in an interview with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, Henry asked whether Governor General Sir Anand Satyanand who was born in Auckland to Indo-Fijian parents, was qualified to be New Zealand’s official representative for the head of state. “Are you going to choose a New Zealander who looks and sounds like a New Zealander this time? Are we going to go for someone who is more like a New Zealander this time?” Henry asked the Prime Minister.
This was just the first episode of the overall problem, and some would even say it was a minor one. After offending the Governor General, Paul Henry went straight for jugular and poked fun at Delhi’s Chief Minister Mrs Sheila Dikshit.
Despite being told her name is pronounced “Dixit,” Henry’s pronunciation of the Delhi chief minister’s name was outright offensive. He went further by saying that her name was “so appropriate” because she is Indian.
Making fun of names, particularly of politicians, is nothing new or wrong, but his comment “It’s so appropriate because she is Indian” was an assault on the 1.2 billion Indians all over the world. Paul Henry is an experienced journalist and is fully aware of the issues of racial abuse experienced by some Indians in Melbourne and elsewhere. He should have known that his comments might seem funny to him, but would send the wrong signal to thousands of viewers who watch his breakfast program daily.
We all are for free speech, but this is in very bad taste and was downright racist. I’m not suggesting Paul Henry was inciting racial hatred, but his words were simply not acceptable, and ultimately became the catalyst for his demise. On October 10, Paul Henry decided to quit his position – his resignation was accepted by his station boss.
There is no doubt that Henry is a very popular presenter, and his resignation disappointed many in New Zealand. Some of his fans have created support groups on Facebook to vent their frustration at his resignation. A quick look at the messages posted on these pages show a complete lack of understanding of issues surrounding Paul Henry’s exit. His supporters argue that Paul Henry was “just being Paul Henry” – that he is a broadcaster who is known to make ridiculous statements for the sake of entertainment. Others are not happy to see him go because they view it as a freedom of speech issue, or because they have lost their morning entertainment for no fault of their own.
Let’s be clear that this is not a freedom of speech issue. It is much more than that. Racial hatred whether expressed through jokes or by robust debate, is very dangerous no matter where we live. Indians have been a target of racial attacks in this part of the world and it is a deep problem for both Australia and New Zealand. Not only does it create disharmony among various communities, but it also tarnishes our image overseas. We have already seen a huge drop in the number of students coming to Australia as a result of bad publicity following attacks on Indian students.
Ironically, it was reported at that time that New Zealand was going to be the biggest beneficiary of any Australian loss. Some even said that New Zealand’s marketing representatives abroad were telling students that they were totally different from Australia. Now with this controversy, the spotlight has shifted to New Zealand and it remains to be seen whether the Kiwis will be able to overcome this ugly episode and get on with their lives.