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Paul Henry’s delayed or ‘retarded’ apology

TVNZ’s Complaints Committee has upheld complaints about remarks made by Breakfast presenter Paul Henry concerning singer Susan Boyle, on the grounds of Good Taste and Decency. Complaints relating to other Standards under the Free to Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice have not been upheld.

The timing of the announcement of the decision, made this morning, is reasonable in that only four weeks have elapsed since the incident, but also convenient for both Henry and TVNZ, coming on the first day of Breakfast’s four-week summer break and Henry’s more extended absence. He isn’t scheduled to return to Breakfast until March 1, 2010, according to a TVNZ release last week.

On November 23 in which Mr Henry quoted from a magazine article that noted Susan Boyle suffered mild intellectual impairment, which Mr Henry joked about, saying “Here’s the really interesting revelation: she is in fact retarded … And if you look at her carefully, you can make it out.”

IHC complained about Henry’s defence of his use of the word, as did Special Olympics and members of the disability community. The Susan Boyle Fan Club was, naturally enough, none too impressed. The Human Rights Commission (HRC) received over 200 complaints, although it subsequently said it was not a matter the HRC could address. Obviously not happy with Mr Henry’s comments, the HRC did offer to assist people who wished to make formal complaints to TVNZ and the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

Mr Henry initially tried to ride it out, reported as saying he could not see what he had done wrong, and that it was fine to use the term retarded about people with intellectual disabilities.

Peter Williams, newsreader on Breakfast, found himself in the position of presenting the Attitude awards shortly after Henry’s comments, and dissociated himself from them, although his comments were cut from TV One’s broadcast of the event.

The NBR’s David Cohen took a more considered view, as did the Posterous, but they were Canutes against the tide of less supportive opinion. One respondent on 3 News’ site offered a different context: “Why are you all going on about this when we have a racist MP calling us all White Mother F*ckers??”, but generally the pyre was being built without interruption.

While the TVNZ Committee considered that Mr Henry is well known for his “challenging sense of humour” it found the standard was breached in this case.

The TVNZ Complaints Committee received the following statement from Mr Henry:

“It was never my intention to cause offence to people with disabilities … I am sorry that some people have taken what I said in a way that I never intended.

“In fact, I have a great amount of respect for people who rise to the challenges imposed on them in life. The amount of support and coverage I, and the programmes I’m associated with, give to these issues is evidence of the commitment we have to these people, their families and friends.”

While the Complaints Committee accepted that Mr Henry did not intend to cause offence and in fact meant the piece to be humorous, it found that on this occasion the language used and manner in which it was conveyed would have caused offence to a significant number of viewers.

Under the Broadcasting Act, complainants are entitled to refer the matter to the Broadcasting Standards Authority if they are dissatisfied with the outcome of the initial finding from TVNZ.

TVNZ’s head of News and Current Affairs, Anthony Flannery, said the decision is an acknowledgement that the right to freedom of expression carries with it a responsibility to exercise care, particularly in regard to the more vulnerable sectors of society.

“There is a legitimate place for Paul Henry’s boundary-pushing style and sense of humour in broadcasting … [However] we apologise to those who were hurt and distressed by it.”

In the overall scheme of things, it doesn’t really rank with the BBC’s recent “should homosexuals face execution?”, although that was intended to provoke serious debate of a serious issue. However, the BBC was certainly quicker to apologise than TVNZ.

Following moustachegate and the Spotlight on the Economy promo featuring Bill English, it’s not been a great second half of the year for the broadcaster on the complaints front.