If Kiwi Indians have been outraged by Paul Henry’s racist comments against India and Indians throughout the run up to the Commonwealth Games these past few weeks, they are appalled by Prime Minister John Key’s pitiably lame and unconscionably delayed response to Henry’s mindless insult to Governor General Anand Satyanand on Monday’s Breakfast programme.
The Prime Minister seemed to merely smile and generally go along with the offensive comments without so much as even the feeblest of protests. Hours later he said that he was taken aback but also added that he would go back to the show next Monday. This has sent all kinds of signals to the Indian community’s highly sensitive political antennae.
On one level, his immediate non-reaction and continued on screen smiling could be construed as tacit approval of the comment. On another, his delayed but lame response betrays a lack of political nous and the absence of the artful skill of a seasoned politician to be able to think on their feet and turn an offensive comment to their advantage by seizing the moral high ground.
There have been unconvincing attempts to explain away the Prime Minister’s tame response, blaming it on being caught off guard and having had to appear on the show after a long flight.
It will be a while before the Indian community can shake off that sorry image of not adequately standing up for the Head of State against the cheap comments of a TV presenter unless some decisive action is taken immediately when the issue is still raging.
After all, TVNZ is a public broadcaster and is run by taxpayer funds. Though it has a professional management set up to run its affairs and Mr Key has said it is up to it to take any action, these are extraordinary circumstances and the right thinking wider community would expect decisive action commensurate with mitigating the wanton hurt caused.
Not seen to be doing anything on the part of the Prime Minister could prove politically damaging, at least as far as the Kiwi Indian community is concerned. And this is no conjecture. The sheer volume of feedback from the community reiterating this view speaks for itself.
Paul Henry’s stilted, conditional and blatantly half-hearted initial apology to the Governor General came as yet another shock. And what heaped further insults on not just the Indian but also all ethnic communities in New Zealand is TVNZ’s initial callously non-chalant attempt to defend Henry that increasingly began to look like a tattered fig leaf of a defence as criticism and complaints mounted at tsunami speeds.
The two-week suspension without pay is but a rap with a wet bus ticket and the tax payer funded state broadcaster which has itself been mired in financial problems leading to job cuts and the cutting up of employee credit cards could certainly have done more than standing him down sans a fortnight’s wages.
The channel is reported to have received 600 complaints and the Broadcasting Standards Authority’s phone never stopped ringing. It would be hard to find a public broadcaster more out of touch with the people it is supposed to serve than TVNZ. This is public sector insensitivity at its worst.
It’s initial response that viewers liked Paul Henry because he said the things they could not say smacks of intellectual bankruptcy. This is a free country. Why can’t these people say the things that they take a vicarious delight in when the suspended Breakfast host says them? Aren’t they being too politically correct in not having the pluck to say it themselves? And isn’t it this same smart set that has deemed the suspension a PC overkill? Nothing could be more hypocritical.
It was as if Paul Henry was running a tirade against India and Indians ever since coverage of the run up to the Delhi Commonwealth Games began some ten days ago. His most tasteless and off-colour comment was his quip on the name of Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dixit. He persisted on mis-pronouncing it despite being corrected by his on-screen colleagues but laughed derisively and rounded off his hysterical bout of laughter with a most damaging comment linking the English meaning of the sound of her name with her being an Indian.
This has somehow gone under the radar especially as the subsequent insult to the Governor General hogged the headlines. That racist slur to Indians in the context of mis-pronouncing the Delhi Chief Minister’s name is reason enough to warrant his sacking.
Letting somebody get away with as light a rap as a two-week suspension without pay for such unbelievably insulting comments repeatedly and that too with an administration, its chief executive and the head of the government that owns the broadcaster all looking the other way is a sad commentary on the present dispensation’s commitment to egalitarianism.
Paul Henry’s comments reflect a colonial “Bada Saab” mindset of the years of the Raj. Not that the mindset of other western journalists, especially those covering the Commonwealth Games, was too different. The world view of the likes of Henry are still mired in age old stereotypes and continue to dwell on them oblivious of so many other infinitely more interesting and reportable aspects of different cultures.
The world is very different today. Some two hundred ethnicities call themselves New Zealanders. Dr Tahu Kukutai, a researcher from Waikato University who has a $300,000 Marsden grant to investigate the treatment of ethnicity in censuses around the world, said Henry's comments showed “a disconnect between this rapidly changing demography and this Eurocentric analysis of what being a New Zealander is. What he is saying is clearly out of step with the demographic realities.”
Let’s hope the Prime Minister thinks differently and will take the right action in the coming days to show he actually does so.