If anyone was to compile a list of the enemies of free speech in New Zealand, the name of Joris de Bres would have to be on it. The Race Relations Commissioner was in full cry again today, demanding that TVNZ do something about Paul Henry for his silly comments about the Governor-General, Sir Anand Satyanand.
I’m neither a cheerleader for Henry nor one of those people who splutter with indignation every time he offends someone. I do think that on this occasion he made an oaf of himself, and he probably realises it himself. It’s not just a matter of whether Henry's question to John Key about whether Satyanand was a real New Zealander had a racist undertone (which it did). Almost as shameful was the fact that it was downright ignorant and unprofessional, since a broadcaster of Henry’s standing could surely have been expected to know – or made an effort to find out – that Satyanand has as much claim as anyone to call himself a New Zealander.
But we don’t need a state commissar like de Bres to point all this out. People are perfectly capable of coming to their own conclusions about Henry’s behaviour without guidance from left-leaning government functionaries as to the proper exercise of free speech.
As de Bres himself pointed out more than once when interviewed on Morning Report, anyone offended by Henry’s line of questioning can seek a remedy through the broadcasting complaints procedure (as they appear to be doing). So why does de Bres need to butt in? His intervention struck me as completely gratuitous.
His justification was pretty wobbly too. In an attempt to demonstrate his commitment to free speech, de Bres argued that it wasn’t a question of whether Henry should be allowed to say what he said, but rather whether his employer should condone it. Hmmm … that seems a pretty fine distinction. One way of interpreting it is that de Bres regards Henry as beyond redemption, but sees TVNZ – as a state broadcaster – as politically more open to correction.
I was also intrigued by his comment that one of the Breakfast programme’s major advertisers is Heritage Hotels, which he pointed out has a lot of Indian employees who have reason to feel aggrieved by Henry’s remarks. The clear implication was that the hotel company might consider withdrawing its advertising. I wonder, is it the function of the Race Relations Commissioner to raise the idea of an advertising boycott as a way of exerting pressure on a rogue television host? I wouldn’t have thought so – but it wouldn’t be the first time de Bres has overstepped the mark.