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 issue relates to a broadcast on November 23 in which Mr Henry quoted from a magazine article that noted the singer suffered mild intellectual impairment, which Mr Henry joked about and characterised as a revelation that she was ‘retarded’.
(Contrary to widespread media reports, the word ‘retard’ – a pejorative – was never used.)
The TVNZ Complaints Committee received the following statement from Mr Henry:
“It was never my intention to cause offence to people with disabilities. It upsets me greatly that anyone would imagine I had intended to cause offence or hurt over this or any issue.
“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.
To constitute a breach of the Good Taste and Decency Standard under the Code, the material complained of must be unacceptable to a significant number of viewers in the context in which it is shown.
While the Committee considered relevant context – notably that Mr Henry is well known for his challenging sense of humour and there is considerable audience expectation that he will be provocative in his language and manner on occasions – it found the standard was breached in this case.
Under the Broadcasting Act, people who make formal complaints are entitled to refer the matter to the Broadcasting Standards Authority if they are dissatisfied with the outcome of the initial finding from the broadcaster.
TVNZ’s head of News and Current Affairs, Anthony Flannery, says 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.
“It should also be remembered that in 600 hours of live television each year there have been very few times when he has overstepped the mark.
‘However we acknowledge that this was one such occasion, and we apologise to those who were hurt and distressed by it.”