Last year TV one’s Breakfast presenter Paul Henry made remarks that were offensive to disabled people, but in particular to members of People First, people with learning disabilities. The resulting complaints process has vindicated their concern. The text of the statement broadcast by TV One is not an apology, and it doesn’t mention Paul Henry’s name. But the decision made by the Broadcasting Standards Authority is significant and worth reading in full.
It recognises that the denigration of Susan Boyle, while not harming her, did harm others, which is significant.
Here is the minimalist statement from Television New Zealand. (Paul Henry’s name is included in brackets.)
“Last year during ‘What’s In The Mags’, Breakfast screened comments about the singer Susan Boyle. The comments were made by a Breakfast presenter [Paul Henry] and concerned Ms Boyle’s intellectual disability.
TVNZ upheld viewers’ complaints that the comments breached the broadcasting standard requiring Good Taste and Decency. The presenter [Paul Henry] also made a public statement saying he had not intended to cause offence.
Eleven complainants were not satisfied with the action taken by TVNZ, and referred their complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.
The Authority agreed with the complainants, finding that TVNZ had taken insufficient action to remedy the breach of standards. It noted that no statement or apology had been made on the Breakfast programme, and that the presenter’s [Paul Henry's] public statement was inconsistent with his comments and behaviour in the item.
The Authority said that to mock and belittle a person on account of her intellectual disability was contrary to common decency and a clear breach of the Good Taste and Decency standard.
The Authority ordered Television New Zealand to broadcast this statement.”
Thanks to the Human Rights Commission for distributing the text of the statement in their disability newsletter Manahau. (Manahau is well worth the free subscription, particularly if you want to keep up to date on human rights and disability.)
Mediawatch on Radio NZ took the case seriously enough to discuss implications of the case in depth on its Sunday morning programme. (August 1)
The action taken by disabled people and their supporters using complaints tools to stand up for their rights is a practical example of rights in action. They have won, and in winning have made a difference for everyone.