News of Zealand: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Paul Henry

With a film about him premiering next month, we explore the buoyant popularity of New Zealand's most controversial media figure.

by Carolyn Wadey-Barron
22 April 2015, 12:02am

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Paul Henry is New Zealand's tall poppy who resists all shears. With his movie premiering this week and his voice all over the radio and TV, has the country reached peak-Paul? And how the hell did this happen anyway?

You can't turn around in NZ at the moment without seeing Henry's perma-tanned face. His new breakfast show is being simulcast on radio and TV five days a week. The Desk, a film by a disgraced journalist about his relationship with Henry, premieres in NZ next month. All up, it's a pretty good time to be Paul.

But in the weeks following Natalia Kills and Willy Moon being run out of the country for being mean to a kid, Henry's continuing popularity raises questions. Primarily: why does New Zealand give endless second chances to this guy?

Henry is the kind of media personality who is described as a dickhead even by his fans—though they may preface it with the word "funny". Our nation's rubber ball, Henry bounces back continually with new slurs against minorities. The greedy disabled demanding their own carparks, facial hair on a female Greenpeace activist, homosexuals ("unnatural"), Susan Boyle ("retarded") and anyone with a funny name are all fodder for Henry.

When Henry left NZ, quitting TVNZ after a series of crude, racist outbursts, many breathed a sigh of relief. Henry landed in Australia in 2012 to host a breakfast show which was dumped following low ratings just nine months later. In that time he managed to offend Australians by suggesting asylum seekers could live in people's linen closets (although they would dirty up the linen) and that they should starve to death.

But now he's back. What's the appeal? A large part of it could be the crowd who pride themselves as "anti-PC", and cling to Henry as if white heterosexual men were going out of style. It must also be said that Henry is a highly entertaining broadcaster. The key to his talent is in his vast and uncontrollable energy. While Henry's opponents would paint him as being unwavering in his anti-PC opinions, it should be recognised that he is unafraid of challenging those with opposing points of view.

Duncan Greive, editor of The Spinoff, a website about TV in New Zealand, has been a commentator of Henry's circus for years. Duncan is glad of Henry's existence in our media landscape: "Paul Henry is a different and more pleasant variety of personality than the classic 'shock jock'. He's a lot more tolerant of dissenting opinions than the average right-wing radio bore."

Duncan argues that Paul has succeeded by surrounding himself with smart, challenging personalities—most of whom disagree with him. "When he says something outlandish, he wants and expects someone to tell him why he's wrong," he adds. And it's this ability to place himself in the firing line that differentiates him from his competition who only want to hear the echo of their own opinions.

This is certainly an aspect of Henry's approach; he is willing to engage with those who disagree. Last Wednesday, after he declared that Hillary Clinton and Helen Clark should not use their gender in their campaigns, Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Dr Jackie Blue wrote Henry an open letter stating that his attitude towards feminism was wrong. The next day Henry had Dr Blue on his show to state her case, and he did accede to Dr Blue that he was himself a feminist—though he had to temper it by clarifying that he was in fact "the best feminist".

Henry is also not in the league of his American counterparts, something for which we should be grateful. As journalist and academic Damian Christie says, "He really just tries to be offensive across a much broader range of topics, and can often just be puerile". Henry wants to entertain more than he wants to educate and Greive also adds that Henry has publicly stated that he doesn't feel shame or embarrassment. "That's what makes him such a rare broadcaster—he doesn't hear public opinion much, and doesn't feel it when he does."

But is Henry really as popular as his omnipresence suggests? His show is isn't doing great in the ratings. Christie wonders whether it isn't all a case of the emperor's new clothes. "He certainly gets a lot of media coverage, but when was the last time his star power resulted in a successful show?" Christie said.

While Henry's last breakfast show in 2010 did okay until he was forced to quit in a hail of controversy, Christie says "he's since been a failure in Australia, his late night show back in NZ failed to attract an audience, and based on the first couple of weeks of his highly-promoted new Breakfast show, he's failing again."

Of course, Henry is not the only outspoken media personality in NZ. We are also home to Roast Buster apologist John Tamihere, the serial prankster Iain Stables, and Paul Holmes, who attracted headlines around the world for referring to Kofi Annan as a cheeky darkie. Then there's the Ferrari-driving climate change denier Mike Hosking, the only man as loathed in NZ as Henry. All in all the right wing is well covered in NZ at the moment. Henry is never afraid to show his bias, though in fact it would be hard to hide when the Prime Minister John Key refers to him as 'Pauly' during interviews.

Perhaps the true key to Henry's appeal is the international embrace of his ilk. Bullies in the media are having a moment, proof of which can be seen in the recent Top Gear brouhaha, which the Huffington Post accurately summed up with the headline " Man Loses Job After Punching Colleague in the Face". While Henry has yet to bloody anyone's nose in the studio, he surely shares a fan base with Jeremy Clarkson. Let's just hope this isn't the first in some kind of dickhead-refund program from Australia, we don't want Russell Crowe or Sonny Bill back thank you very much.

Follow Carolyn Wadey-Barron on Twitter: @wowcat9

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