Purge as Henry burns in fire of public odium

BY ROSEMARY MCLEOD
Last updated 15:03 15/10/2010

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A girls' boarding school is a home to many weird rituals, none weirder than one Guy Fawkes Day celebration when I was a kid in the junior school.

I remember the treat - a bonfire in the dark on the hockey field, and half-raw potatoes cooked in it, tasting of ash, leaving your teeth and lips black and spooky.

There may have been some tame crackers let off, and finally there was the piece de la resistance, an effigy the older girls had made to throw on to the fire according to ancient custom.

Menstruation being an ever- present reality in the dormitories, and known as Bertie, this name hung around the guy's neck. The effigy had been splashed with red paint in the necessary place, and was hurled into the flames with fiendish cries.

That was the closest I expect to get to Tudor times, when real people were set on fire for having the wrong opinions. Nothing changed, of course; menstruation continues to annoy women, but I guess the older girls felt somehow purged.

The strangeness of that night came back to me as Paul Henry burned in the fire of public odium, pushed into the flames with loud cries from the meekest and nicest people you could hope to meet.

And thus, while the world watched, we were rid of bad behaviour on public television, and racism got a kick in the backside.

Yet this was the man the public so recently voted most popular presenter, and the majority of public opinion remains on his side. He may be famously puerile (but funny) and often tasteless, but the public doesn't really care.

I've been wondering why those voters were silent through his condemnation and resignation. Do we assume that they're bowing their heads in collective shame? Or is more likely that most people own to a complex, ever-changing range of opinions and prejudices that they now know to keep to themselves?

Was Henry's publicised huge salary, in times of economic uncertainty, a factor in his condemnation? No print journalist in this country could ever hope for an income like that, but at least we don't have to be "celebrities" and let women's magazines invade our private lives.

Yes, Henry crossed the line when he ridiculed an Indian politician's unfortunate name, and bizarrely inferred India was dirty, if I catch his drift.

The governor- general doesn't seem to have been devastated by what was said about him, though, and efforts to implicate the prime minister are straining hard. It was up to Henry's producer to guide his motormouth into the paths of righteousness, not a guest on the programme. John Key isn't the country's head prefect, anyway, policing every lapse into illiberal thinking and barking disapproval. His predecessor was.

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Commentatros say TVNZ should now be sold, and a proper public broadcaster set up. Well, I worked for a couple of those. There was limited - or no - advertising, and the announcers and presenters, who earned fairly modest salaries, spoke the Queen's English. There were real current affairs programmes, where real politicians were put on the spot, and news was presented soberly.

Politicians were famously grilled, back then, by two men who now, oddly enough, train public figures in performing for the media.

Brian Edwards and Ian Fraser were both quick to condemn both Henry and TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis. Coincidentally Edwards is former Labour prime minister Helen Clark's friend and was her media adviser, and Fraser was formerly TVNZ chief executive, appointed by Miss Clark's government.

They were halcyon days, when they were at their performing peak. As an indication, I once got into serious strife for wearing, on air, a T-shirt with a sequin motif on the front.

We could try going back. Edwards and Fraser could point the way, and a few thousand people might watch the channel daily.

It would go down well with hot milk and a biscuit while the fans stayed up late to wave at the Goodnight Kiwi (where the heck did he go?) and put the cat out.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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