A sorry affair

by Pamela Stirling / 08 November, 2003
Whatever Paul Holmes revealed about himself with his notorious "cheeky darkie" comments, the resulting all-in brawl over perceived racism, political correctness and free speech revealed a lot about his audience.
From our archive: Paul Holmes
Interview with Paul Holmes from 2012
Interview with Paul Holmes from 2006
Paul Holmes leaves TVNZ

One of the smartest things Paul Holmes ever did was call his television current-affairs show Holmes. It made it harder to replace him, he said, with his name on the show. But we asked him, during his last spot of bother in 1998, what kind of offence would oblige him to pack his name and leave. "Consider, Mr Holmes, a hypothetical question. The man who is indisputably New Zealand's top broadcaster is tape-recorded making racist comments. Would it be publicly disqualifying to be revealed not to have the requisite virtues of tolerance and empathy?" Paul Holmes did not hesitate: "Yes, yes."

Holmes is still on Holmes. But look what's happened in these past few weeks to people who stated publicly that his recent racist remarks - describing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a "cheeky darkie" - did indeed disqualify him. They became the target of vitriolic criticism. Newstalk ZB called them "wolves". TVNZ dismissed them as acting out of "spite and envy". Newspaper columnists said they were bowing to "rampant" tall-poppy syndrome, to political correctness. And NZ Herald columnist Garth George pronounced their attitude to be "stultifying, repressive, smarmy, dishonest and hypocritical". They "sickened" him. All this because they agreed with what Holmes once said.

None of those predictable accusations - hands up all those who said in their office sweepstake that it would be four days before the tall-poppy syndrome was mentioned - carries much weight in Britain and the US right now. There is a change afoot, it is reported, in the media response and in public opinion toward those who indulge in "irresponsible venting". Rush Limbaugh, the "godfather of talk radio" and a conservative icon, was sacked by ESPN after making racially charged comments about black quarterbacks. And San Francisco's Michael Savage, one of the hottest radio hosts in the US, was fired by MSNBC after he said an apparent gay caller should "get AIDS and die".

Holmes has already apologised for remarks on radio in 1995, where he stated that if God was great, the Pope "might die soon". Continuing that theme, Holmes, who was recently made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in part for his services to disabled people, observed last year that on television the Pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, was "a pathetic old man ... bending so low his head's on the ground". And although Holmes doesn't in any way qualify for a lifetime achievement award for racist remarks, he did say in 1989 that former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was "a very good Jew" and one who had duped Egypt to protect the Israelis, who had "some deep conviction that they're the master race". The term "master race" was part of Nazi ideology. Holmes "had regrets", he said, about the offence caused, just as he has apologised for his comments on Annan.

Much is accepted, on radio, because the threshold for limiting free speech is rightly high. But Holmes is not just a shock jock. Holmes, the only daily current-affairs television programme, is a pivotal conduit for public accountability. Holmes once tried to take then Treasurer Winston Peters to task about his drinking. Peters replied, "Oh, Mr Holmes, I have no drinking problem and you personally should not be asking that question of me." Holmes, a recovering alcoholic, had to let it go. He was to later state in his book, Holmes, that at that time, "at nights I drank too much wine". Now the question is how he would cope with interrogating Peters about remarks on, say, Asian immigrants. Jenny Shipley's comments that Polynesians "climb in the windows of other New Zealanders at night ... it's not just Maori" were a factor in her sacking from the National Party leadership. Could Holmes now call a public figure like that to account?

There is another big question. Just how hypocritical is it of a state television broadcaster and a news and current-affairs radio station - organisations that will not subject one of their own to the same remorseless scrutiny and accountability they would any other public figure who made racist and sexist remarks - to then attack those who do take up that role?

Sure, some of those attackers were no doubt acting out of spite and envy. Ron Sneddon, former general manager of Newstalk ZB in Wellington and now director of media at Auckland advertising agency Mr Smith, says "You've only got to attend the Qantas Media Awards and hear the hissing and booing across the table to know it's there. When Paul won Columnist of the Year for his column, the journalists got all hoity-toity: 'He's not a journalist; he can't win!'"

But not all those calling for sanctions against Holmes were journalists. And Sneddon is the first to say that Holmes's bosses should have taken more action over the racist remarks. "I think the fact that neither Newstalk ZB nor TVNZ took decisive action then and there is quite shameful."

Newstalk ZB did immediately condemn the remarks. TVNZ boss Ian Fraser, on holiday when the furore broke, said he would have taken a stand had his staff informed him. Journalists report they contacted him in Port Douglas, but he declined to comment. Sneddon: "I think it's shameful that Newstalk ZB didn't take Holmes off air. What he should have done is come on the next day and say, 'Look, I've made this tremendous bloody error of judgment. I'm heartfelt in my apology and I'm taking myself off air for a week and donating my week's salary to UNICEF.' And kill it there. Because what New Zealanders love, what they absolutely love, is for someone to make a cock-up and then they love them to say, 'I'm terribly sorry for it.'"

And Holmes's brilliance as a broadcaster usually shines through at those moments, says Sneddon.

"What better publicity could you possibly have got than having your main guy take himself off air for a week? The talkback would have been on fire. The ratings would have gone through the roof. 'Oh, I think Paul is a champion chap for doing that.' 'Oh, what a loser, he's buckled under the pressure ...'"

Few people can honestly say they've never made a mistake in their jobs. But what of Holmes's atonement in writing to Annan? "Well, what a lot of nonsense," says Sneddon. "This sort of crime, you can't just let it go, because it leaves it out there as an example for some junior broadcaster down the way to say, 'Oh, well, nothing happened to Paul Holmes; it won't happen to me.'" Sneddon says, "Holmes is in a position now where he can pretty much get away with whatever the heck he wants."

At the end of his broadcast about Annan, Holmes appeared to taunt listeners by defiantly predicting complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority. "Of all the calls we've had, only two people have objected to me calling him a darkie. You've failed very, very badly." Many people felt betrayed, not only by the repugnant racist insults, but also by the fact that Holmes had used the term "we" in saying "we will not be told what to do by a Ghanaian".

But, in objecting, a number then came under personal attack from Holmes's employers. Fraser told the NZ Herald: "One of the things I find most disagreeable about this situation is that a number of members of the commentariat have used this opportunity - as they use every opportunity when Paul puts his foot in his mouth - to say, 'Sack him! Get him off the air!' These are people who are largely driven by spite and envy. They are jealous of the way he commands the pulse of ordinary New Zealand."

Fraser names Linda Clark, host of Nine to Noon, as one of the people "we will not be giving any comfort to" in calling for Holmes's head. But Clark at no time called for Holmes's head. This was a controversy about which Nine to Noon received more emails and faxes than any other - 95 percent against Holmes - and the programme gave the issue extensive coverage. But Clark gave Holmes and his supporters a fair hearing, as she did his critics. The one thing Clark did not do was put Holmes on the mat over whether he should go.

The irony is that former race relations commissioner and Holmes supporter Gregory Fortuin pointed out on her programme that he is one of the many people who have had the experience of being put on the mat by Paul Holmes - who demanded his resignation after Fortuin acted as mediator for the Alliance Party while in office.

One of those who did call for Holmes's sacking from public television was the editor of Victoria University's newspaper Salient, Michael Appleton, now on a scholarship to Cambridge. His reaction to Fraser's comments about spite and envy? "Criticism made of prominent people in New Zealand is so quickly categorised as this all-pervasive tall-poppy syndrome. It illustrates an elitism which says that those who earn a lot of money are above criticism from those who earn less. Who cares that print journalists criticising Holmes earn less than him and might quite like his job? By this argument, business journalists could never criticise CEOs, sports journalists could never criticise All Blacks and political journalists could never criticise politicians."

TVNZ at no time criticised Mitsubishi for pulling the plug on sponsorship of Holmes. John Leighton, managing director of Mitsubishi Motors New Zealand, says "We got criticised on talkback for stifling freedom of speech. But all we were doing was exercising our freedom of association; something people cherish just as much. We made our decision because the whole issue of integrity of the company is so important to us." But hasn't Holmes apologised? "That's fine. But in our opinion there are some things that once said cannot be unsaid." Asked about the wisdom of sponsoring current affairs, Leighton says the same thing could happen in sports, comedy, anywhere.

Fraser had a go at "the academic common room at Auckland University". But aren't viewers, like sponsors, entitled to their opinions? TVNZ news boss Bill Ralston certainly had no compunction as a reviewer in calling for heads to roll.

But Brian Edwards, while saying on Holmes's Newstalk ZB show that Holmes had made an "egregious" error - and rightly criticising sloppy reporting of survey results about that egregious error - attacked some of the print media and TV3 for what he called "revenge journalism" over Holmes. "You'd blown it," he told Holmes. "Here was the opportunity for the print media to kick you to death and that has been happening all week." Revenge journalism, he said, "means that you use your columns and your newspaper, your bulletins, to undermine and attack people you don't agree with ..."

Is this the same Brian Edwards who caused TVNZ to apologise to MP Rodney Hide recently, after Edward's stunningly obvious lack of personal impartiality in his interviewing of his wife's accuser, Hide, over the funding of his Edwards at Large show?

The objections from TVNZ over the coverage of Holmes's racist remarks bring to mind former news presenter Liz Gunn's cries of "media abuse". The media had aired criticisms of Gunn after she described the abused stepdaughter of a man fronting ads on child abuse as being motivated by "utu" in speaking out.

So are television stars simply above criticism? Most media - including this magazine - didn't see Holmes's remarks as a sackable offence, but reflected the views of readers who wanted some repercussions. Even Auckland University professors Michael Neill and Albert Wendt, who organised an open letter calling for Holmes to resign, say it was, in a sense, a rhetorical gesture. "It was a way of saying how seriously we believed the issue should be taken," says Neill. It needed quick action - Holmes itself is testament to our short attention spans.

Holmes did offer to resign from radio. "It was peculiar, to say the least," says Neill, "that it took a week for Newstalk ZB to tell us that Holmes had offered his resignation, which had been declined. If one had heard that at the beginning, one might have thought, 'Well, he has understood the serious implications of what he has done and acted in an honourable way.' But coming as it did, it just seemed like part of an elaborate exercise in damage control." Holmes insists he is sincere in his contrition.

The two professors organised more than 50 people to sign an open letter to Ralston, director of TVNZ news, and Bill Francis, Newstalk ZB boss, wanting Holmes's resignation. They wished to place on record their "profound disgust at the racially insulting and personally derogatory attack" on Annan and Holmes's "tasteless slurs" against women journalists.

Their open letter was initially rejected by the NZ Herald's letters editor Garth George, who said they didn't publish open letters. "You are seriously cluttering up our email system with your nonsense, not one word of which will be published. I have had to delete dozens of messages originating from you and quite frankly it's getting on my wick." This is the same Garth George who said in his column that the reaction to Holmes's racist comments horrified and sickened him.

Wendt contacted NZ Herald editor-in-chief Gavin Ellis, who published the letter: "It was good of him."

Wendt and Neill were then subjected to lengthy personal attack by Herald weekend columnist John Roughan because they used the word "profound" - not a word that "ordinary mortals" apparently ever use - and because "nothing kills literature like a university English department". It appeared to have escaped the columnist's notice that Wendt and fellow signatory Witi Ihimaera are acclaimed writers. A cursory look at the names would have revealed that not all 54 signatories were academics, as claimed by Michael Laws in the Sunday Star-Times. They included motor mechanics, accountants, health professionals, students, painter Ralph Hotere, "a whole gamut of people", says Neill. Some of the same people, such as Ihimaera, had also signed the first petition supporting Peter Ellis. No one criticised the English department professors on that petition. That petition was signed by newspaper columnists, including one who criticised the scorn heaped upon Holmes as "self-indulgent garbage", because all Holmes did, apparently, was articulate our "own guilty racial prejudices". Motor mechanics were evidently not invited to sign.

There was another response, too, to the open letter. The Stormfront White Nationalist website posted a picture of Albert Wendt and invited comment; the first being "rolleyes". There were already derogatory racist comments about Holmes's Maori first wife.

"That kind of racism is why Albert and I wrote the open letter in the first place," says Neill. "It was precisely not some kind of ivory-tower exercise in political correctness of which we stand accused." Adds Wendt, "Most of my work is about racism. When you hear a man like that [Holmes] kicking us again, I did what I have done most of my life. I spoke out."

Neill and Wendt responded to the ad hominem attacks. "Our reasons for deploring Mr Holmes's remarks are born of experience and have nothing to do with the fashionable attitudinising ascribed to us," wrote Neill. "If, like me, they had grown up in Northern Ireland, they would know something at first hand about the destructive power of words in a society fraught with ethnic divisions; if, like me, they could remember being told by the school boxing-master to go out and beat the little Jew-boys to a pulp, they might have some appreciation of the visceral connections between race-language and actual violence; if, like my wife, they had been born black in segregationist North Carolina, they might remember how readily the

language of racial contempt can be charged with the power of the lynch mob; if, like me, their house had been fire-bombed by people consumed with racial grievance, they might recognise the dangers that racist demagoguery poses to the survival of a tolerant society."

Neill has no doubt that in his private life Holmes is a "decent and warm-hearted individual". Call Holmes an energetic, quick-witted, entertaining showman, and he doesn't object. What he objects to is Holmes "aiding and abetting racism". After all, it was Holmes, says Neill, who, despite defending the Tampa people and Ahmed Zaoui, encouraged his Pakeha listeners to "prepare to go ballistic" over Maori claims on the sacredness of waahi tapu. The Broadcasting Standards Authority later deemed this Holmes item introduction "inflammatory".

Holmes said on Clark's programme that he's the one at TVNZ who asks, "Where are our Maori people, our Samoan people?" "Well," says Neill, "if you ask who appears to have materially suffered as a result of what Holmes said, then you have to think about the young Samoan producer on his team who felt bound to quit the programme with quite unpredict-able consequences for his future career." As for his TV apology, Holmes "appeared genuinely moved by his own words", says Neill. "He talked about the people he'd hurt, he also talked at length about the loyalty of his staff and did not care to mention that this young man felt compelled to leave his programme. One might have expected some expression of regret."

Holmes is good at apologies. He apologised for offence caused to Myrtle the tractor. He apologised to former TVNZ chair Dr Ross Armstrong for impugning his integrity over allegations that he had leaked details of Holmes's salary - and then turned around on radio in an astonishing hatchet job when he left and called him "a prissy bed-and-breakfast owner" whom people feared. "I am not a judgmental person," said Holmes last week.

Mostly, we don't bat an eyelid. Holmes has somehow become our first cartoon broadcaster. NBC host Conan O'Brien once described US President Bill Clinton - who also had a very public sexual scandal - in those terms in Time. "He ran off cliffs, was crushed by anvils and flattened by turn-of-the-century trains. Yet moments later, we always saw him, just like Wile E Coyote or Daffy Duck, completely reassembled and eagerly pursuing his next crazy scheme."

Cartoon characters, as O'Brien noted, defy the rules of Greek tragedy - they are not undone by their flaws; never fatally wounded. When the smoke cleared last week, Holmes had picked himself up off the canyon floor, his hair singed and standing on end, the music was playing and he was off again. In one of the first episodes up he was chortling - any other broadcaster at that moment would not have gone there - at Chinese immigrant Wing's less-than-stellar recording career. Or was it the thought of his own crooning that brought mirth? In cartoonland you can do anything - next up, Holmes as an orc in Lord of the Rings.

The point with cartoon characters is that anyone who opposes them in the slightest way immediately assumes the characteristics of a cartoon villain, twirling an evil moustache. Anyone would think that Holmes's critics had gone out and arranged sticks of dynamite into the shape of woman, dropped a wig on it and were hiding behind a nearby rock. And yet the only one who deserves blame for setting off recent explosions around here is Holmes himself.

From our archive: Paul Holmes
Interview with Paul Holmes from 2012
Interview with Paul Holmes from 2006
Paul Holmes leaves TVNZ
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