New Zealand TV presenter suspended over race comments

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A New Zealand television presenter was suspended Tuesday after sparking a race row by questioning whether the country's ethnic minority governor general was a proper New Zealander.

State-owned broadcaster TVNZ said breakfast host Paul Henry had "crossed the line" in remarks Monday that challenged the credentials of Governor General Anand Satyanand, who was born in Auckland to Indo-Fijian parents.

"Is he even a New Zealander?" Henry asked Prime Minister John Key, who must choose a replacement for Satyanand when his term as Queen Elizabeth II's representative in New Zealand ends next year.

"Are you going to choose a New Zealander who looks and sounds like a New Zealander this time.... Are we going to go for someone who is more like a New Zealander?"

TVNZ initially fuelled the row by defending the presenter for saying "the things we quietly think but are scared to say out loud".

However, after the television station received dozens of complaints, TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis said Henry's comments were inappropriate and he would be suspended without pay until October 18.

"Paul is one of New Zealand's best broadcasters... but I consider his latest remarks to have well and truly crossed the line," Ellis said.

Henry made an on-air apology Tuesday before his suspension was announced, saying "I certainly didn't intend to sound racist", but inviting further controversy by referring to himself as "half-gypo" (gypsy).

"Most people think that I am British but the truth is much, much worse than that, like the governor-general I was born in New Zealand but, however, I am at least half what they colloquially call in Europe a gypo," he said.

Key supported the suspension, saying TVNZ was sending a message "that all New Zealanders, irrelevant of their ethnicity, the colour of their skin or their religious beliefs, have an important role to play in New Zealand."

The prime minister said he would continue to make a regular weekly appearance on Henry's show after the suspension ended, telling reporters: "I do a lot of interviews with interviewers who do stupid things."

Opposition leader Phil Goff said Key should have immediately challenged Henry about his comments during the live interview.

"What he said was wrong, it was racist, it was offensive and it shouldn't have been accepted by the prime minister," Goff said.

A spokesman for Satyanand said the governor general acknowledged Henry's apology but would not dignify his comments with a further response.

Ellis said Henry would personally apologise to Satyanand when the governor general returned from the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

© 2010 AFP

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