This story is from the team at thespinoff.co.nz
Former TV and radio personality Paul Henry has given up broadcasting for botanicals. Stewart Sowman-Lund visits him for a drink and a chat about the industry he left behind.
“Now we’ve got a drink, we can start,” says Paul Henry, taking a sip of his eponymous gin on the rocks and reclining in a leather armchair.
We’re sitting in a beautifully decorated, subterranean wine cellar in Henry’s Remuera home. Bottles of presumably very expensive wine cover every wall; an eight-person dining table sits in the corner.
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“You can’t leave until you’re pissed,” Henry says, I think jokingly.
The famously reclusive former broadcaster has invited me to his house to sample his new business venture, a range of self-titled gins – The Henry – and I’ve seized the opportunity to interview him. He proffers a heavy-handed pour, suggesting there might be a bit too much ice.
A slice of lemon – which I brought with me after my host emailed to say he could only find onions in his pantry – bobs in the glass. “Schweppes tonic is really good, although I think it’s the Coca-Cola company – f…… arseholes,” says Henry, his famous hyena laugh ringing in the cellar. “I only say that because they’re huge. People have got really prissy over tonics.”
I wanted to talk to Henry out of sheer fascination. In many ways he is one of New Zealand’s last great broadcasting celebrities.
That’s not to excuse his numerous and well-documented controversies. But at the same time to ignore the rest of his prolific media career seems misguided. The type of “star power” he boasted at his peak just doesn’t exist in broadcasting any more, for better or for worse – a symptom of both the shrinking of local media and fewer people engaging with it.
So what has Henry, once one of the loudest voices in the media, been up to? And more importantly, how does he now view the industry he’s left behind? Over the course of more than two hours, we talked about everything from his thoughts on the current state of TVNZ Breakfast (“pretty bad”), how he avoided cancellation, the role of alternative media like The Platform, the place of “outrage” in the news cycle, Mike Hosking – and more.
How we got here
The mid-2000s were in a lot of ways the high point of local news and current affairs in New Zealand. Breakfast was at its most successful, and between Close Up and Campbell Live in the evenings there was still an appetite for investigative reporting during primetime.
Though he’d been a radio broadcaster since the 1980s, it wasn’t until 2004 that Henry started to become a household name. That was the year he showed up on the Breakfast couch, initially alongside Alison Mau, then Kay Gregory, and most famously with a young Pippa Wetzell. His seven-year tenure saw Breakfast develop both a committed and growing fanbase, ratings surging year-on-year. “TVNZ’s popular early morning current affairs programme, Breakfast, has had a terrific start to 2008, growing its core audience of 25- to 54-year-old viewers by 29%… compared with the same four weeks last year,” boasted a 2008 press release.
Part of the Henry effect was that while he had a knack for getting answers out of interviewees, he also had a reputation for unpredictable and often “offensive” on-air remarks (Henry famously thanked the TVNZ legal team during a TV awards acceptance speech in 2010). People never knew what he was going to say next – a drawcard for audiences who either wanted to bear witness to his latest gaffe or be outraged by it. For a lot of Henry’s tenure, TVNZ defended this behaviour – and used it to their advantage. After a complaint was laid following Henry’s claim that homosexuality was “unnatural”, TVNZ told the Broadcasting Standards Authority that Henry was “well-known for his tone and this type of banter”.
The “controversies” section of his Wikipedia has six bullet points – five are from Breakfast. Those include commenting on a woman’s facial hair (generating a “handful” of complaints), calling Scottish singer Susan Boyle “retarded” (200 complaints), questioning whether governor-general Anand Satyanand was “even a New Zealander” (Henry later apologised) and, most notoriously, mocking the name of Indian politician Sheila Dikshit by calling her the “dipshit woman” and suggesting that “because she’s Indian… she’d be dick-in-shit.”
He was forced – though officially he chose – to resign. The furore went global, with New Zealand’s high commissioner to India called in to apologise.
But it was indicative of those pre-cancellation times that within a year, Henry was back on the airwaves as a drive host on Radio Live – the talk station that ultimately became Today FM. At the time, it was owned by MediaWorks, who also owned TV3. Soon after, he headed to Australia for a short-lived tenure as host of another show called Breakfast. And by 2014, he was back on New Zealand TV hosting the late-night Paul Henry Show, before one year later moving back to mornings in the same time slot he had once ruled at TVNZ.
He only did the breakfast show at TV3 (named, simply, Paul Henry) for two years, but it was a period that drew countless headlines about the “breakfast wars”. Henry gave the network its best chance at taking out Breakfast for the first time. He managed to assert dominance over the key 25-54 demographic during this time, but by the end of 2016 he had quit yet again and the Duncan Garner-fronted AM Show was launched.
Aside from a short-lived lockdown show on TV3, Henry has been largely absent from the media landscape ever since. You can hear his voice on Today FM promos, but he’s not hosting a show himself. You won’t catch him on any panels, or appearing on The Project. And while he’s on Instagram, he makes it clear that’s purely about promoting his gin.
‘I hate people that moan about the quality of journalism’
Henry’s minor involvement with Today FM signals that despite his decision to stay largely off the airwaves, he hasn’t entirely fallen out of love with the mainstream media. That puts him in stark contrast to many once-prominent broadcasters of his generation. Sean Plunket’s The Platform, an online news network launched earlier this year almost entirely in response to apparent failings by the mainstream media, consists of a line-up of broadcasters who’ve been “cancelled” or simply fallen out of favour with the mainstream networks. Other names, like Peter Williams, a former colleague of Henry’s, have fallen down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole. Even Mike Hosking, undoubtedly still king of the airwaves still, disparages his media colleagues on a regular basis.
“Are they great names?” questions Henry, after I ask him why so many personalities have become media outcasts. “They’re names we recognise, but does that mean they’re great? F…… hell.”
He might distance himself from those who malign the mainstream media, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a fan of it himself. He expresses “concern” about the direction the country is heading and says that, by and large, the media is worse now than it was when he was working in it.
On the flip side, he says he hates hearing people moan about the quality of journalism. The mainstream media is mainstream simply because it’s mainstream, says Henry – you can’t just “lose faith” in it. “Most people who are my age are not self-aware. But I am acutely self-aware [and] you have to be very careful that you just don’t want things to change. Things have to change,” he says.
“It’s a struggle to keep mainstream media mainstream, you know, it’s a lot of money. They have got extraordinarily expensive platforms that can be replicated for virtually nothing from someone’s hideous little cubby hole in their house. But they’re mainstream for a reason.”
Henry says he’s still offered work but has absolutely no interest in picking any of it up. And he’s especially coy about who’s been trying to court him. The Platform? “They could well have been.” RNZ’s Morning Report needs a new co-host, I suggest. “Don’t they just,” he laughs. “And a lot of people would say in a sort of a pious way, ‘well, there’s the last bastion of good quality journalism’. But really good quality journalism – I hate even saying that because I’m not in it – it’s on the internet. But of course, the trouble is the worst journalism is on the internet as well.”
That remark feels like a dig at The Platform, a service Henry doesn’t seem overly enthused by. It was conceivable before The Platform launched that Henry could have been one of the network’s star hosts – his name was certainly floated around on social media by those awaiting the line-up. Instead, he’s largely dismissive of the potential for outlets like The Platform to have any real impact. “Those that can and want to be are still involved [in the media] and those that can’t have set up their own little networks in the middle of nowhere,” says Henry.
“It’s like me [saying] my gin’s the cheapest gin in the world and I’m selling it from a shop in the middle of the desert. No one knows where it is or what the address is and no one comes to us – but it’s brilliant gin! And that’s how it is with a lot of the internet, and probably just as well.”
Like a lot of his former colleagues, he’s not convinced that the government’s planned RNZ-TVNZ merger will fix the problems he has with the media. “There is zero chance that they will save $1. There is 100% chance it will cost more,” Henry believes. “There is zero chance we will have a better service, 100% chance the service will be reduced in a confusing cacophony of bullshit. In my mind, in my fairly large mind, I can see no good reason for doing it.”
‘Get off the f…… stage’
Henry leans over and pours us both another gin: this time a watermelon variety. He admires the light pink colour in the glass, fresh and tropical. He’s hoping it will become a popular summer drink, like Aperol.
He may have named one of his memoirs Outraged but, in person, Henry comes across as anything but – a stark contrast to his broadcast persona. He fizzes with enthusiasm and joy, albeit with a squeeze of lemon. He proudly has “an opinion on everything”, and our conversation is littered with tangents on topics as divergent as US politics to the “unbridled wankery” of RNZ Concert. “It was very, very loud voices who managed to rally together,” he says of backlash to the planned end of Concert in 2020. “It’s like Campbell Live – f…, its most popular day was its last day. Why? Because it was its last f…… day.”
When he does find the energy to be outraged, Henry says it has to be genuine – he has no time for (and is no longer paid to produce) faux anger. I bring up Mike Hosking, an example of someone in the media whose job is largely to be outraged on a daily basis. “It’s like ‘what can I be outraged about today, shit I need to find something’,” says Henry. “Whereas I’m still as genuinely outraged about everything, or enthused about everything. I have an opinion on everything – I haven’t tempered that – but I’ve managed it internally. It’s no longer important for me to say it out loud,” he says. “I can stand on the beach as the tide goes out and shout for it to come in. But it won’t come in one second earlier than it was going to come in anyway. Or I can stand on the beach and admire the exposed sand. I think I’ve become better at that.”
He is even, albeit briefly, wary that people might see his decision to speak with me as evidence he still wants to be in the public eye. He reiterates that it’s not – requesting another mention of his gin. “Sometimes you see people on panels and you think ‘what are you doing’? It’s not that it’s beneath me, or is it beneath me? I think it’s beneath me, but not because I put myself up on some extraordinary pedestal, but because I have moved on. Get off the f…… stage.”
‘It wasn’t an act’
Since leaving the media, Henry’s lasting legacy seems to be more about his memorable and public downfall at TVNZ than his career as a broadcaster. People still approach him in the supermarket and want to talk about those moments, he says. Henry seems content knowing that people will remember him for this reason – even if he says there were “other” things he did beside being controversial.
But while Henry was afforded the opportunity to resign from TVNZ after the public outcry surrounding his comments about Sheila Dikshit, many broadcasters since have simply been quietly pushed out the door. Looking back with the hindsight of 2022, it seems amazing that Henry survived for so long. “Would I survive now?” he muses. “You know, I’m sure I wouldn’t, because I wouldn’t change my ways. I don’t believe I need to, but times have changed.”
It’s true that times have changed, but I put to Henry that people are happy now to judge people’s prior actions by today’s standards. And yet despite this, or perhaps owing to his extended absence, Henry could still get a job on any network’s top rated show. There was a slight flurry of online criticism after it was announced he’d be involved with Today FM – but there were even more vocal calls for him to host his own programme. How has he managed to pull this off?
“I think because most people understood that it wasn’t an act. I was just being me. And when things went wrong, I just moved on. And when I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t do it anymore. I was never fighting to keep a job. And when I didn’t want to do it anymore, I certainly didn’t want to just pop up on a panel.”
Henry’s former vehicle, Breakfast, is “pretty bad now”, he says. “F…… hell… I don’t want to be one of those people who just sits at home complaining, but when they first decided to come back with that laptop set… [what] did they think?” he says. “Did they think that people wanted to spend breakfast with people who were clearly in Changi bloody airport, or the Hanging Gardens of f…… Babylon?” he says of the VR studio TVNZ now uses. “Does anyone watch that and think, ‘Oh, shit, they’ve spent a bit of money on that’.”
He pauses, taking a sip of his drink. “And then you’ve got Seven Sharp… What is that backdrop? And also, the most inappropriate coffee table. It defies belief. Clearly they have the ability to create any kind of backdrop they want!”
I bring up Henry’s now notorious Canvas interview from just before his exit at TV3 – the one littered with more f-bombs than our chat and with about a dozen mentions of the word “titties”. I tell Henry that people remember that interview over five years later. “Really? Fantastic. So I have made a difference,” he says. “I was spectacularly drunk – but I chose to be.”
Don’t expect a Henry-surgence
Right now, Henry’s attention is fully focused on his range of spirits. He’s produced two gins so far, with another on the way soon and a vodka also in the pipeline. It’s obvious that it’s something he’s passionate about. “I am there doing the blending, I come up with the varieties, I design the labels,” he explains. “I love alcohol, I love the theatre of it.” He’s quick to reject “the elephant in the room” that he’s simply slapped his face on someone else’s product. “100% no,” he says. “Every time I’ve been asked to do that I’ve always said no. This is completely my product.” He’s worrying, just a little, about how to get people to try it. “What people won’t do very often is try new stuff,” he says. “I know just looking at that bottle that it is the absolute finest distilled alcohol that you can get. It’s not the best in the world, but it’s equal to the best in the world.”
It’s clear that any chances of a return to the media spotlight are incredibly slim. His last mainstream venture – the lockdown show Rebuilding Paradise – was largely a self-serving excuse to escape his own home. “I was trapped in a country that had made it clear [that] I was a non-essential human being. And I thought ‘f… you’. I’ll show you how essential I am, I’ll get a special chit from Discovery to say that I’m allowed out,” he laughs.
And while he’s popped up in the media a handful of times since, including writing a pair of opinion columns for the Herald, he says those were just chances to vent. A weekly column would take him a week to write, he says. “So if I want a full-time job, I’ll do a weekly column. But I don’t want a job.” Henry is happily retired, splitting his time between Auckland and Palm Springs. He spends a lot of time on his yacht, too.
It’s possible that a few years down the track, he could suddenly arrive back in the media spotlight – a new self-titled show on the airwaves, a new generation of viewers ready to be both enthralled and outraged. But according to Henry, don’t bank on it. “I tend not to watch much media now. Not for any la-de-da reason, but I’m just frantically busy trying to spend my last few minutes on Earth in an enjoyable way. I spend more time worrying about the engines on my boat than watching the media or mithering over how many British prime ministers there are going to be next week,” he says.
Besides, says Henry, there are more transferable skills between media and distilling than you might expect. “Broadcasting is all about people. And that’s what this is about” – he motions to a bottle of his gin – “reaching people.”