John Drinnan: Real housewives row rumbles on

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Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Photo / Norrie Montgomery

The Real Housewives of Auckland race fiasco rumbles on, with the parties no doubt wishing it would all just go away.

But to me, the hype over a show participant's offhand use of the "n-word" shows how far media can go in defining entertainment shows as important events.

The comment was made by "housewife" Julia Sloane, referring to another cast member, Michelle Blanchard, who has Jamaican heritage and was deeply hurt.

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy criticised Sloane this month, before the offending episode had screened.

Sloane has apologised several times and her husband, businessman Michael Lorimer, has accused Devoy of bullying his wife, something denied by the Human Rights Commission (HRC), which includes Devoy's office.

Sloane had tearfully acknowledged her wrongdoing and apologised on-air to Blanchard during the episode.

For a viewer, the confusion was in knowing whether the incident screened on Tuesday last week was about fighting racism, or exploiting it so it could be abhorred.

There are unusual aspects to all this - not least that the HRC had been aware of the incident for three months before it went to air.

Real Housewives broadcaster Bravo approached the HRC following the n-word incident. A commission spokeswoman said the discussion involved explaining the jurisdictions of the HRC and the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

Devoy commented as part of a digital promotional campaign called "That's Us", which began on September 1. She said in a statement that other New Zealanders need to call out those who say "ignorant, offensive and racist things" - like Sloane's use of a "hateful racist word".

Media morality

Some will say Sloane's offhand use of the unconscionable slur was beyond the pale.

But at what point do media battle racism, and at what point do they use it to repeatedly attack individuals?

The show depicts all six cast members as larger than life - rich, overconfident and snarky towards one another.

Bravo itself has a tongue in cheek element. In the US, says the broadcaster, this aspect is known as " The Bravo wink", and insists it is about entertainment, not big issues.

There is no question that the n-word incident occurred. But in my opinion, the danger seems to be when media get carried away, leave entertainment behind and single people out for moral campaigns.

As well, in my view the HRC appears to have allowed itself to be linked to a tabloid TV show.

It tweeted about someone foolishly uttering the n-word, but had ignored other more substantial journalism in Fairfax about institutional racism in the justice system.

Going undercover

Tabloid TV events create publicity and there are dangers when this is combined with the media's fascination with so-called reality TV.

The HRC has shown a propensity for unorthodox publicity promotions in the past.

Back in 2012, then Equal Opportunities Commissioner Judy McGregor went undercover as an aged care worker, to highlight chronically low pay in that sector.

Like the anti-racism campaign, the undercover nursing operation had good intentions, and was good publicity.

The "That's Us" digital campaign which featured Devoy's criticism of Sloane started on September 1 and has been given funding of $200,000 from the the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and $25,000 from the UN agency Unesco. Advertising commentator Martin Gillman said that was an "enormous" amount for a digital campaign.

But apart from the n-word incident, the campaign does not seem to have had a high profile.

Its own spin

The pop culture website The Spinoff is standing by its coverage of the incident, its staunch support of Bravo and its attacks on Sloane.

Owner Duncan Greive confirmed The Spinoff had a contractual relationship with HRC, but said its coverage of Real Housewives was not connected. "We called it as we saw it and ... everything we have seen from the Sloane camp suggests our stance was fair. They are acting like the wounded party".

A podcast placed on the website on September 21 frequently pilloried Sloane.

Podcasting was a live medium, said Greive. "So there are probably things we would have phrased more elegantly with hindsight."

Spinoff has had success in attracting readers and Greive has developed a business plan built on a mixture of editorial and advertorial content.

Apples n' oranges

Ratings comparisons between the Paul Henry show and the new TVNZ Breakfast have been hampered by the fact that the two broadcasters measure their audiences in different ways.

While TV3 measures accumulated numbers for the audience aged 25-54, TVNZ focuses on the total audience aged over 5 years.

In the past, comparable ratings from Nielsen TAM were released free to media, but that has stopped and the result is confusion in media coverage, with both networks using Nielsen data, but analysing it differently.

The Paul Henry vs Hilary Barry battle is important to both broadcasters. TVNZ has spent a lot of money on Hilary and the new team, despite the fact that Breakfast runs at a low-rating time of day.

Meanwhile, TV3 has had a rough 12 months and Henry is its only star. The point of difference is Henry's interviewing skills, as displayed on Tuesday, when he used his formidable authority to tear apart and shame NZ Rugby chief executive Steve Tew over the handling of the Losi Filipo incident.

- NZ Herald

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John Drinnan has been a business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s.

Read more by John Drinnan

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