Paul Henry (photo: supplied)

Paul Henry is returning to TV, and is basically woke now

Worrying about inequality. Excited about electric planes. A huge Jacinda fan. Duncan Greive talks to a rebooted Paul Henry. 

Rumours have circulated for more than a year that Paul Henry was mulling a return to TV. He left the medium in a huff after his comments were accurately reported in a still-astounding Canvas profile by Greg Bruce. Henry said ‘titties’ 12 times in the space of a minute, along with many other things, and decided the hell with it when a predictable and essentially engineered uproar ensued. That left The Paul Henry Show – an expensive multimedia production they’d built around him as a personality, as a force-of-broadcasting-nature – with a big hole in the middle.

Mostly, when you leave like that, you don’t get to come back. Yet he has left in some kind of disgrace before and returned every time – his hot mic talent is so undeniable that he has an essentially infinite supply of second chances. The last time I saw him he was hosting Three’s upfronts at the Northern Club, back when Three had upfronts, back when a media company could plausibly host an event at the Northern Club. It was a bit over three years ago. He was having the time of his life, electric, making even those who deeply loathed him shudder with laughter. Then he was gone, living in Palm Springs, getting married, being rich. 

Now he’s back. It doesn’t feel like many were asking for him, but he’s here all the same. Here to talk about what comes after the lockdown on a hastily-conceived new show called Rebuilding Paradise with Paul Henry. Despite what happened last time, his name’s in the title again, a privilege reserved for only the biggest stars – him and, like, Anika Moa. He’s talking about a reset, a new nation birthed from a crisis. To many, Henry is precisely the kind of person who should be left in the old world, with his longtime habit of joking about people’s names, appearance, and worse. Yet he appears quite markedly changed by the crisis, as so many of us have been. And relishing the opportunity to talk about how this country might change too.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity

Duncan Greive: Where are you right now, and who’s in your bubble?

Paul Henry: I’m actually at Three at the moment. So now I get to leave my bubble to come to work.

To what extent was that a motivating factor? Just the sheer boredom of lockdown?

Do you know if I’m entirely honest, it probably was a very small motivating factor.

Let’s flip that around. What were the rest of your motivating factors?

OK. The fact that I actually think this is the most important topic and I’ve seen a lot of, obviously there’s been wall-to-wall coverage of a pandemic and you know, thank god for it, but some of it is I think excessively negative. 

I think we have an extraordinary opportunity on which to build our future. Based on the fact that actually this pandemic is going to come to an end. What are we going to have when we get there? How are we going to pay for that future – and how are we gonna make our future better? Too many people are focused on getting back to what we had before.

What are some of the exact examples of what you see as the sunny side of what comes after this?

Well, I just think that we’re going to have to get used to the fact that, at least for the medium term, we are going to have to focus on a vibrant domestic economy. Certainly more vibrant than it has been in the past. So how do we achieve that and what do we make our new speciality? 

If we consider that tourism has to take a back seat for a while, which is a pretty safe bet, how do we make sure that the tourism that we offer the world in the future is better than it was? How do we create another niche – something else that we can lead the globe in? What reasonably might that be?

I know some people have suggested that we could be looking at exploiting renewable energy to a much greater extent. We are so incredibly positioned to become world leaders in renewable energy. Or in electric travel, not electric cars, electric travel. It just is one example, but there must be so many. And so what I want to do is get people on and not just in soundbites, really explore the possibilities. Because we have an extraordinary ability now to come together as we reset our economy and reset our society.

You sound enthusiastic about the possibilities of having almost an enforced tear down and rebuild. Has the crisis made you reconsider some of your prior views, or worldview?

No, not really. We don’t really have a choice. We have to, first of all, as a country, as a team, get together and decide where we reasonably want to be in six months, and 12 months and two years. And then we have to put a plan together to get there. 

There’s no choice on that. We actually absolutely have to do that. And you can do it several ways. You could just say the goal is to get back to where we were before. I think we can all be agreed that we can do better than that. And now it’s much easier to do better than that because we have to, we actually have to reset – we have to address the future.

So just sailing along is no longer possible. I think it would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t explore these options. A lot of people, without question, are going to lose their jobs. They personally will pay a very high price. We have to make sure that other jobs are there. Jobs that are more rewarding and more sustainable, not just for people that do them, but for society. For all of us.

You said that you haven’t changed your views but at times there you sounded more like James Shaw than the Paul Henry of old. Do you believe it has the potential to work across other vectors as well? Like inequality, say, rather than just on the business opportunity side?

I was thinking just the other day, all of us I think have undervalued shelf stackers who worked through the night. Now the people queuing two metres apart outside are surgeons and pilots – and we’re all totally dependent on the shelf stacker. I think these are things now that we are going to be more cognisant of than ever before. 

It is part of the reset. These are the kinds of conversations that I want to have on the programme. We stand a chance of coming out of this as a healthier society than we went into it. You do need resets every now and then, because you get off track.

Some of your colleagues have just taken a 15% pay cut. A week or so later, Paul Henry arrives. Did they fund your arrival? What would you say to those people who’ve just taken a bit of a bath who see this flash new hire?

I’ve come back to do this programme. That’s the reason I’ve come back. Am I doing it for free? No. Why? Because that would create a false economy. Am I doing it for great riches? No. Am I doing it because I want fame? No. I don’t want fame, I don’t need great riches. I’m doing it at a spectacularly discounted rate.

Lastly, can you give me a sense of how you think the government has handled the crisis to date? The way that they have navigated this incredibly historic few weeks?

The first thing I would say is I think the government has handled it extraordinarily well. Largely Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern, I think they’ve done a fabulous job. In terms of the wider parliament, you know, the members of parliament whose names we don’t know, we still don’t know them. Nothing much has changed there. The one thing that probably disappoints me is that there has been no effort to reduce the salaries, to expect parliamentarians to take a little bit of a hit in the pocket. And even though that’s a small thing, I think those things are representative. But that’s a very small point. I think they’ve done a spectacular job, actually a very timely job. And history, I think, will prove that to be correct.

Rebuilding Paradise with Paul Henry premieres on Monday April 20 at 9.30pm on Three



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