As pressure builds for Channel 10 to explain why a controversial interview with Héritier Lumumba is no longer available online, a former Network 10 executive is urging ‘The Project’ to address the backlash or risk “the appearance of being guilty.”
As first reported by HuffPost Australia on Friday, the video is no longer accessible on the show’s social media accounts since at least Thursday evening.
Aly and Helliar have come under mounting pressure to acknowledge the interview on air after last week’s leaked ‘Do Better’ report, prompted by the now-retired AFL player’s account of a “culture of racist jokes” at the Magpies, found evidence of “systemic racism” at the club.
The three-year-old segment, which has been widely shared on social media since the independent report’s release last Monday, has been condemned for “discrediting” and “gaslighting” Lumumba.
While Channel 10 has yet to address this, TV executive and host of TV Blackbox podcast Rob McKnight told HuffPost that “trying to hide the clip” would be the worst thing the network could do.
“What ‘The Project’ should do right now is show a bit of that clip, have Waleed and Pete sit there and talk about it and the lessons they’ve learned and what they’ll do going forward,” said McKnight, who was an executive producer at Channel 10 for more than four years.
“In 2021, staying silent doesn’t fly. The less you speak about something, the bigger an issue it’ll become.”
While acknowledging it is only fair Aly challenges big accusations in his interviews, McKnight said it doesn’t excuse ignoring the criticism from ‘The Project’s’ “smart audience”.
“If Waleed doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong, he should say that and explain it,” he said.
“At the moment, the less he says, the more guilty he seems.”
Helliar, who has worked with Collingwood Football Club as its ‘Strauchanie’ character, questioned Lumumba’s claims in the 2017 segment and said it sounded like the ex-defender was “smearing an entire club.”
“We can’t find anyone who would speak to us who knew of that nickname over a playing career of 10 years,” Helliar said, referring to Lumumba’s allegation that other players called him racist nicknames.
Helliar’s comments came after ‘The Project’ had aired an interview between Aly and Lumumba in which the presenter subjected the 199-game Magpie veteran to a “gruelling” 90-minute “circular cross-examination”, according to Melbourne-based comic Aamer Rahman, who was in the room at the time of the interview. Aly pushed Lumumba on why other players hadn’t admitted to calling him “slave” and “chimp”.
Aly was forced to correct himself and Helliar, admitting right after the interview ran that player Andrew Krakouer had confirmed the “chimp” nickname, but then he dismissed Krakouer as a “rare person”.
Last week, Helliar tweeted an apology to Lumumba, saying: “I should have believed you. I will do better.” Hundreds of viewers responded that he and Aly need to make a full on-air apology.
According to McKnight, Helliar’s apology and the mysterious removal of the full 2017 clip will have resulted in crisis talks at the network.
“I can guarantee you a lot of strategy conversations are happening at the moment about how to deal with it and the fallout,” he said.
“Everyone from the EP, to the publicist to the network executives, they will all be freaking out about how to deal with this because if there was one show that you would never think would be accused of this, it’s The Project.
“It’s a left-leaning show, it’s a show that always seems to be on the right side of issues, and it’s finding itself in the middle of a racism row.
“My biggest piece of advice: Put the clips back online right now, have a conversation on-air.”
HuffPost has reached out to Channel 10 for further comment.