Paul Lewis on sport
Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Luatua deserved media coverage

Steven Luatua apologised for his part in this Neknominate episode.
Steven Luatua apologised for his part in this Neknominate episode.

There was a curious backlash against "the media" for highlighting the Steven Luatua incident with that moronic Neknominate drinking fad.

Granted, Luatua's "crime" was minor. From all accounts he is a nice bloke, he doesn't drink and he's never been in any trouble - and he is certainly a fine rugby player. But those who protested at the media treatment ('Luatua didn't deserve condemnation', squealed one headline) rather missed the point.

Let's start at the beginning. People in the public eye have fewer rights. There. Got that one out of the way. It's not fair but that's how it is. In exchange for earning the right to a privileged lifestyle with the benefits of fame and money, people in the public eye must expect their life to be more goldfish-bowl than that of ordinary human beings. It's almost a law of nature.

That is particularly so with politicians and anyone who deals with ratepayers' or taxpayers' money. There is a responsibility that transcends privacy.

In bemoaning the "treatment" handed out to Luatua, one respected columnist drew a parallel with Auckland mayor Len Brown, saying: "In Auckland the debate about whether a politician like Len Brown deserves a private life shows no signs of ending soon. A lot of us may equivocate over that issue but what bugs me about Luatua's naming and shaming is that I firmly believe sportspeople own (sic) us the courtesy of being fit and ready to perform when we pay to see them compete, and that's it. Should a healthy pay packet and a degree of adoration make their personal life a media target? For my money, unless the behaviour is truly abhorrent, the answer is no."

Sorry, but this is jelly-kneed, willy-clutching surrenderism of the highest order. Sportwriters often make the mistake of getting too close to those they write about - it's an occupational hazard - and some also cling to the old amateur days when there was a lot of wink-wink stuff that never made the papers.

It's different in the professional era. Money changes everything.

Len Brown? I'm not going to equivocate at all. In my opinion, he is now a lame duck mayor - and I voted for him. He's not the first politician unable to keep it in his pants; that stuff happens, particularly where power is concerned. It's the aftermath which has nobbled him.

In my view, he misjudged not only putting himself in a vulnerable position to begin with but also the amount of betrayal felt by his ratepayers; he is trying to outlast the antipathy, keeping a low profile and hoping time will heal the wounds - but it is looking as if the pus is continuing to seep through the bandages.

We now have the ridiculous situation of protesters turning up to hassle him and then complaining that the mayor has hired security guards to protect him from them - and that he shouldn't be using ratepayers' money to do so.

It's a farce. Questions over his judgement remain; his ability to implement his vision has been damaged by the controversy - a vision which is likely to rocket rates over a 10-year period anyway.

The connection between Brown and Luatua is not actually that of two men pained by unfair treatment - it's being in the public eye. That requires a level of judgement and cognisance beyond that of the ordinary person.

I detest it when people say: "Oh, if it was an ordinary rugby player, no one would have taken any notice." I mean ... that's the whole flaming point, innit?

We have a binge drinking culture and issue in this country. There was national disquiet at (and international attention paid to) the sight of a nine-year-old boy recently being fed alcohol and staggering round drunk.

Then a six-year-old boy got caught up in the Neknominate nonsense, filmed in a video uploaded to the net and seemingly drinking from a beer bottle (even though the family later said it was a joke and he was necking soft drink). Ha-ha, guys, that's about as funny as a weta in your underpants.

The sight of an All Black, a rugby hero, pouring a beer down the throat of a grown man in an idiotic drinking game - even though there was no victim and nothing bad happened - has obvious judgement issues too. It's not news? It was guaranteed to press buttons in an environment where youth drinking is a controversial, never-ending topic.

There is also an inflationary aspect to some who partake in Neknominate - you know, I scull one beer, you have to do two. Where does it stop - sculling a bottle of vodka? One recent video post had one bloke drinking while a mate urinated on him.

I rest my case. What is the point of the news media if it is not to highlight issues like that?

But in what universe does this equate to Luatua being a "media target"? He allowed the clip to be taken and tacitly consented to it being shared with the world. To argue, as the other columnist did, that showing the video on news television and websites made as much sense as "trying to stop violence by punching someone" is apologist piffle. The whole point of the news coverage was to highlight the lunacy of the game and how an All Black had been caught up in it. As an old boss of mine used to say: It could confuse a stupid person ...

The NZ Herald sought Luatua's view, as ethically they are required to do of a person in the spotlight like that. There was no response until the walls of media management closed around him and a statement was issued with Luatua's apology.

Fair enough, too - but why apologise if there was nothing wrong? I even heard some talkback radio jocks cracking on about how Luatua shouldn't have apologised and that it was a "media beat-up". These are the same people heavily dependent on the Herald to kick off their daily talking points.

There's a lot that doesn't make sense in this world; Neknominate and Luatua's poor judgement are only part of that.

It's all over now, no one is "targeting" Luatua and he will have learned a valuable lesson about the perils and responsibilities of being in the public eye.

But don't try and tell me that no one should have published it prominently. That makes about as much sense as Neknominate.

- Herald on Sunday

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