John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: We need defences in the court of public opinion

Steve Tew, CEO of the New Zealand Rugby Union. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Steve Tew, CEO of the New Zealand Rugby Union. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Working in the media these days feels like being a prosecutor in a court where the defence never turns up. It's the court of public opinion and its a scary place for anybody who wants to defend themselves. So they take fright at adverse publicity, concede the case, prostrate themselves in penitence and promise to do better.

It is turning the media into society's moral legislature and judiciary, a kind of Sharia court where there is no sense of proportion and someone as unlikely as Paul Henry can become a lord high enforcer of correct thinking.

Did he really demand of Steve Tew, "Will you tell me now that I won't have to have this conversation with you again?"? And did the boss of New Zealand Rugby resolve to do better on TV3's morning news show? I don't watch it but the reports don't surprise me. All week Tew has been struggling to point out that there is a limit to his ability to control what happens far away from a rugby field.

I have little sympathy with him, or his Wellington provincial counterparts and rugby's players association who let a teenager give up his career, if it was the boy's decision. They could point out to him that he owed it to the judge to take the chance he'd been given, and they could have had the courage to stand up in the court of public opinion and say Judge Bruce Davidson was in the best position to take all considerations into account.

The case is going back to the real courts under appeal and I should leave it there. It is just the latest example of one-sided public "debate" these days and there are plenty more.

Many of them, fortunately, do not involve the criminal law but set boundaries of moral and social behaviour that are making this a very puritanical age.

The classic example in the past month was the "fake cocaine" at a primary school's fundraising ball.

The incident, in case it has been deservedly forgotten, involved a Saturday night theme ball for parents, the theme being "Vegas baby" and one of the props consisted of icing sugar set out in lines on mirrors. I dare say somebody was amused enough to send a cellphone photo to a friend and soon it was everywhere, including this newspaper.

Fair enough too. It was an amusing, a fairly "edgy" thing for a school to do and it would invite discussion. But I would publish it in the hope the debate would not be one-sided and that in the end a sense of proportion would prevail. Some hope. When Northcote Primary School's board chairman was asked about it, he said, "In hindsight we agree this wasn't appropriate."

The school had received two complaints, he said, and both parents had been given apologies. Perhaps they had been more offended by "Marilyn Monroe" jumping out of a cake to MC the ball, but for goodness sake. Would it have been so hard to say, "Get a life", or words to that effect?

Certainly the board chairman would have been inviting criticism upon the school. Privately there would have been a chorus of support but there is a disconnect these days between what people think and what they are game to say.

So, public debate comes to be dominated by people who are easily offended - and there seems to be a lot of them - backed by academics and campaigners against various health and social ills who turn the slightest fault into grist for their cause.

To suggest the Chiefs deserved to be embarrassed, but no more, for hiring a stripper on their "Mad Monday" is to be accused of condoning a culture of sexual abuse. One of them - not one of the players it turned out - went beyond the permissible limits.

But dare I say it was not, in my view, an offence that warranted the inquisition and corrective steps demanded by women of the Human Rights Commission in their open letter to NZ Rugby?

I should have had the courage to say this when the issue was running hot but I didn't, because to try to put things in proportion at a time like that is to be accused of condoning what happened. There is no room for minor infringements in this court. The only defence is surrender.

The public relations industry is largely to blame. It thinks perceptions are all that count under the glare of publicity, even if perceptions are wrong. So NZ Rugby publicly accepts it has a "culture of violence" rather than say - as so many privately do - these things are overblown.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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