9 Oct 2016

Media riff on rugby’s roll of shame

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 9 October 2016

Another day, another player at the centre of a headline-making 'scandal', and the media made the most of rich pickings from the bottom of rugby’s barrel.  

Aaron Smith issuing an apology to reporters at the airport.

Aaron Smith issuing an apology to reporters at the airport. Photo: screenshot / Radio Sport - NZME

"Is our national game becoming a national disgrace?" asked Herald Focus frontman Tristram Clayton on Thursday. 

More and more New Zealanders will be coming to that conclusion, NZME's head of sport Trevor McKewen replied.

Prime Minister John Key also had his say on the under-fire All Black being sent home in ignominy from South Africa last Thursday. Aaron Smith had "clearly embarrassed himself," he said.

That prompted two RNZ listeners from Christchurch to ask Mediawatch:

TVNZ takes online viewers inside 'that' toilet.

TVNZ takes online viewers inside 'that' toilet. Photo: screenshot

"We can’t figure out why the Prime Minister John Key is commenting on a rugby player’s behaviour. Is he going to comment on every rugby player who spends some time with a friend in a disabled toilet  - or do you have to be an All Black?"

The latter, we suspect.  

Smith was coming home because something that happened on tour didn’t stay on tour, thanks to the surveillance of a couple in Christchurch airport who alerted the New Zealand Herald.   

TVNZ was first to get footage of the scene of what quickly became known as “the toilet tryst” but after online criticism for tastelessness, the video was suddenly unavailable.

On Morning Report, former New Zealand Herald editor Tim Murphy called it "the low point of New Zealand journalism".

Opinions pour in

Within hours of the news breaking, the first opinion pieces were unloaded onto news websites.

"Spare me the moral outrage over Aaron Smith," thundered Newshub’s Jim Kayes. He was echoed by rugby pundit Matt Richens on rnz.co.nz, who quoted pundit Scotty Stevenson: 

 . . . and The All Blacks coach: 

"To paraphrase a Steve Hansen quote, let's all just flush the airport dunny and move on".

Fair point, though trotting out toilet puns like that ran the risk of joining in rather than moving on.

And for all the barbs aimed at those who were stoking up "moral outrage," there wasn't much actual moral outrage out there in the media to be found.

TVNZ's cameras found one woman in Wellington who said she found Smith's behaviour "morally yucky," but so too was some of the media coverage.

The Herald "resurfaced" old stories about Aaron Smith’s previous infidelities and embarrassments.

It also printed his "relationship history" with photos of all his partners right up to the current one, who - the paper pointed out - was not the woman with Smith at the airport. On Thursday afternoon, The Herald also published a short online video of a woman in a hat and sunglasses leaving Aaron Smith’s home in a black car.

On Friday, the affair took up the first three pages of the New Zealand Herald. Tim Murphy told Morning Report he'd have led with Helen Clark's UN defeat if he'd still been at the helm. That story was on page nine of the Herald, after Smith and the end of Rachel on Shortland Street

Plenty to read on the topic at nzherald.co.nz.

Plenty to read on the topic at nzherald.co.nz. Photo: screenshot

This latest Aaron Smith controversy will soon blow over in the media, just like his previous ones, until it is dragged out again when the next so-called scandal hits the headlines.

These things certainly have a long media shelf life. On Thursday, Newshub’s roll of All Black shame spooled back 45 years to Keith Murdoch being sent home from Wales.

Murdoch never came back to New Zealand to face the music, but Smith did on Thursday and he gave a tearful apology to reporters in the middle of an airport.

Video of that was rushed online under the heading “All Black speaks”. "All Black sobs and suffers under the spotlight" would be more accurate.

National Business Review writer Rob Hosking also thought all of this was a low point for journalism: 

As the old joke goes: it's not dead, it just smells funny. And there will probably be more for the media to scrape from the bottom of rugby's barrel before long.