Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Further to my post yesterday: The Dom Post advises me that there was no arrangement with Mona Kahui and her partner to photograph them at Mangere cemetery. The paper informs me that reporter Mike Field and photographer John Selkirk went to the cemetery on Friday on the off-chance that family members might be there. This was smart journalism and I'm happy to climb down.
My more general comments on the media being used to advance PR agendas stand.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


The Dom Post last Saturday published a photo of Mona Kahui, aunty of the dead twins Chris and Cru, kissing their headstone at Mangere Cemetery. Her partner Stuart King, half-brother of the twins’ mother Macsyna King, was with her.

What were we to make of this picture? My first thought was that here were two representatives of a disgraced and discredited whanau trying hard to rehabilitate themselves in the public eye by demonstrating some humanity. To be fair, an article in the Dom Post the previous day had portrayed the couple as possibly the least dysfunctional members of the extended family. Mona was attending a school for teenage mothers in an attempt to get an educational qualification and King was the only person in the King-Kahui household with a job.

My second thought, only milliseconds later, was that there might be a more specific motive behind the appearance at the cemetery. The couple’s daughter Cyene, born only a month before Chris and Cru, was taken into CYF custody after the twins’ death. Mona has been fighting since to regain custody of Cyene and has repeatedly travelled to Gisborne to visit her. I concluded (I don’t think cynically) that the performance at the cemetery was, at least in part, a public relations exercise aimed at showing that Mona and her partner were caring human beings and thus worthy of another chance at looking after their own child.

My third thought had less to do with Mona Kahui and Stuart King than with the media’s role. The photo at the cemetery was taken by John Selkirk, the Dom Post’s veteran Auckland photographer. I don’t think John just happened by chance to be at Mangere cemetery with his camera gear when the couple turned up. The paper had obviously been tipped off in advance. In fact the couple’s attendance at the cemetery may well have been dependent on the Dom Post turning up too.

Would Mona Kahui and Stuart King have gone to the cemetery and kissed the twins’ headstone if there was no newspaper photographer there to record the occasion? Of course I can’t say. But instinct and experience makes me sceptical.

If the couple were merely intent on expressing sincere grief and affection for the dead twins, there was no reason for a newspaper to be present. So the event was at least to some extent contaminated by a PR motive. I suspect the Dom Post was enlisted as an accomplice in the couple’s plan to get their child back.

If this was the case, Kahui and King were only doing what politicians, pressure groups and PR firms do all the time – staging what the British journalist Nick Davies calls “pseudo events”, manufactured to generate publicity and therefore advance an underlying agenda.

These are not genuine news events which happen spontaneously. They are publicity stunts, orchestrated to attract media attention.

Greenpeace is an acknowledged master in this field, scoring prime newspaper and TV coverage every time its activists unfurl a protest banner on a nuclear power station or abseil on to an oil rig. Would they do it if the media paid no attention? Of course not. They depend on what Margaret Thatcher once described as “the oxygen of publicity”.

Politicians do it all the time too. A hypothetical example is the Minister of Education choosing a kindergarten as the venue for the announcement of an early childhood learning policy (as if the kindy kids really want to know), then having his/her picture taken pretending to play with the kids in the sandpit. The media are complicit in these sorts of stunts every day. Contrived photo opportunities have become part of the daily news diet.

Harmless? Relatively. Dishonest? Well, yes.

Lest I be accused of being holier than thou, I confess that in seven years as a news editor I would have been party to similar deceptions myself. And I don’t mean to single the Dom Post out for criticism, because everyone in the media does it all the time, without thinking. That’s the problem – bad habits develop over time, to the point where no one questions them.

I can afford to be judgmental now that I’m safely removed from the pressures of the newsroom. But if I were a news editor wanting a strong news picture for page 3 and the picture desk offered me one of Mona Kahui kissing her dead twins’ headstone, in the very week when the country is trembling with outrage all over again at their violent deaths, would I turn it down? Hmmm.

Nick Davies’ recent book Flat Earth News, which I hope to review on this site shortly, takes a highly critical look at how the British media have been enlisted by the spin industry. His thesis is that the news agenda is no longer controlled by journalists, but is largely dictated by spin merchants pushing their own political, ideological or commercial interests.

It’s far worse in Britain than here, but clearly it’s prevalent enough in New Zealand for Mona Kahui and Stuart King to have cottoned on.

Friday, May 23, 2008


A disturbing item this morning on Kathryn Ryan’s Nine To Noon programme on the Network Formerly Known As National Radio.
It concerned the Health and Disability Commissioner’s decision on the deaths of two women patients of Wellington’s Wakefield Hospital. One died five years ago, one three. The decision doesn’t seem to be on the commissioner’s website yet but according to Radio New Zealand, post-operative care by surgeons Gary Stone and Vasu Iyengar was found wanting, and Mr Stone has been referred for possible further legal action.
Ryan spoke to the bereaved husbands of the two women and couldn’t have asked for more lucid interviewees. They were articulate, intelligent and forceful. And although calm, both were clearly frustrated and dissatisfied, not just with their wives’ premature deaths (one was 54, the other 63) but with a failure of accountability, especially on the part of Wakefield Hospital. One commented that the hospital seemed to exist simply to rent space to specialists and took no responsibility for what happened to their patients.
What emerged was a picture of a system in which professional protocols and hierarchical sensitivities seemed to get in the way of patient care. According to one of the widowers, nurses at Wakefield realised his wife was deteriorating fast, but her specialist wasn’t around and it wasn’t done to ask another doctor to intervene. Rules are rules, it seems, and you can’t have a doctor interfering with someone else’s patient, even in a life-threatening situation.
Nor was it considered proper for the nurses to raise their concerns with someone higher up. Not the done thing.
This seemed to be all about guarding the autonomy of the specialist, on whom the medical system bestows a priest-like status. Turf protection, if you want to put it another way.
It has been said before that the medical profession operates a tight, closed shop with rigidly observed demarcation lines that would be the envy of old-school trade unions. We have seen this manifested in other ways in the past, as when Southland eye specialists joined together to repel a cut-price interloper from Australia. In the instances of the two Wakefield patients, the same sort of professional mindset produced a tragic outcome.
The chief executive of Wakefield Hospital said he couldn’t appear on the programme (now there’s a surprise), but Ryan read a supplied statement that sounded as if it came from the standard damage-control manual that all PR consultants keep in their top drawers.
Health and Disability Commissioner Ron Paterson did appear, however, and not for the first time he impressed as a public servant who answers questions bluntly and unequivocally in plain English. How such a man fluked a top job in health remains a mystery.
Full marks to Ryan, too, for exposing the story. Nine To Noon does a consistently good job of exploring issues that slip under the radar of the print media and television.


There’s a flash new museum in Beijing called the Capital Museum. It’s an architectural showpiece, presumably created to cash in on the influx of overseas visitors for the Olympic Games, but I found it a bit of a bore when I spent a few hours there last year. Except for one thing.

One floor is occupied by a large gallery that traces China’s history in the form of a timeline marking significant developments. Opposite each exhibit, there’s a small display showing what was happening contemporaneously in the West.

For Western visitors, the contrast is striking. You soon realise that despite China’s early achievements in fields such as astronomy, Chinese culture stood still for centuries while Europe forged ahead.

China experienced no Renaissance, no Age of Enlightenment, no democratic reform and no Industrial Revolution. While the great inventors, scientists, engineers, explorers, philosophers and writers of Europe and America were redefining the world, China remained a closed, insular and largely stagnant society.

The countries of the West had steam power, electricity, democratic government and the internal combustion engine while China remained a feudal culture whose technology had barely progressed beyond the horse and cart.

All the while, the Chinese rulers blindly continued to regard China as superior. This placed the country at an enormous disadvantage when it was eventually forced to engage with Western imperial powers such as Britain and France, whose military forces staged punitive expeditions into China during the 19th century and forced the Chinese into signing humiliating treaties (which helps explain Chinese attitudes toward the West, but that’s another story).

Needless to say the Chinese are making up for lost time now, with a vengeance, but the Capital Museum of Beijing set me thinking. What makes some cultures forge ahead when others stand still? Why do some restless individuals constantly push against the boundaries while most of us are content to accept the status quo?

I’m not sure of the answers, but they’re fascinating questions.

If it weren’t for the human urge to explore, discover and push forward, often at great risk, civilisation as we know it would not exist. We would still be living in caves and hunting with primitive stone tools. Skilled and adventurous Polynesian explorers wouldn’t have found New Zealand and James Cook would probably have been content to become a farmer in Yorkshire. Orville and Wilbur Wright wouldn’t have flown and we would still be gazing in wonder at the moon, wondering what’s up there.

Coal and oil, which drove the greatest economic expansion in the world’s history, would still be lying in the ground. Electricity would have remained a mysterious force that periodically flashed around the sky unharnessed. Edison wouldn’t have invented the electric light that made it possible to defy the constraints imposed by the diurnal cycle and Pasteur wouldn’t have made the discoveries that led to countless millions of people being saved from avoidable diseases. I could go on, but you get the picture.

To me, the pioneering of flight best encapsulates the human urge to break free of the shackles of the status quo. Something caused imaginative men like Leonardo da Vinci (the definitive Renaissance Man) to look at birds in flight and think: “Why can’t we do that?”

Risk-taking was common to all the great discoverers. Pioneers of flight risked falling to the earth and being killed; explorers risked being lost or wrecked; scientists and astronomers risked being persecuted and imprisoned because their discoveries challenged religious orthodoxy.

The puzzling thing is that this impulse isn’t universal in mankind. Over great swathes of the globe, men were content to go on existing pretty much as they always had, with no curiosity about what might lie over the horizon and either no inclination or no ability to find better ways of doing things.

Of course not all people from European cultures share the same motivation to find new and better ways of doing things. If everyone were as lazy and complacent as me, for instance, humanity would never have progressed beyond idly wondering whether there might be a way to avoid mowing lawns. But there’s no doubt that the human desire for scientific, artistic and technological advancement is unevenly distributed in geographical terms.

In looking for explanations for this discrepancy, it’s tempting to come to conclusions that, in today’s politically correct climate, might be seen as racist. But setting aside the ticklish issue of ethnicity as a factor in determining a culture’s inventiveness, it seems obvious that the societies that have been in the vanguard of human achievement have certain characteristics in common.

The most dramatic progress was made in countries that were simultaneously evolving as capitalist democracies which respected private property rights, observed the rule of law and practised market economics. All this, in combination with democratic government and mass education, unleashed human potential which in previous ages had lain dormant.

Interestingly the most progressive societies were also Christian, and remain so, though less so now than in the past. There’s surely a moral there somewhere.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Intro: what the journalists of the future are expected to read

Earlier this year, the New Zealand Journalists Training Organisation invited me to review the latest edition of its book Intro: A Beginner's Guide to Professional News Journalism. The intention was to publish my review on the JTO website and by doing so, presumably, to promote sales of the book. I duly read the book, wrote my review and sent it to JTO chairman Mike Fletcher. I advised Mike that it was probably not the review he either expected or wanted, and that I would understand if the JTO didn't use it. Well, so it has turned out. A couple of months have elapsed and there's no sign of my review, which is fine with me. But because I spent unpaid time reading the book and writing my review, and - far more importantly - because I believe Intro raises issues that need to be publicly aired and debated, I have posted my review here.

The Journalists Training Organisation recently published the latest edition of Intro: A Beginner’s Guide to Professional News Journalism. This is the fourth version of what is now considered the definitive textbook – a “must have” – for New Zealand journalism students.

Previous editions were edited by Jim Tucker, now running the revitalised Whitireia Polytechnic Journalism School in Wellington, but this book is largely the work of another JT – Jim Tully. Tully, like Tucker, was a respected journalist in his day and now heads the School of Political Science and Communication at the University of Canterbury. He not only edited the book but also wrote many of the chapters himself.

The first question that occurs on reading the latest edition and comparing it with its predecessor, published only four years ago, is why the new version was considered necessary. Much of the generally excellent 2004 edition remains relevant, yet the book has been almost totally revised. And by and large, the changes are not for the better.

The 2004 edition was brighter, more dynamic, more varied and – perhaps most important – had a much sharper practical focus. Interestingly enough, Jim Tucker commented in his introduction to that book that it was the practical approach of New Zealand journalists such as Peter Arnett that had made New Zealand journalists so successful internationally. Tucker was disparaging about American journalism textbooks’ emphasis on theory and said (and I heartily agree) that it was “essential … that the number eight wire elements of journalism practice in New Zealand should not be lost in a mire of academic theorising”.

It’s ironic, then, that the new edition pays a great deal of attention to theory – especially American theory – and to American journalism models. The relevance of this to journalism practice in New Zealand is often not apparent.

The reader gets bogged down in a theoretical swamp within the first few pages. In a chapter entitled What is News?, Tully discusses the ideas of the American philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky and the sociologist Herbert Gans. The theories of these academics, who view the media as a propaganda tool manipulated by the rich and powerful, more properly belong in media studies texts than in a book that professes to be a practical training manual for budding journalists. They are views that many working journalists would vigorously dispute and they deserve no more than a footnote here.

Unfortunately this chapter sets the tone for a book which frequently cites academic “authorities” whose esoteric views are of minimal relevance to working journalists. Politics and ideology intrude repeatedly. Woolly ideas are often expressed in an arcane, impenetrable language that is not only alien to most journalists but is also, ironically, the antithesis of the direct, plain style of writing that journalists are encouraged to use. In this respect, Intro has strayed far from the strong practical thrust of its precursors.

Another weakness is that the book more often resembles a treatise on the state of journalism than a manual of useful advice for people who want to be journalists.

Journalists Training Organisation chairman Mike Fletcher, in his foreword, rightly refers to the challenges facing journalists in the era of multiskilling and convergence, when they must master multiple ways to tell their stories. Yet the chapter entitled News and the Net, by Donald Matheson (also from the University of Canterbury), is essentially just a long feature story – replete with clumsy academic buzzwords such as “disaggregated” and “disintermediated” – about the impact of the “new media”. There is virtually no practical advice about how a journalist might meet the challenge of working in the new technological environment.

Even Jim Tucker isn’t immune to the gibberish fostered by university media studies faculties. In an otherwise generally down-to-earth section on news writing – one of the few chapters lifted largely intact from the previous edition – he lapses into media studies-speak, talking of news as a “discourse” involving “semiotics” (signs) and “the rhetoric of narration”.

Tucker also challenges the notion of objectivity that has underpinned New Zealand news journalism for much of the past century, boldly asserting that it has been “exposed by media academics as a sham”. But he doesn’t really develop this provocative argument, and the journalism student is left unsure – as in the 2004 book – whether objectivity is a value to be aspired to, as most editors would almost certainly argue, or to be disregarded. Tully, too, tackles the issue of objectivity but doesn’t seem to come to any firm conclusion.

There is much of value in the book. High-profile journalists have been interviewed for advice on subjects ranging from feature-writing to interviewing. An excellent (and witty) chapter on court reporting, by former Christchurch Press chief reporter Dave Clarkson, succeeds in making journalism sound like fun – an element mostly lacking elsewhere in the book.

There’s a snappy chapter on police reporting, by Massey University journalism tutors Alan Samson and James Hollings, which again conveys something of the adrenalin buzz of the newsroom. And there are businesslike, no-nonsense contributions by Cathy Strong on radio and TV journalism.

There is also unintentional humour in a comical chapter in which Massey journalism school head Grant Hannis confidently sets out to demystify numbers and does precisely the opposite. Journalists, who are notoriously maths-shy, will be cross-eyed after a couple of pages. (A more user-friendly chapter in the previous edition, alerting journalists to the common pitfalls of carelessness with numbers, was far more effective.)

But the book lacks the breadth of previous editions. The thoughtful contributions of journalists and ex-journalists such as Al Morrison, John King, Adelia Ferguson and Jan Corbett have inexplicably been dropped, though it would have taken only minimal editing to update them. As it is, Tully spreads himself far too thinly, contributing 12 of the 24 chapters – including one on sports journalism, a field in which he has never been considered a specialist.

Though well regarded as a journalist in his day, Tully has been in academia for 20 years and inevitably it shows. He tends to write in an academic rather than a journalistic style and his emphasis is often on the abstruse and theoretical, drawing on American sources that are of doubtful application here. His “war stories” are tired and too much of his writing consists of analysing current journalism trends rather than offering helpful advice for beginners.

There are also glaring omissions. There are no chapters, for example, on media law or reporting politics – crucial subjects that were covered in the previous edition. There are, however, 10 pages on the importance of the media reflecting cultural diversity.

This chapter, again written by Tully, tells us that journalists have an “obligation flowing from the Treaty of Waitangi” to recognise and reflect our bicultural status – a highly contentious proposition – and buys into politically correct silliness about how the media should report issues involving the disabled. (Apparently we must avoid such stereotypes as the “inspirational” story about the athlete who succeeds in spite of a disability, because this might send a “message of pity”.)

But perhaps the saddest failing of the book is that in all its earnestness, it seems to miss the vital message that journalism is the business of telling interesting and important stories, and having a lot of fun in the process. In this respect, too, the previous volume was much more successful.


“DUMB, dumb and dumber”. That was the headline on a press statement by Act leader Rodney Hide criticising the Government’s back-to-the-future buyback of the railways. I agree with him, as I agree with Hide on many things. But Act has been indulging in some dumbness of its own.

It joyously trumpeted the fact that party co-founder Sir Roger Douglas, after a long period of estrangement, had returned to the fold. But from a strictly pragmatic point of view, the party would have been better to shut up.

Douglas may be Act’s ideological pin-up boy, revered for his bold economic reforms in the 1980s. But as necessary as those reforms were (and Labour has tacitly confirmed their value by leaving most of them in place), the fact remains that they caused a lot of pain and a large segment of the population still loathes Douglas for them.

Besides, he’s a man who projects no personal warmth or charisma. Act may regard Douglas’s return as messianic, but it’s likely to alienate more voters than it attracts.

Just as misguided was the delight with which Act announced that businessman Alan Gibbs had donated $100,000 to the party. I’m wholeheartedly in favour of transparency, but it was the triumphant tone of the announcement that puzzled me.

Act seemed to assume it would trigger a surge of popular support. If anything, the reverse is probably true. Rightly or wrongly, Gibbs is identified with the rich men’s club that is seen to have profited from deregulation and privatisation, often at the taxpayers’ expense.

To boast that his donation is a “vote of confidence” in Act, as Hide did, suggests Act’s leadership is out of step with popular perceptions. It will only reinforce the damaging and misleading stereotype of Act as a party that looks after the interests of the wealthy and privileged. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
* * *
FOR DECADES, left-wing historical revisionists have been promoting the lie that New Zealand has an irredeemably racist past.

In Australia this is called the “black armband” view of history – the notion that everything in the past is cause for shame and recrimination. Well, it might be true of Australia, where the Aborigines were often treated scarcely better than animals; but it certainly isn’t true of New Zealand.

In their determination to portray Maori as crushed and marginalised, the revisionists ignore the many early administrators and politicians who were determined that Maori be treated with honour and respect.

They prefer to forget that Parliament created special seats for Maori in 1867, and that several distinguished Maori politicians – Sir James Carroll, Sir Apirana Ngata and Sir Maui Pomare – served at the highest levels of government. (Carroll acted as prime minister on occasions and Ngata as deputy prime minister.)

The revisionists would rather focus our attention on the injustices that were perpetrated against Maori, such as the Parihaka incident and the land confiscations that are now being atoned for (some of them not for the first time). But these were only part of a much bigger and more complex picture.

Perhaps the most powerful contradiction of the falsehoods propagated about the history of race relations in New Zealand can be found in the daily lives of ordinary people: in the high rate of inter-marriage between Maori and Pakeha and by decades of warm, close relationships between the two races in the workplace and on the sports ground, all of which would have been unthinkable in other mixed-race countries.

Sometimes these truths are brought home to us in small ways. My local community paper regularly publishes an old photo that someone has brought in, and it recently featured a picture of the team that won a local rugby competition in 1953.

Most of the faces are Pakeha, but there are three Maori in the team – and they happen to include the captain and vice-captain. This, in a provincial town that the left-wing guilt-mongers would doubtless characterise, in their simplistic way, as “redneck”.
* * *
DIEHARD leftie trade unionist Matt McCarten recently took a poke at Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly for criticising the junior doctors’ strike.

“There is a sacred principle among trade unionists: when a group of workers is on strike you support them to the hilt,” McCarten wrote. “To side with the boss is the most serious of all crimes.”

This anachronistic, class-warfare mentality may help explain why unions are still struggling to rebuild their membership despite Labour’s repeal of the Employment Contracts Act eight years ago.

Many New Zealanders still have sharp memories of the 1960s and 70s, when union militants inflicted huge damage with precious little regard for their fellow citizens.

The attitude that the union must be supported, right or wrong, represents all that is worst about old-school union mindsets. It allowed union bullies to impose their will on compliant or intimidated memberships and to isolate and ostracise anyone who dared to dissent.

Fortunately McCarten’s dinosaur ideology is not representative of the union movement at large, whose leaders these days are more enlightened.

Sport fascinates me. Not in the way it fascinates many New Zealand males (I don’t spend my weekends glued to Sky Sport), but more for the important place it occupies in our culture. And what’s been particularly fascinating in recent years is the way that has changed.

I grew up with the notion that sport was largely about parochialism and local pride. The hometown team played against teams from other localities and fans turned out to support “their” side. It was inextricably bound up with local identity.

This strong sense of geographical allegiance explains why, as a teenager with no particular interest in rugby, I was still proud of the my home province's dominance of Ranfurly Shield rugby during the late 1960s and considered it a thrill to watch Kel Tremain and his teammates repel a challenge from Southland at McLean Park, Napier.

Parochialism still drives team sport at local level and can be very intense. In the provincial town where I live, you can’t find a parking space anywhere near the rugby ground on the day of the local club competition final.

But at the national and international levels, sport has been transformed. It is now a branch of show business, with the emphasis on the “business”. Money and professionalism have moved top-level rugby and cricket into a realm far removed from the traditional New Zealand model.

Players now follow the money. In Super 14 rugby, and increasingly in the domestic provincial championship too, the market rules.

Mobility is the name of the game off the field as much as on. Players chase contracts wherever there’s an open chequebook and an opportunity to step up onto the next rung. And so you get anomalies like Ali Williams, long an Auckland stalwart, turning out for the Canterbury Crusaders. Or Rico Gear, originally from Poverty Bay, flitting from Auckland to Bay of Plenty to North Harbour to Nelson Bays/Tasman before washing up at Canterbury.

Regional loyalties seem to count for little. The same is now also true in top-level netball, where Irene Van Dyk, for example, has made her home in Wellington but since 2003 has played for the Hamilton-based Magic.

In cricket, wealthy Indian clubs compete for the services of Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans keen to sell their skills to the highest bidder.

Inevitably, the lure of big money in the professional arena is exerting its baleful influence on the All Blacks. Pride in the black jersey is not always strong enough to offset the temptation of a lucrative contract in the Northern Hemisphere. The result is a steady procession of All Blacks through airport departure lounges, and the recent spectacle of the Rugby Union scrambling to devise contractual arrangements that will allow Dan Carter to earn prodigious sums in France without jeopardising his All Black status.

Equally inevitably, the Ranfurly Shield – the symbol of an era in which provincial pride was everything – is losing ground, crowded out of the rugby calendar by competitions that offer more attractive commercial rewards.

All this seems to undermine what I have always considered to be the fundamental dynamic of sport. If geographical allegiance has traditionally been the key factor underpinning support for teams, why should crowds turn out to cheer for a side consisting largely of outsiders – hired guns, in effect? As a friend of mine says, “It’s hard to support a team that’s full of imports.”

(Oddly enough, “English” football teams such as Liverpool and Chelsea still command fanatical hometown support despite having far more foreign players than locals. I can only attribute this to English eccentricity, which defies rational explanation. Even more baffling is why some tragic New Zealanders are passionate followers of English teams despite having no parochial connections to them, but that’s another story.)

The other consequence of the intrusion of big money into sport is that a widening gulf has opened up between amateur and professional.

When not required for the national side, All Black greats used to turn out on Saturdays for their clubs. This had the double benefit of inspiring their teammates and attracting spectators, including kids eager to see their idols close up. But this great egalitarian tradition of New Zealand rugby has all but been destroyed by the All Blacks’ relentless professional commitments, which in turn are driven by the demands of sponsors and broadcasters determined to maximise the return from their investments.

Wellington sports journalist Joseph Romanos recently wrote about the marked decline in the number of secondary school boys playing rugby and suggested that the game’s supply line was slowly being shut off. College rugby, he said, was struggling desperately.

He put forward several possible reasons, including kids being intimidated by much bigger opponents and the lure of alternative codes such as soccer. On a more general level, people have simply been over-exposed to rugby as the season – again driven by commercial imperatives – has steadily expanded to take up much of the year.

Whatever the reasons, the dwindling popularity of rugby at school level raises the question of whether rugby is in danger of becoming primarily a spectator sport, played by a remote professional elite, rather one than one of mass grassroots participation. Such seems to have been the fate of American football, and closer to home, Australian Rules.

For the timebeing, club rugby still seems to command a strong following. But with provincial unions floundering financially and the national rugby body seemingly more focused on the international professional game than its domestic grassroots, one wonders how long that will continue.

Even a firm believer in the virtues of capitalism, as I am, can see there are other values besides the financial ones that now seem to rule rugby. And even someone who only ever wore a rugby jersey reluctantly, as I did in my school days, can still value the game as a defining aspect of our national culture and identity, and regret its debasement.