Saturday, April 27, 2013

George Jones takes his final bow

George Jones, the country singer Gram Parsons called the king of broken hearts, has died, aged 81. He lived far longer than anyone could have expected, given his chaotic, self-destructive lifestyle. Anyone who thinks rock stars invented the drugs, sex and booze culture could commence their re-education by reading the New York Times obituary here: 
No-Show Jones, as he became known due to his notorious unreliability, recorded a lot of dire material, but no one ever sang a painful country ballad better. The most famous example was his 1980 comeback hit He Stopped Loving Her Today, a wondrously overwrought tearjerker from which he wrung every ounce of sentiment.

My other personal favourite comes from his 1994 album The Bradley Barn Sessions, on which Jones performed with a stellar lineup of country and rock luminaries, among them Keith Richards and Mark Knopfler. On the track Where Grass Won’t Grow, he was joined by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Trisha Yearwood. If you’re not into country music (and we have to accept that many people just don’t get it), you could easily dismiss this song as pure hokum. I would never waste my time playing it for some of my friends, who, for all their virtues, are musical bigots.  But I think it’s just magnificent.
If God's a country music lover, as I'm sure He is, he'll be waiting to welcome Jones at the Pearly Gates. The question is, will he turn up?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Not an easy woman to like

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 24.)
LIKE a lot of people, I’ve been thinking lately about Margaret Thatcher. My feelings about her are, to use a fashionable term, conflicted.
The best way I can explain it is to say that it was possible to respect what she achieved without actually liking her.

Mrs Thatcher was imperious. She gave the impression of never harbouring a moment’s self-doubt.
She professed to love nothing more than a good argument, but you got the impression that she had little patience for anyone expressing a contrary opinion. I suspect she enjoyed arguments only if she won them – which she usually did, through sheer force of will and an overwhelming sense of her own rightness.

Like another revered British leader, Winston Churchill, she sometimes gave the impression of being largely indifferent to the human consequences of her policies.
She focused unwaveringly on the end goal, and if there were casualties along the way … well, that was the price to be paid for getting things done.

These are not qualities that necessarily engender feelings of warmth and affection, but it was exactly these characteristics that made her such a formidable prime minister.
She seemed immune to the uncertainties that would assail most politicians pursuing controversial and unpopular policies. Perhaps she just lacked natural empathy, but I think it’s more likely she trained herself to be steely and unyielding because she knew that was what the job demanded, and that any sign of sensitivity or frailty could be politically fatal.

Those who worked with her said she did, in fact, have a human, compassionate side that was rarely glimpsed by the public.
Like Churchill, Mrs Thatcher came along when her country most needed her.

Britain had emerged from World War II nominally a victor, but sapped of energy and spirit. It was as though all the effort expended in defeating Nazi Germany had left it exhausted.
Three decades of steady decline followed. Britain’s empire disintegrated and its industries could no longer compete. Nationalisation of failing companies – many of them terminally weakened by militant unionism – served only to delay their inevitable demise, at the taxpayers’ expense. Strikes and industrial unrest became known as the “British disease”.

Under both Tory and Labour governments, the dead hand of the state assumed an ever larger role in the economy, with stultifying consequences. Despite occasional entertaining distractions (the Mini, the Beatles, Swinging London), the trajectory was remorselessly downwards.
Britain reached its nadir in the 1970s. Inflation was rampant and strikes were constant; garbage piled up in the streets and power blackouts made life intolerable. At one point Britain was reduced to a three-day working week because of electricity shortages caused by coal miners’ strikes. The advent of punk music in 1976 – angry and anarchic – seemed a perfect symbol of the times. 

It all culminated in the Winter of Discontent in 1979, so named because a wave of strikes coincided with the coldest winter in 16 years. Even gravediggers refused to work, causing corpses to be piled up in a disused factory. 
That was the setting in which Mrs Thatcher came to power. Rarely has any Western leader in peacetime had a better excuse for taking decisive action. And she made the most of the opportunity, instigating a programme of radical economic reform that included deregulation, privatisation of state-owned industries and emasculation of a union movement that had become intoxicated with power.

Many of the protesters who danced in the streets on hearing of her death weren’t even born when all this happened. Their warped understanding of the period probably comes from the many films that portray Thatcherism as a vicious attack on the working class.
Even now, among left-wing film directors and scriptwriters of a certain age, Thatcherism remains a burning pre-occupation. But I shudder to think how Britain might have turned out had it surrendered to the ugly class hatred propounded by union bullies such as the coal miners’ leader Arthur Scargill (who, incidentally, is still fighting the class war as leader of the breakaway Socialist Labour Party).

It’s true that the jury is still out on aspects of Mrs Thatcher’s prime ministership. In the industrial north of England, communities remain bitter about the impact of mine closures and other consequences of her policies. Debate about the efficacy of her economic reforms, and in particular their effect on income disparity, still rages.
But it’s unarguable that she transformed Britain and restored British pride. The vibrant, dynamic Thatcherite Britain where I spent three months in 1985 was far removed from the wretched, demoralised nation of the late 1970s.

It’s equally unarguable that the dire situation Mrs Thatcher inherited in 1979 required emphatic action. Britain was on its knees. Many of the industries that closed down on her watch were dinosaurs already, condemned to extinction by a combination of weak management and suicidal union militancy.
Perhaps her master stroke, politically, was going to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982.  Whatever the British people felt about her economic policies, bloodying the noses of the Argies – and thereby restoring, however briefly, a sense of Britain’s faded military glory – elevated Mrs Thatcher to the status of a warrior queen in the tradition of Boadicea.

New Zealand supported Britain in that military adventure by sending two frigates to the Indian Ocean, thus freeing up British warships to help in the Falklands. But whatever gratitude Mrs Thatcher may have felt for that gesture quickly evaporated after David Lange replaced Rob Muldoon as prime minister in 1984 and New Zealand embarked on its nuclear-free policy.
It seemed she considered New Zealand a valued ally as long as it dutifully did whatever was in Britain’s interests, but woe betide us if we had the impertinence to pursue a foreign policy of our own choosing.

Her disapproval of our independent nuclear stance was made clear by her refusal to sanction criticism of the French for blowing up the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour.  That was not only a classic piece of Thatcher imperiousness – she probably thought the French were right to put us in our place, upstarts that we were – but demonstrated a very selective morality.
A similar moral blind spot was evident in her friendship with the murderous Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet, who ingratiated himself with Mrs Thatcher by giving Britain clandestine support against Argentina.

As I say, not an easy woman to like. But it’s hard to argue with her accomplishments, and she certainly deserved better than to have vengeful, embittered losers metaphorically dancing on her grave.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Buffoon of the week

Maurice Williamson is being lionised as some sort of international celebrity for his speech in Parliament in support of the same-sex marriage bill. He has become an improbable hero in the eyes of the media, which abandoned all semblance of professional impartiality on Louisa Wall’s legislation. (I say “improbable” because Williamson has been more whipping boy than poster boy for the media in the past. It’s just that on this occasion, his politics happened to align with those of most journalists.) But I see nothing to admire in Williamson’s grandstanding. On the contrary, I think it was a contemptible speech – contemptible because it mocked and ridiculed people who had merely exercised their right to express a view on the bill. That’s called democracy, a point apparently lost on the ego-tripping MP for Pakuranga. Democracy confers the right to hold unpopular, silly and even offensive views without being smugly derided and held up to contempt in Parliament. Others may regard Williamson as a hero, but he confirmed my impression that he’s a clown and a buffoon – and worse, a clown and a buffoon with no regard for the right of constituents to freely communicate their honestly held opinions to their elected representatives. And while he may boast of having a degree in physics, I’m curious to know how anyone could get to the age of 62 without learning how to pronounce the word celibacy. Thank God ministerial rules prevented him from accepting Ellen DeGeneres’ invitation to appear on her TV show. I shudder to think of the harm that might have been done to New Zealand’s reputation.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A roomful of teddy bears could hardly do worse

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 19.)

WELLINGTON could save itself a truckload of money by getting rid of its mayor and 14 councillors and replacing them with teddy bears.
Would the quality of governance be affected? Not a jot. The council bureaucrats would continue to run things just as they do now.

The people’s elected representatives are obviously not in control at the Town Hall and it’s an elaborate charade to pretend that they are. That’s clear from the fact that councillors had no idea 150 infrastructure jobs were being outsourced.
Even more comically, council functionaries didn’t bother to inform the mayor that they were proposing to spend $350,000 tarting up a temporary office for her. That shows how much regard the bureaucrats have for their elected overseers.

It’s all eerily reminiscent of an article published in The Dominion more than 20 years ago, in which an investigative reporter named Al Morrison – now better known as the director-general of the Department of Conservation – exposed the existence of a brotherhood of senior council officials known as the Order of the Rabbit.
Their purpose was to keep councillors in their proper place – in other words, in the dark. Those aspiring to join the said order had to swear they would maintain a tradition of regarding all councillors as “a pack of bastards”.

In this respect, Wellington is hardly unique. In local government, real power often resides with the managers. But in Wellington’s case, it’s a lot more obvious than usual.
Hence my suggestion that the council abandon the fa├žade of participatory democracy and replace the councillors with stuffed toys. Meetings would be over faster, the bickering and point-scoring would cease, ratepayers would be saved more than $1.3 million a year – which is what they pay the mayor and councillors – and council officials would be free to get on unhindered with what they do anyway, which is running the show.

It would have the added benefit that most of those around the council table would be better looking.
* * *

ON A LESS flippant note, perhaps local government could learn something from the United States Constitution.

No one can serve more than two terms as US president. A similar rule in local government would clear out a lot of dead wood.
Under the present system, people can keep winning re-election ad infinitum. Councils become self-perpetuating, if often highly fractious, oligarchies.

The more often a councillor is elected, the more likely he or she will be elected again next time – not necessarily because they have done their job well, but because voters recognise their names on the ballot paper. 
The cunning ones soon learn the tricks of political longevity: they turn up at the right functions, make sure they’re prominent in the media and take a populist position on controversial issues. This can be more rewarding than hard graft behind the scenes.

In Wellington’s case, Helene Ritchie is the standout survivor, having first been elected in 1977. Other long-serving councillors are Andy Foster (1992), the mayor, Celia Wade-Brown (1994), Stephanie Cook (1995), Bryan Pepperell (1996), John Morrison and Leonie Gill (both 1998), and Ray Ahipene-Mercer (2000).
Admittedly, it can be useful to have councillors who have been around a while and know the ropes. Besides, some long-serving councillors are conscientious and hard-working. But there are others you couldn’t trust to feed your cat.

The trouble is, voters often can’t tell which is which.
Wellington is a dynamic, creative city that deserves a council to match. Unfortunately many of the incumbents give the impression of having run out of ideas and energy years ago and now merely keep their seats warm.

* * *

WHO WOULD have thought that animism, the belief that inanimate objects possess a living soul, could be taken seriously in a 21st century court of law in secular New Zealand? 
Such beliefs are generally associated with primitive tribes untouched by civilisation. Yet when a helicopter pilot appeared in the Timaru District Court charged with unlawfully hovering on the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook, the Department of Conservation told the court – in what was laughably called a “summary of facts” – that the mountain represented, to Ngai Tahu, “the most sacred of ancestors, from whom Ngai Tahu descend and who provide the iwi with its sense of communal identity, solidarity and purpose”.

Ngai Tahu are of course entitled to believe they are descended from a mountain, just as they are welcome to believe in Papatuanuku, the earth mother, and others in the pantheon of Maori mythology. And if the chopper pilot knowingly broke the law, he deserved to be pinged.
But isn’t it taking cultural sensitivity to the point of absurdity when a government department advances superstition as “fact” in a court of law? It invites ridicule.

Oddly enough, the people most likely to nod approvingly at such mumbo-jumbo are those who are most contemptuous of religion in any other form.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Music to cross the Rimutakas by

Driving home from Wellington to the Wairarapa a few days ago, I seized the opportunity to play a new CD I’d been looking forward to (thanks, Simon). Listening to music in the car isn’t ideal; even with a reasonably good stereo, road and wind noise can muddy the sound. But because there are no distractions (gosh, was that a logging truck that pulled over just then to avoid hitting me?), some of my most rewarding listening these days is done on the road. And albums don’t come much more rewarding than this.
It was the latest release by Melbourne-based New Zealand country singer and songwriter Donna Dean, who was mentioned in this blog last year. Tyre Tracks and Broken Hearts is not just a great New Zealand country album – that might be interpreted as damning it with faint praise – but a great country album, full stop. It was recorded in Dunedin but would be no less great if it had come out of Nashville, where it richly deserves to be noticed.

The album is a revelation not just for the quality of Dean’s vocals and songwriting, but also for the musicians she and producer John Egenes – a former American session musician, ex of Sante Fe but now in the music department at Otago University – gathered around them.
Many of these names were unfamiliar to me, but it turns out they’re veterans of the Otago music scene: people such as drummer Marcel Rodeka, once with the outrageous 1970s Dunedin band Mother Goose, and Dunedin folkies John Dodd (bass), Lynn Vare, Mike Moroney and Dave Coleclough (vocals) and Anna Bowen (fiddle). I use that term “folkies” merely as a label of convenience in this context, since their superb work on this album shows how blurred the line has become between folk and other genres such as country and bluegrass.

Egenes himself is a huge presence, contributing pedal steel guitar, mandolin, dobro and acoustic guitar. But the drop-dead names in the credits, listed so casually you’d think they were everyday fixtures on New Zealand albums, are those of Albert Lee, Amos Garrett, Redd Volkaert and Gurf Morlix, who laid down their instrumental tracks overseas.
Google these names if they mean nothing to you. Suffice it to say that British-born guitarist Lee was in Emmylou Harris’s fabled Hot Band, Garrett played one of the most memorable guitar solos in the history of pop music (that’s him on Maria Muldaur’s Midnight at the Oasis), Volkaert is a Grammy Award winner who played in Merle Haggard’s band and multi-instrumentalist Morlix has worked with the likes of Lucinda Williams.

Morlix was roped in by Egenes but Dean tells me she recruited the other musicians with the help of a friend in Germany, where she has toured. Another sublime instrumentalist on the album is English fiddler Jane Clark, whom Egenes had toured with (just listen to her exhilarating interplay with Lee and Egenes on the title track. Brilliant).
Needless to say, you don’t attract the attention of musicians like these without having something worthwhile to bring to the table. Dean is a masterful songwriter whose best work packs a real emotional punch; Twister, in which a girl asks her mother’s killer why he did it, is a song so wrenching it’s hard to believe it’s not autobiographical.

Dean is open about having led a tough life – drugs, rehab, a father in prison – and must have to reach deep inside herself to write songs like this. What makes the songs work so well is that their emotional pitch is perfectly complemented by her voice. It has a resigned, almost world-weary quality, as if she’s seen it all before.
Yet she never descends to slash-your-wrist despair. And though a thread of dark country gothic runs through her material (I wonder if she’s a fan of the Louvin Brothers, who never seemed happier than when singing about gruesome murders), there’s light as well as shade. How About Texas is a jaunty, uncomplicated piece of western swing; Banjo Mac is an affectionate tribute to her grandfather.  

It’s clear from her references to Krispy Kreme donuts, rattlesnakes and Chevy pickups that Dean has an eye on the US market (in Banjo Mac, her grandfather becomes granddaddy), but her songs never sound cringingly contrived. This is a superb album that neatly turns the cultural cringe on its head, forcing me to seriously question my long-held assumption that only Americans can write authentic country music.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Heaven protect us from self-righteous zealots

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 10.)

We tend to think of idealism as a good thing. Idealists want the best for the world and for humanity – or so we assume.
Who could possibly object to idealism, then?

Yet idealism can be perverted. It can morph into zealotry and fanaticism. People can become so convinced of the correctness of their ideals that they feel able to justify almost any action aimed at fulfilling them.
The first step is to convince oneself that it’s legitimate, indeed necessary, to impose one’s ideals on others, whether they want them or not, on the basis that it’s for their own good.

That leads to the proposition that the end justifies the means – in other words, that any action is permissible as long as something desirable is accomplished at the end of it all. Once that principle is accepted, almost anything becomes excusable.
Left-wing political parties are particularly prone to idealistic zeal because they are often driven, at least initially, by visions of a perfect world. In their determination to impose that perfection, leftist regimes often end up filling prisons with contrary individuals who insist on exercising their own free will.

Right-wing autocrats, on the other hand, are usually motivated by nothing more than good old-fashioned greed and lust for power.
It's possible that even Joseph Stalin started out as an idealist, with a vision of a better existence for the oppressed, starving Russian peasantry, yet millions died under his rule. The Soviet empire that he extended by force through Eastern Europe became synonymous with repression and tyranny.  All this was justified by the grotesque fiction that he was liberating the proletariat.

Idealism can also produce hideous, unforeseen consequences. Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s was intended to transform the Chinese economy – an idealistic goal – but ended in catastrophe, with tens of millions dead because of grain shortages.
Obviously these are extreme cases of idealism gone wrong, but we don’t have to look far for examples of how idealists can start out with admirable motives and end up as self-righteous zealots, blind to the rights of others.

I was reminded of this recently when I listened to a Radio New Zealand Spectrum documentary about the three peace activists who broke into the Waihopai spy base near Blenheim in 2010 and caused damage that the government said cost $1.2 million to repair – money that came out of taxpayers’ pockets.
I’m not suggesting that the Waihopai Three were Stalins or Maos in the making. We must assume they were motivated by a sincere desire for peace. But they were so convinced of the rightness of their cause, so consumed by unshakeable moral conviction, that they considered themselves above the law. At this point, idealism becomes zealotry.

If enough New Zealanders were sufficiently concerned about the Waihopai base, they could have demanded that the government get rid of it. But it hasn’t happened, probably because New Zealanders rationalise that an electronic spying network operated by an alliance of democratic Western governments is more likely to thwart evil than to promote it.
But the Waihopai Three and their narrow circle of supporters convinced themselves that they knew better than, and were morally superior to, their fellow citizens. Their self-righteousness trumped respect for democracy.

Incidentally, the Spectrum documentary (the sympathetic tone of which did nothing to dispel concern about the political leanings of some Radio New Zealand journalists) revealed the Waihopai zealots to be comically incompetent saboteurs.
A crucial cellphone message was never received because one of the three didn’t know what a text message was. Then the saboteurs’ truck slid on a muddy track and ended up on its side in a vineyard – so they were lousy drivers as well – and someone got lost in the darkness on a bike.

They were comically paranoid, too, imagining themselves being shadowed at every turn by agents of the state. They thought they were being spied on when they saw a man in Picton wearing an earphone and appearing to speak into his sleeve – no doubt some entirely innocent citizen using a hands-free phone – and freaked out when they happened to read a letter to the editor of the Marlborough Express inquiring about black SUVs being driven around Blenheim.
No doubt the three attributed the fact that they ultimately succeeded in their mission, despite all their blunders, as a sign that God approved. Zealots are rarely troubled by self-doubt.

The documentary concluded with a line about a magnificent rainbow that appeared as the saboteurs contemplated the results of their vandalism. Listeners were informed that this was “a sure sign that they were doing the right thing”. So it wasn’t only God who approved; the Radio New Zealand reporter did too.
For my part, I’m more likely to ask God to protect us from those who think they know what’s best for us.

The same fundamental impulse that motivated the Waihopai Three – namely, the desire for a better world – also seems to be behind the promotion of a new test that will enable pregnant women to determine whether their baby has Down Syndrome.
Unlike the established amniocentesis procedure, the new test is non-invasive. If it’s widely adopted, as the test’s backers hope, the almost inevitable outcome is that more women will choose to have an abortion.

Proponents of the test are doubtless driven by the conviction that they are doing the right thing. It’s that vision of the perfect society again; in this case, one where no one will have to suffer the inconvenience of bringing an imperfect human being into the world.
But virtually everyone with first-hand experience of people with Down Syndrome says they enjoy life to the full and enrich the lives of those around them. Wellington’s Dominion Post recently published a charming photo of three young people with Down Syndrome – one a skier, another a swimmer and the third a dancer – joyfully celebrating after being presented with national achievement awards by governor-general Sir Jerry Mateparae.

If the pregnancy test now being promoted had existed 30 years ago, these three might not have survived the womb. Is this another case, and a particularly chilling one, of misguided idealism producing a grotesquely anti-human outcome?



Monday, April 8, 2013

How two highly educated men miss the point - or do they?

In a Daily Blog commentary attacking my recent column on Radio New Zealand, Chris Trotter portrays me as wanting the state broadcaster to fall into line with the "ideological reality" (whatever that may mean) of John Key's government.

This is a grotesque distortion of what I wrote, and I suspect that Chris knows it. He's too intelligent to have misunderstood me.

He takes me to task over my statement that it's an abuse of power to use a taxpayer-funded medium to promote pet ideological causes and suggests that my real agenda is to promote a pet ideological cause of my own - namely neo-liberalism.

"Not for him [meaning me] the healthy contest of ideas or the testing questioning of a critical intelligence," Chris writes. "No. To Mr du Fresne, Kim Hill, Chris Laidlaw, Jeremy Rose and (Lord spare us) Kathryn Ryan, are voices without legitimacy: wilful heretics who dare to challenge the majesty of neoliberal thought."

For starters, I don't consider myself a neoliberal. I'm distrustful of all ideology, whether of the Right or the Left.

But the real point here is that I've never opposed the healthy contest of ideas. On the contrary, that's exactly what I've promoted repeatedly over the past 20 years or more. It's at the very heart of what I'm saying.

My objection to the Radio New Zealand programmes I cited is that there is no healthy contest of ideas. Most consist of the hosts conducting friendly interviews with people they agree with - or, as in the case of the comically misnamed Treaty "debates" which RNZ recently broadcast, a succession of speakers agreeing with each other. This is the antithesis of the "contest of ideas" that Chris purports to champion.

On the rare occasions when a conservative guest is featured, as in the case of John Howard, the purpose is to try to demolish them.

All I have ever asked for is balance, which the Radio New Zealand charter requires anyway - a point that Chris conveniently sidesteps. I've never argued that left-wing voices should be silenced; merely that the other side should get a fair shake of the stick too.

Neither do I want Radio New Zealand to promote a neoliberal agenda. It's not the role of a state-owned broadcaster to take any political position. What it should do is make an effort to broadcast programmes that reflect the opinions and ideas of all New Zealanders, not just those the hosts and producers happen to favour. 

But Chris isn't the only person to wilfully misconstrue what I wrote. On TV3's The Nation at the weekend, Brian Edwards claimed that what I really wanted from Radio New Zealand interviewers was deference.

This couldn't be more wrong, and he must know it. In my comments about Kathryn Ryan I wrote that the professional obligation of impartiality did not preclude hard and vigorous questioning. Two paragraphs further on, I said: "I’m not suggesting for a moment that RNZ should become a tame government puppet. That would be far worse than the status quo." Which part of this did he not understand?

Only Brian would have the gall, having so flagrantly misrepresented what I had written, to then accuse me of bad journalism.

One last point: when it comes to determining whether a broadcaster is impartial, I'm happy to stack my credentials up against those of Chris and Brian any day. They, not I, are the ones whose judgment is fatally compromised by their political affiliations.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Enough soap opera; let's get back to the sport

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 5.)
THE SCRIPTWRITERS for the daily soap opera that masquerades as sport have been busy again this past couple of weeks. Here are a few plot summaries:

Former All Black Jerry Collins spent several days in a Japanese police cell for illegally carrying a knife.  His agent explained that Collins’ relationship with a woman had led to threats from a Brazilian gang. Pure soap – and what an inspired choice to introduce an element of exotic menace by making the gang Latin American.

Then there was cricketer Ronnie Hira, a member of the Canterbury Wizards, who was sent to the naughty corner for not singing the team’s victory song – clearly an offence of the utmost gravity in a sport that demands unquestioning compliance with infantile bonding rituals.

Meanwhile, Australian rugby player Kurtley Beale was sent home in disgrace from South Africa and will seek counselling, a profession much in demand by sports show-ponies, after punching his captain and another team mate. A penitent Beale, showing an admirable command of 21st century psycho-babble, said he sometimes made “bad choices”. It seems grown men don’t behave like petulant four-year-olds; they simply make bad choices.

In rugby league, former Canberra Raiders star Josh Dugan was accused of “inappropriate behaviour” – another way of saying he made bad choices – after engaging in a profane tirade against a Raiders fan on a social media website. Such forums offer endless opportunities for sports stars to make fools of themselves, enabling them to indulge in impulsive, sub-literate rants that are immediately picked up and plastered over the sports pages.

There was a Twitter-driven uproar in cycling, too, when Slovakian rider Peter Sagan pinched the bottom of a “podium girl”. Personally I find it more offensive that sports promoters still insist on having winners kissed by mini-skirted young women, a tradition that deserved to die decades ago.

Then there was the biggest sports soap opera of them all. Tiger Woods, we’re told, has found love again, this time with Olympic champion downhill skier Lindsey Vonn (she’s blonde, of course). Vonn told the Denver Post that she’s very happy. Now where have we heard that line before?

You have to hand it to those scriptwriters. Day after day, they come up with compelling new plotlines. It’s a dull day when the sports pages are filled with nothing but sport.

They overstepped the mark, though, with Jesse Ryder. The life-endangering assault on him showed these things can get seriously out of hand.

The public appetite for stories about flawed sporting heroes makes celebrities of people like Ryder. That puts them at risk – the more so if they lack the instinct to avoid potentially troublesome situations. Inevitably they attract the attention of feral men who want to prove themselves by giving the bash to someone famous.

Perhaps the vicious assault on Ryder is a timely warning to dial back the soap opera and focus on the sport.

* * *
WHAT IS IT about the parliamentary press gallery’s love affair with Labour MP Shane Jones?

His recent return to the parliamentary front benches was treated as a comeback of messianic proportions. He’s routinely referred to as one of Labour’s most capable MPs. Even National-aligned blogger David Farrar describes him as incredibly talented, though adding that he’s “notoriously lazy and sloppy”.

But these are insiders’ views. Outside the hothouse that is parliament, Mr Jones is chiefly known for two things: spending taxpayers’ money on pornographic films and arousing suspicion over his handling of a citizenship application from a wealthy Chinese entrepreneur.

These are hardly like to commend him to the public. I can only conclude that the press gallery has been seduced by what Tracy Watkins, the Dominion Post’s political editor, describes as Mr Jones’  charm and self-deprecating wit.

* * *

IS IT JUST me, or is the fuss over supposed breaches of privacy getting a bit hysterical?

Night after night, I watch breathless TV news items in vain for evidence of anyone having been seriously disadvantaged or put at risk. All I see is a lot of contrived outrage over vague allegations that people’s rights have been abused in some undefined, unquantified way. Exactly what harm has been done, if any, is never explained.

On One News, a Dunedin woman was interviewed with her face melodramatically hidden, as if she were in imminent danger of being murdered by Mexican drug traffickers.

Good grief. All that had happened was that she received a letter from the Ministry of Health that was intended for someone else. No intimate personal details had been disclosed but nonetheless she told the reporter she was “very shocked” – was she coached to say that? – and “didn’t know what to do”.

Granted, government agencies need to be more careful about protecting information. But I can think of far more serious issues to huff and puff about.