A child lies, causing an international incident and providing a cautionary tale about suspending scepticism in this interconnected age.
This past weekend, the French national rugby team played a second test match against the New Zealand All Blacks in Wellington. In the early hours of the following morning, Mathieu Bastareaud, a 20-year-old centre for the French team, was attacked from behind by five men as he headed back to the team hotel. Only one small problem: Bastareaud was lying.
The Rugby World Cup will be held in New Zealand in only a couple of years, and the suggestion of danger could be incredibly damaging as people decide whether to come to New Zealand or not. More broadly, the incident damaged New Zealand’s international reputation as a safe destination, and slandered Wellington specifically.
Bastareaud only admitted he lied after persistence from the New Zealand Police who found that there was no evidence to back his claim. In fact, hotel security camera footage showed him entering the hotel uninjured. The NZ Police threatened to release the footage, and then—finally— Bastareaud confessed, after wasting countless hours of police time investigating a crime that never happened.
Bastareaud admitted that he was drunk, fell down and hit his head. That much we know for certain. However, the French team whisked him out of the country immediately and refused to push for prosecution, which seemed awfully suspicious. Now we know why they did it: The most likely reason is that they were covering up Bastareaud’s lie.
French rugby and Bastareaud have sort of apologised, but I suspect that the attitude of Max Guazzini, the president of Stade Francais, is more typical of French attitudes: "It was a youthful error."
Bastareaud’s lie smeared New Zealand’s reputation, and potentially damaged the country's tourism potential. To excuse it as a “youthful error” is not good enough. Bastareaud should be punished by French rugby, but French rugby itself should be punished for what seems like pretty obvious collusion, and they should reimburse New Zealand taxpayers for the money wasted investigating a non-existent crime. We won’t see any of that.
So, in the end, we’re left with the caution: No matter what the news story is, doubt it, be suspicious and—most important of all—don’t be quick to repeat a story as true until there’s some time to verify it. As the old journalism saying I’m too lazy to identify puts it, “if your mother says she loves you, check it out”. If only the media had followed that advice before reporting Bastareaud’s attack as if it was real, this sorry mess may never have happened.