independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Silence says it all for gaels of Donegal

Board's attempts to censor local media could undo good work of recent years

Michael Murphy lifts the Donegal SFC trophy

In the late 1970s, I spent a few years as delegate to the Galway Football Board for my club, Kilkerrin-Clonberne. I was working in the 'Tuam Herald' at the time, so there were occasions when conflicts of interest arose.

As with all committees, not everything that went on was for public consumption and, from time to time when a sensitive issue was being discussed, someone would remark: "I hope you won't be writing this for the Herald."

It was always said in a good-humoured way but the message was clear -- you are here as a club delegate, not as a journalist. I took the hint and never wrote a line about the discussions. Funnily enough, RTE's Michael Lyster, then a colleague of mine at the paper, always seemed to have plenty of information about the meetings.

But then he had his sources, one of whom sat alongside him every day! Besides, nobody ever asked me not to talk about meetings, rather not to write about them. Conflict of interest solved, to my satisfaction at least.

I'm sure glad I wasn't dealing with the current Donegal County Board, whose approach to media coverage of its affairs is, shall we say, somewhat hardline.

It resulted in the unusual situation where last Sunday's county convention was boycotted by local media after they were told that parts of discussion could be declared 'in camera.' Not only that, but it had a retrospective clause. In effect, a ruling could be made at the end of a discussion, preventing it from being reported.

It gave the board chairman the power to decide on what the media could cover and double-locked the gag by applying the retrospective option.

It meant that the board, not the media, would decide on what the Donegal public should hear about the convention. Obviously, that led to fears among the media that only good news would be allowed into the public arena.

The board has applied similar restrictions to their ordinary meetings since the summer after the media reported on a rather fractious exchange between Jim McGuinness and fixture-makers in May.

McGuinness complained that the club schedule, as outlined, was making things awkward for the county squad in their bid to retain the All-Ireland title. Once the 'retrospective in-camera' regulation was introduced, the media stayed away from subsequent meetings.

The board insisted last week that the county convention was "a private meeting". It also stated that it "reserves the right to extend an invitation to the press only if it so desires."

What in the name of all that's sane and sensible are they at? Every other county allows full access to their conventions. So do provincial councils, while the GAA's annual Congress is attended by dozens of journalists.

Despite that, Donegal introduced such restricted access to their convention that the media quite rightly went elsewhere. This comes two months after Michael Murphy, a man who has done so much for Donegal football, found himself in a ridiculous club-versus-country bind.

Greatly honoured to be appointed captain of the Irish International Rules team, he had to dash from the dressing-room immediately after the first game against Australia in Cavan on a Saturday night to return to Donegal to prepare for the county final on the following afternoon.

Donegal were eliminated from the All-Ireland race on the first weekend in August, by which stage they were down to the quarter-finals in their senior club programme, yet they played no more championship games until mid-September. Why the long delay, which eventually left Murphy in such a difficult position?

This time last year, Donegal were basking in the gorgeous glow of All-Ireland success. 'Jimmy's Winning Matches' was the county's theme song; outsiders were wondering if Donegal's style would set the agenda for some years and the entire county was feeling so good about itself that it could have exported contentment.

A year on, Donegal have dropped down the rankings after a season in which McGuinness felt he didn't get anything like the level of backing required for the two-in-a-row drive; there's dissatisfaction over the proposed club fixture programme for next year and the board are telling the local media that access to meetings will only be allowed if they accept gagging orders, which can be announced retrospectively.

It's truly bizarre. In an age when sponsorships are vital, it's scarcely a wise policy for a board to be in conflict with the media, who could retaliate by refusing to use sponsors' names. How would that go down with the business community that supports the teams?

A lot of good work is going on in Donegal. Their financial affairs are sound and their development programme is progressing well but right now their PR stock is dangerously low.

The board may not give a hoot what the media -- local or national -- think but for the sake of football in the county they should not become too entrenched in their own righteousness.

It seems like a good time to invest in some common sense and maybe even a little humility.

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