Sunday 16 June 2019

Declan Lynch: RTE drops the ball when it comes to sports coverage

Errors of fact, style and judgement reveal RTE's struggle to respect 'The Truth', writes Declan Lynch

The longest career in sports broadcasting in the world will end next Sunday on RTE radio, when Sean Og O Ceallachain reads out the day's GAA results for the last time. To be doing anything involving names and numbers at the age of 88 is an achievement in itself, and to be doing it in public is even more remarkable.

In a business seething with twisted rivalries and warped ambitions, perhaps Sean Og was lucky that his obscure late-night slot was not perceived by young bucks as a suitable platform from which to launch their RTE careers. And he is probably the only sports journalist in Irish history who has been entirely sober every Sunday night for the last 63 years.

But there is perhaps another reason for the sense of continuity which has prevailed here. There is a certain solemnity in the reading of the day's sports results, a fact recognised most famously by the BBC, which turned the reading of the football results on Saturdays into a national ritual of some profundity, with the same voice rising and falling in those deeply familiar rhythms -- "Brighton and Hove Albion 3, Swindon Town 2."

Like the Shipping Forecast, it seems to suggest that there is some information out there on which we can depend, this one thing at least, at the end of the day, that we know to be true.

Weirdly, you could listen to Sean Og reading out results in which you had no interest whatsoever, and still feel vaguely reassured, knowing that somehow The Truth was being served -- "Cooley Kickhams 2-14, Stabannon Parnells 1-17. A draw."

How right they were, those old-timers, to have such reverence for the day's scorelines, to realise that this was a holy thing. And how RTE is struggling to maintain its commitment to these eternal verities.

So many times, as they go about their daily banter, you will hear RTE presenters making these errors that are so revealing -- errors of fact, errors of judgement and errors of style.

An overnight snooker score which omits a whole session will be read out by a presenter who is apparently incapable, or who just couldn't be arsed checking it out on the BBC website. And last week, snooker's Judd Trump became Judge Trump.

An hour after the Cheltenham Gold Cup, a presenter will be unable to remember the name of the winner. The tennis player De Potro will be pronounced Del Porto, revealing that someone out there is not familiar with the winner of the 2009 US Open. And it took an awful long time for the golfer Villegas to be pronounced Vi-jay-gas, rather than Villy-gas, on RTE.

It is not just the confidence of the listener which is being damaged -- not to mention his betting dockets being torn up by mistake, and him committing suicide -- seemingly the organisation itself was having a nervous breakdown last year when the results of the day's Premier League matches were being read out, and the presenter felt that it needed a little bit extra. So when a match ended in a draw, he would read out the result, and then declare it "a draw".

For example: "Fulham 2, Bolton Wanderers 2.... A draw."

As we know, this can be an invaluable service in Gaelic matches, where a goal is three points, and you sometimes need a quick calculation to establish if it was, indeed, a draw. You never need that in football.

Friends of mine find it hard to believe me when I tell them this. They find it incomprehensible that there is someone in the RTE sports department who feels that the listeners need to know that a football match in which both teams score the same number of goals is a draw.

Eventually my friends agree that I simply couldn't make it up, that such a thing could never have entered anyone's head unless they had actually heard it on the radio.

Yet it is probably the errors of style that are most dispiriting, the lame banter which reached its nadir recently when a presenter regaled the Morning Ireland crew with the "hilarious" explanation of what the term "having a Macedonia" means to the Republic of Ireland players, more than 12 years after this term was coined -- 12 years, and he was still rolling it out as if 'twere newly minted -- oh, the serenity of a job for life.

Perhaps we just didn't notice these things until we got three hours every night of Newstalk's Off The Ball, with its obsessional pursuit of The Truth, and the actually funny repartee of its main presenters Eoin McDevitt, Ken Early, and Ciaran Murphy.

You get the impression that RTE is aware of Off The Ball, but that it doesn't understand how it works. RTE thinks it's all about the lads being "blokey", it's all about the repartee. And of course there is a lot of riffing, but it is being informed at all times by a high level of intelligence, on the part of men who have read good books.

Style, as Wilde would tell us, is all a matter of substance.

And now we have the classified check: Off The Ball 5, RTE 0.

Sunday Independent

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