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Declan Lynch: The little mistakes are no small matter

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ONE Saturday evening, maybe a year ago, I was listening to the day's football results being read out on RTE radio, when I heard something I have never heard before. A few of the matches had ended in draws, so the announcer would give the score -- say, Bolton 2, Arsenal 2 -- and then he would add: "a draw".

It is a formula that we know well from the GAA scores, where it can be helpful to confirm to the listener that Antrim 3-18; Down 1-24, is indeed a draw.

But, of course, it is never needed in football. So I found it hard to believe what I was hearing, and indeed anyone to whom I have spoken about this finds it equally hard to believe. To which I can only say that it must have happened, because otherwise it simply could never have entered my head.

And if I were John Horgan or one of the many investigators brought in to figure out how something could go horribly wrong in RTE, I think I might start right there. Indeed, first, I would probably get rid of all the other investigators, for not starting right there.

Because this was more than just another of the errors of fact and errors of style which have come to define that part of the organisation, it suggested that we were witnessing some sort of an institutional nervous breakdown -- for example, an investigation might find that some senior editor was so maddened by all the mistakes that week, he scrawled "A Draw" beside the appropriate results in a desperate effort to concentrate the mind of the

announcer, who proceeded to read out "a draw" as if it was part of the service.

Or maybe -- and this is almost too disturbing to contemplate -- maybe somewhere in RTE there is a person who doesn't know that when two football teams score the same number of goals in a game, it goes without saying that that is "a draw".

And if such a person or persons do indeed exist out there, well then, anything is possible.

And what about this one? A "fun" piece on the Six One news about Ireland's Compromise Rules team in Australia showed the players larking around on the beach. And the music which accompanied this was the Beach Boys' Surfin' USA.

Again, you would need a trained investigator, with a proper distance from the culture of RTE, to look deep into the eyes of the person who chose that music, and to say to him or to her: "Why?"

Clearly on a superficial level, Surfin' USA is the cliche, and on a busy news programme with tight deadlines, understandably they love the cliche. But I would still like to know if they actually noticed anything strange about this at all, or if it even crossed their minds that there might be some appropriate Australian larking-on-the-beach music to be played instead? Or even that there might be a Beach Boys number that did not explicitly mention the USA?

Which is why we are talking here, not just about errors of sporting fact, but about the overall RTE style which has been definitively exposed by Newstalk's Off The Ball as being incurably cheesy, the sort of mundane badness which has been eating away at the spirit of RTE for a long time now, an institutional malaise hinted at by Brendan Balfe when he said: "There's not the same degree of ballast, you might say, in the Radio Centre, as there used to be. A lot of us who've left are carrying a huge amount of knowledge with us, and it's a pity it's going to waste."

Indeed, another old-timer, Jimmy Magee, was once famous for the almost unquantifiable vastness of his knowledge of sport -- yes, we used to joke about how much the RTE guy knew -- ah, what a falling-off there has been, especially when you consider that so much information is now available so easily and so quickly.

People will always screw up big-time, as they did on Prime Time Investigates. But it is far more likely to happen in a culture where people are screwing up small-time, all over the place. Though, as we have been explaining in some detail for quite a while now, these are not necessarily small things. Indeed, you could say that there is almost nothing in journalism that is more fundamental than getting the sports results right.

Your lowliest provincial paper would almost die of shame if it messed up the score of an under-12 camogie match, an attitude that goes all the way up to the great news organisations which have always known these things.

The deep solemnity with which the Classified Check of the day's football results has been read out every Saturday on BBC television, did not happen on a whim. Some very enlightened people took the view that in this world there are very few things that we know for certain, but that some things at least have been decided, at the end of the day -- Swindon Town 3, Plymouth Argyle 2, for example, is a result, and it is there for all time.

Thus the Classified Check, like the Shipping Forecast, became a ritual embedded in a nation's soul, a holy thing.

So it does matter a great deal when we hear a result on RTE radio or television, and instinctively we feel the need to visit the BBC website just to check it out, just to be sure -- personally, the defining moment was when the RTE TV lunchtime news told us that the new world snooker champion John Higgins is the son of Alex "Hurricane" Higgins.

That's when they should have called in John Horgan.

Unfortunately it's much too late now.

Sunday Independent