At times I have felt the condemnation of Manchester United after their 5-0 annihilation by Liverpool a week ago has been harsh. Indeed, the battering they have been receiving for some years about their inexorable decline has tended to lose sight of one mitigating factor — they are only doing what almost everyone else across the industry of human happiness tends to do in these situations: following an old playbook that might broadly be called “trying to find the next U2”.
Those of us who lived through the horrors of those years when A&R people were coming from London to Dublin in large numbers trying to find the next U2 have a wintry eye for this sort of thing — essentially, it involves an enormous effort, often carried out at great expense, to recreate some phenomenal success which, by its very nature, would never have happened in the first place if they had tried to do it this way.
U2 would never have become U2 if they had been spotted by a fabulously drunk talent scout in the Baggot Inn, looking for the next U2. But that didn’t stop them coming over, chasing some magic, the nature of which they didn’t understand — and would soon be unable to remember anyway.
It seems so obvious now — and yet these things are not obvious to Manchester United as they strive to re-create the glories of the Alex Ferguson era by doing things the younger Ferguson himself would never have contemplated.
The great tyrants of sport or showbusiness are not given to recreating anything: they are the unique creators of their own legends, their own empires.
So, if the younger Fergie saw an old Fergie still sitting in the stands at games, surveying the ruins of his fallen civilisation, the first thing he would probably do is quietly arrange for the old man to go home — and to stay there.
Rather than treading gingerly through the halls of the grand institution, Ferguson got rid of Paul McGrath and other drinking men who were beloved then and who are still beloved, but who had no place in the new world he was building. Again, it should be obvious this is how the great ones work — and maybe it should be even more obvious to United, who had the advantage of watching Liverpool for 25 years consumed by the memories of their own domination of the game, making every single mistake United are now making.
But somehow United can’t help it, and they are not alone — they are creatures of a corporate culture which loves a formula, which loves to knock out the same product endlessly, because they believe that finding a new way to be successful is just too hard, that it often involves trusting difficult individuals to do dangerous things that may not work very well immediately.
Be they music or TV or film or record companies, they are only truly at peace when they are doing something that has already been done many times — they will pay gazillions for the back catalogue of a Bob Dylan, seemingly indifferent to the argument there will be no more Bob Dylans if all the money goes into acquiring these ancient treasures.
Hollywood loves a remake for the simplistic reason that if something made a fortune in 1993, it stands to reason a modern take on it will also make a fortune — until it doesn’t. If Ole Gunnar Solskjær were making movies then, he would be on Oceans 44 at this stage, trying to recapture the spirit of the original Oceans 11. And, frankly, the franchise would be losing its lustre.
Television repeats its own successful formats with the demented zeal of a ravenous hound — borne back ceaselessly to the past, you could say Ole is taking his inspiration from Reeling In The Years and is perhaps surprised it is just not working for him like it continues to work for RTÉ.
There is cross-contamination, too, in this aversion to risk, with publishers flooding the bookshops with works by people who are not writers as such but are TV chefs or personalities from other fields and who can guarantee a result that a mere scribbler might not: they will claim the sure-fire winners are subsidising the more experimental stuff, although in truth, these days you can walk a long way in many bookshops before you encounter the name of an author whose job is actually writing books, experimental or otherwise.
No doubt in 10 years’ time they will still be looking for the new Sally Rooney, like poor Ole trying desperately to make that mysterious connection with the magnificence of a lost civilisation. He has one other problem not unknown in other areas of corporate entertainment — although they are failing badly at the actual soccer, United are still making the money. The club’s billionaire owners may not be as disturbed as the supporters by it becoming a heritage product.
The way it is these days in the executive lounges, if they get the feeling they can make nearly as much money being bad as being good, which way do you think they’ll go?
Jon Williams, the managing director of RTÉ News, tweeted a response to my column last week about the unwisdom of RTÉ giving a platform to creatures of the far right such as Nigel Farage — the essence of his tweet was: “Our job (is) to be impartial. Even when it’s unpopular.”
It would be wrong to extrapolate a man’s entire philosophy from a bit of a tweet. However, it was still strange he would simply state “our job to be impartial” when the whole point of the article was to question the limitations of such a stance in the light of how the traditional methods of many journalists have been mangled by the “populists” such as Trump and Johnson and Farage.
It is hardly just me who is raising these questions — there has been a ferocious debate on this very subject for some years, on how TV and radio journalists in particular are meant to be “impartial” in the traditional sense. Because it just isn’t working with these propagandists of the right who have gone beyond mere dishonesty and are bulldozing their way through reality itself.
In the days when “impartiality” had a clear meaning, there was a kind of unspoken acceptance that a politician might be lying, or being evasive, or disingenuous, but there was some mutual acceptance there was at least this abstract concept out there — somewhere — of factual accuracy or even truth.
Recently, the BBC’s Nick Robinson seemed finally to concede that just doesn’t work with Boris — during an interview, he told him to “stop talking” as if acknowledging how with Johnson the mere act of talking has a tendency to mislead.
But other ‘impartial’ reporters have given Johnson years of freedom to display his skills as a pathological liar, which means they are not being impartial at all — they are being partial toward him and in effect are colluding with him.
At the very least, this traditional notion of “impartiality” has become highly nuanced and contentious — but I’m sure that beyond the limitations of Twitter, Jon Williams must know this.
The music I least understand but most admire is jazz — it is almost beyond belief how in a world of easy options anyone would reach for that highest common denominator or would go there.
The jazzers themselves understand it, though, hence their support for piano wizard Phil Ware, who has been living and working brilliantly in Ireland since 2000 but who last year suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage, a kind of stroke that has left him un-able to speak or to move the right side of his body.
You can check out The Fund for Phil on your internet machine; it has the endorsement of good people such as Honor Heffernan and Eamonn Lenihan, formerly of The Blue of the Night.