Thursday 19 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Donald Trump would be pretty proud of Jim Gavin, Joe Schmidt and MTK Global

'Jim Gavin has taken the hump with RTÉ because of a row over the supply of game footage'
'Jim Gavin has taken the hump with RTÉ because of a row over the supply of game footage'

Eamonn Sweeney

The decision of Jim Gavin to eschew RTÉ interviews, of Schmidt to cancel his usual post-match press conference and of MTK to institute a blanket ban on co-operation with Irish media organisations are right out of The Donald's playbook.

The disproportionately narky response to adverse media coverage has become ever more popular since Trump's arrival in the White House. Recent porcine responses to interviewers by Martin O'Neill and Jurgen Klopp also coming to mind. It's hardly surprising that the behaviour of the world's most powerful man has left a mark on the culture. Quite a lot of guys appear to admire his short way with dissenters.

When managers behave like this they probably do more harm to themselves than to the media. Such bans combine bullying, with its insistence that if someone doesn't do what you want you have a right to punish them, childishness, which places a premium on the value of getting your own back, and self-importance, "Who are these people to think they can cross me? Don't they know who I am?" These are not good qualities to encourage in yourself, as either individual or organisation.

The grounds for offence seem pretty spurious. Schmidt and the IRFU appear to be miffed that questions were asked about Rory Best attending a rape trial in Belfast. Yet do they really think this wasn't a matter of public interest or that the question of what Schmidt knew about it could somehow be elided? Gavin has taken the hump with RTÉ because of a row over the supply of game footage, which is a bit much considering the county has so much money they could probably hire Neil Jordan to film matches for them.

'Joe Schmidt and the IRFU appear to be miffed that questions were asked about Rory Best attending a rape trial in Belfast.' Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
'Joe Schmidt and the IRFU appear to be miffed that questions were asked about Rory Best attending a rape trial in Belfast.' Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

This is the Dublin boss's second tantrum inside a year, the last one having been provoked by RTÉ's coverage of the Diarmuid Connolly incident in a match against Carlow. Again, did he really think a scrape like that involving a high-profile player was going to pass by without comment? His gripe then was purportedly because he thought Pat Spillane had delivered a "prepared statement" on The Sunday Game. But that was just blather. Jim Gavin wouldn't have been any more pleased about Spillane criticising Connolly had the Kerry man improvised it like John Coltrane covering 'My Favourite Things'.

Then you have MTK's belief that the media are somehow out of order in mentioning the fact that the organisation was co-founded by Daniel Kinahan; Paddy Barnes' and Declan Geraghty's public praise of a member of the Kinahan family; and the security implications of MTK boxing promotions in Dublin given the automatic weapon fire which marred, ever so slightly, the weigh-in before a previous event. Lads, people are going to mention these things. They're just the tiniest bit noticeable.

What the MTK, Gavin and Schmidt incidents betray is a belief that the media should be in some way beholden to those they interview. Yet the questions about Rory Best, Diarmuid Connolly and MTK's co-founder needed to be asked for the simple reason that if they weren't, people would wonder why they hadn't been.

The new touchiness on the part of managers is sometimes ascribed to the changing media landscape. But it's essentially the expression of a very old-fashioned attitude. This May sees the 50th anniversary of a famously filthy National Hurling League final between Kilkenny and Tipperary. When the journalists of the time, none of whom could ever have been accused of sensationalism, merely reported what had happened, Tipp's county board withdrew all co-operation with the media in a fit of outrage. This was an era when, as Breandán Ó hEithir recalled, once you heard Michael O'Hehir say, "I can't for the life of me tell what all the booing is about," you knew that (a) someone had just been flattened off the ball and (b) O'Hehir knew bloody well what had happened but wouldn't tell you.

That era passed because society changed and people wouldn't put up with the truth being withheld from them. Yet there seems to be a fresh appetite for the suppression of inconvenient truths at the moment. Social media has something to do with it. You can see sporting organisations wonder if it might eventually be possible to disseminate publicity solely through their own media outlets, unfiltered by any intervention from those outside the tent. In this way coverage could be replaced by propaganda.

There is the question of whether post-match interview bans deny viewers or readers anything of real worth. Had Jim Gavin gone on RTÉ last Sunday, he'd merely have murmured a few platitudes which would not have added one iota to the sum of anyone's knowledge about the Dublin team. I'm not one of those people who thinks Gavin betrays the soul of football by his lack of forthrightness in interviews. I suspect he may not be one of life's great raconteurs. In fact, his delivery bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the priest on Father Ted who used to go on about running the electricity off the gas. You can't condemn someone for being boring. As Lady Gaga said, though in reference to slightly more flamboyant characters than Jim Gavin, they were Born That Way.

Anyway, the Dublin manager is not alone in his preference for obfuscation. Joe Schmidt's post-match interviews and press conferences often resemble a Dáil question time in which a minister endeavours to conceal information from a back bencher. Few things are more dispiriting than the average colloquy which ensues between interviewer and manager immediately after the final whistle. "Pleased with that result, Joe, yes?", "That went well for you today Mick the Manager," et cetera. No-one expects Woodward and Bernstein but it would be nice to occasionally hear someone ask a question which does not also contain its answer.

When a match ends it's Ronan O'Gara or Keith Wood, Joe Brolly or Michael Duignan you want to hear rather than a manager or a player. That's because the bods in the studio are free to speak their mind. The manager, ever mindful of the necessity to avoid providing tactical or psychological ammunition to future opposition, tries to say as little as possible. The interviewer, having little choice, colludes in this. The result is like a late Harold Pinter play about the impossibility of communication.

The post-match interview is done merely because it's something that's always been done. It possesses the meaninglessness of a ritual from a religion no-one really believes in anymore. Post-match quotes are like the relics of saints, valuable only for the contact with the higher power they represent. They are not interpreted so much as venerated.

It's great to hear sports stars talk in honest detail about what they do. Done well, an interview which facilitates that is probably the highest form of sports journalism. There has been some marvellous work done in this vein lately, Vincent Hogan with Joe Canning, Paul Kimmage with Pádraig Harrington, Marie Crowe with Conor Ryan, Daniel McDonnell with Brian Kerr on his memories of Harold's Cross. But the excellence of the work done when a reporter gets a chance to talk at length and in depth with someone merely underlines the awfulness of the hurried post-match conflab. One of the most pernicious things about the media bans currently popular with GAA teams is that they mean we only hear from players at their most guarded and inarticulate. They rarely get the chance to show their best selves, as Canning did when he sat down with Hogan.

Not much better than the TV post-match interview are those shindigs when a player is promoting some sponsorship deal, for boots or energy drinks or whatever, and condescends to make a few statements of the utmost banality at the behest of the PR gang running the show. One way of discouraging blanket media bans would be if editors decided not to cover any of these gigs involving players who observe a vow of silence on other occasions. I agree that it's not a player's duty to speak to the press. But neither is it the duty of journalists to do corporate PR. Refusing to do so might prompt an improved attitude from those inclined towards media shyness.

Maybe a new era where media bans become pervasive won't do that much harm. The greatest Irish sportswriter remains Con Houlihan, who rarely did interviews. He told you what he thought with so much flair and intelligence it was his opinion you were interested in. If there was a quote in one of his columns, it usually came from someone he met in the Shakespeare after the game and was more interesting than anything a manager might have said in the dressing room.

I had to seek post-match quotes myself back in the day. I never warmed to it, the attraction of having some buck throw a couple of lines over his shoulder at you while he towelled his balls remained elusive.

The incident which seemed to sum up the whole process for me happened after the 1992 Ulster football final in Clones. Derry had just lost agonisingly to Donegal and their manager Eamonn Coleman was standing ashen-faced in the dressing room when a young lad toting a mike and clipboard with the ebullient joy of a kid displaying his haul from a lucky bag bounded up to him and chirped, "Eamonn Coleman. Disappointed obviously." Coleman shot him an anguished look and moved away and in that instant I knew the 'Quotes Piece' to be an instrument of the devil.

Gavin and Schmidt may actually be doing journalists a favour. Nobody let on. It'd kill the hoors.

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