Friday 20 July 2018

Comment: Media scrutiny is not the greatest of all GAA evils

We will never go back to the days of unfettered access, but a little less control wouldn't be so bad

The press box in Haggardstown, Co Louth before an O’Byrne Cup match in 2014. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
The press box in Haggardstown, Co Louth before an O’Byrne Cup match in 2014. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

In what feels another lifetime I belonged to a media generation that saw the inside of a lot of losing dressing rooms. In Croke Park on championship days a colleague, more senior in rank than I, would begin divvying up media duties, like stats and post-match reaction. Almost without fail, I would be assigned the "losers' quotes". Nobody was rushing to do that one.

This is one measure of how the working relationship with the GAA and the media has shifted to a more formal model. In those days you could visit the dressing rooms under the Hogan Stand with excellent prospects of being admitted. The practice of reporters knocking on dressing room doors was well established. Canvassing opinion in a winning dressing room is not a daunting prospect. Having the losers' ticket stirred a little anxiety about what lay in store.

But the reward was an authentic experience. Everything inside was stripped of pretence and secrecy. Men who might have beforehand fallen back on cliche and caution tended to be more honest in this moment, if they chose to talk at all. In some cases the talking may have been a relief, a release. To be able to talk to a player who has just lost, say, an All-Ireland final while he is still waiting to have his shower in the dressing room afterwards was a privileged access.

Some stay in the memory. Like the terrible grieving in Armagh after they lost the 1992 All-Ireland minor final to Meath, beaten by a goal in injury-time. When we got there, many of these boys were in tears, young lads crying, devastated. Their manager, Brother Lawrence Ennis, moved around the room trying to console them and raise their spirits. It was a futile mission. Meath were accustomed to success at the time, Armagh were not, and this title would have meant the world to them. Being there felt voyeuristic and inappropriate. And then something verging on the mystical happened.

Brian McEniff, who was about to manage Donegal in the All-Ireland senior final against Dublin a short time later, came in to say a few consoling words. He had enough to be doing you'd have thought, but obviously felt some empathy with Armagh's predicament. He could not pass their door. He made a short speech that went to the heart of what the GAA is about, that sense of kindred spirits and a shared journey. He spoke of how teams in the Ulster championship had a unique bond and he vowed that Donegal would win the All-Ireland for those Armagh minors. Which they did, beating Dublin in a surprise result. And that game coloured Dublin's relationship with the media probably forever more.

Next October will mark the tenth anniversary of Pat Gilroy's arrival as Dublin manager. An early impact was the introduction of tighter controls on media access to management and players, and the staging of early press briefings where essentially control of the news feed was more in the hands of the management. In his recent report to Dublin County Convention, board CEO John Costello referred to unjust media treatment in 2017 but claimed it was nothing new. "It was there in the 1970s, there was a tsunami of vitriol after the 12 men of Dublin defeated Galway in 1983, and the current panel and management seem to be 'fair game' now in some eyes."

The 1992 loss to Donegal became a salutary lesson for Dublin where every aspect of their preparations was thrown open to scrutiny in the aftermath. Donegal's bid for a first All-Ireland was swamped by coverage of Dublin's first final appearance in seven years. When it failed, the forensics covered highlighted their easy availability to the public, to businesses and to the media. It may not have been as bad as it was portrayed. But that was the impression that stuck. If a Dublin manager wants to demonstrate an example of when Dublin got the balance between public commitment and duty to the team wrong, he might well cite 1992.

But, different times. You don't get near the dressing room now. It is a no-go area for the media and the modern poor imitation is a press conference given maybe 20 minutes after the final whistle where so many minutes are apportioned for current usage and so many minutes after that are for the next day's papers and broadcasts. Every media outlet is fed the same line. You won't see anyone crying. You will never have a Brian McEniff moment. That day is gone.

And it is a pity of course, even if it was understandable that players might need a bit more privacy and not have a tape recorder in their faces before they had a chance to take a shower.

Those old RTÉ incursions into the winning dressing room after an All-Ireland made for captivating television, a far cry from the banal offerings that are routine today. But the media itself has changed, greatly, in the time since the last journalist was thrown out of a dressing room. There is a multiplicity of media forms and increased coverage and analysis. For players, that had to be managed. It is not 1994 anymore, the year we could walk into the Limerick dressing room after they lost an All-Ireland in the final devastating stages to Offaly. Where Ger Hegarty, crushed and shell-shocked as he must have been, would still have the kindness to talk about it.

But while the access has changed immeasurably the truth is that the relationship between the GAA and the media has always been a little strained.

At the moment it is Dublin and Jim Gavin; tomorrow it will be someone else. In the GAA there is still that stringent self-awareness and fear of saying the wrong thing. And so Jim Gavin, far from being an oddity, is simply another personification of this culture where the media interactions are, with some exceptions, rarely enlightening. Journalists who cover the early morning Dublin briefings and attend the press conferences have grown accustomed to the drill by now. The argument among those who defend Jim Gavin's media behaviour is that it is not his primary function to entertain journalists, that his team does this adequately on the field and so on. True. It would not take much adjustment, a slight relaxation here and there, to garner less criticism and a bit more positivity. But is this any different to the great majority? The answer to that is no.

Páidí ó Sé was a nightmare at times, in even the most perfunctory media dealings, but this has been accepted as part as his charming rogue act. Gavin's personality is exceedingly botoxed at times. But some of his contemporaries say just as little, managing to sound like they are saying more than they are.

That year that Ger Hegarty spoke about Limerick's All-Ireland collapse, Dublin lost another All-Ireland final, to Down, which was Paddy Downey's last match to cover for the Irish Times. Fifty years ago the county board in Tipperary banned six journalists, including Downey, in a memorable case ahead of the All-Ireland hurling final between Tipperary and Wexford. It followed coverage deemed unjust by the board in the wake of a fractious National League final between Tipp and Kilkenny.

The Tipperary board instructed anyone connected to their team not to divulge any information to the journalists cited about their training preparations. Previewing the final in the Irish Times, Downey informed his readers that he could offer no more than an acknowledgement that the final was taking place. He wrote: "It is quite impossible to form any firm opinion on the basis of up-to-the-minute information and trends because, while there has been free access to Wexford's preparations and generous co-operation from Wexford's officials, the opposing camp, through its County Board, has refused to release information to this writer, among others."

He went on: "This situation would be hilarious, really, if one could retain a sense of humour. Out of deference to Wexford, something must be said about the game." In those days Downey and his contemporaries could expect to drop in to county training in the lead-up to an All-Ireland final with little formality or restrictions in place. It is believed that Galway in 1979 were the first county to introduce closed training sessions and reduce media access in the lead-up to their All-Ireland final with Kilkenny.

Downey, writing in advance of the 1979 All-Ireland hurling final, having travelled to Galway, had this to report: "In former years it was common for reporters to wander in and out of training sessions and team talks without any let or hindrance. This year a special night was set aside and, although there was no definite instruction to players about talking, there seemed to be an unwritten understanding that interviews and photographs would be at a premium this year."

Downey paints an almost comical scene at a training session in Athenry in the lead-up to the game, with reporters and photographers trying to muscle in on the session to little avail. He writes wearily: "Those who are willing to talk at any length would break the heart of even the most cynical reporter. Ifs, buts and maybes abound. And there is much emphasis on the Kilkenny team whose strengths and skills are exaggerated while Galway's are dismissed or belittled."

They all then repaired to the canteen at Athenry cattle mart. A far cry from the more corporate GAA world of today but the difficulties in media dealings then were not much different to now. Four years ago Armagh introduced media restrictions in response to coverage of incidents in their match with Cavan in the championship. With Armagh's compliance with media requirements ahead of an All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal in doubt, the GAA head of media relations, Alan Milton, said: "No team or players are obliged to do team interviews, and there is no penalty either . . . we wouldn't like to go down the route, either, where everything we do has to be done or else there's a penalty. The vast majority of counties co-operate in that regard as much as they can."

In 2012, despite having won only the county's second All-Ireland, Jim McGuinness would not agree to a press conference unless Declan Bogue, a journalist who wrote a book that included co-operation from the former Donegal player Kevin Cassidy, left the room. In this case that balance between team interests and public interest overstepped the mark and drifted towards the absurd.

Players and managers were always cautious, ranging from cute in their media dealings to downright paranoid. There was a time when you would ring someone in the team management looking for a team named on a Tuesday or Wednesday night for the following weekend's league game. On one such night I phoned a member of the Meath football management team. Introduced myself. Asked if the team was named. I was told it was not. It became clear he was not in the mood for conversation. I asked another question, at which point he excused himself by saying, "I am missing me film."

Something has been lost along the way, even if it could not go on the way it did. Some of the fun, certainly. Galway hurlers' press restrictions in 1979 made no difference come All-Ireland final day, with Kilkenny winning. But they returned a year later to win their first title since 1923. The scenes afterwards in the dressing room were chaotic. A report of the time stated that the dressing room doors were "completely unguarded by either stewards or gardaí" and in "danger of giving way under the mass of heaving humanity trying to get in".

It was reported that Bishop Casey, however, had managed to squeeze his way through. "There's another bishop trying to get in," an anxious Galway official told Sean Kilfeather of the Irish Times. "Thank heavens he's a bit thinner and shouldn't have the same trouble."

There is no bishop thin enough to get into the Dublin dressing room today. Or many other dressing rooms besides. But couldn't we all lighten up a little and maybe loosen the control lever a notch? It mightn't be a bad thing.

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