Saturday 24 February 2018

Joe Brolly: 'Dictator' Jim McGuinness is one to talk about 'respect'

Free speech is difficult to uphold, but the odd slip is a small price to pay, writes Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly and Jim McGuinness
Joe Brolly and Jim McGuinness

Joe Brolly

'You're not exactly George Clooney yourself' was the first text I got as I emerged from the RTE studio last Sunday. It was from my mother. The shape of things to come. Next up, Colm O'Rourke: 'Mother Teresa, JFK, Michael Collins, the pope and Marty Morrissey. You've gone too far this time.' And so it continued all week.

Walking down from the school on Wednesday morning, a workman's van slowed, the window came down and the driver shouted, 'Brolly, you ugly bastard' prompting a roar of laughter from his workmates in the front.

Sometimes, sitting in the RTE studio, you forget the nation is watching. Marty Morrissey is a decent, good-humoured man. I should not have said what I did and when I apologised to him he was quick to accept it.

There is a much bigger picture. In his brilliant 1945 essay 'Politics and the English Language', George Orwell warned of the grave threat posed to honest discourse by political correctness. He said that if the trend towards resorting to safe cliché instead of honest opinion continued, we would reach the point where if someone did say what they actually meant, it would provoke moral outrage.

Years later, on Christmas Eve, the writer and social commentator Keith Waterhouse wrote a newspaper column viewing the Nativity through the eyes of three wise social workers who had followed the star to Nazareth. When they arrived at the stable, they were so appalled by the conditions in the holy manger that they made an emergency application to the courts and the baby Jesus was promptly taken into care.

Read more: Selfie respect - Marty Morrissey the centre of attention at ladies GAA awards ceremony

‘It is unsurprising that in The Irish Times last week Jim McGuinness chose to mount an attack on what I see as RTE’s free speech ethos’
‘It is unsurprising that in The Irish Times last week Jim McGuinness chose to mount an attack on what I see as RTE’s free speech ethos’

The beauty of RTE is that, unlike other broadcasters, its ethos, up until now at least, permits us to be fearless. The deal is simple. Speak your mind. Let the dice fall where they may.

Bill O'Herlihy, God rest him, kicked off for the soccer lads. Michael Lyster throws in for us. The result is real, unpredictable debate. The sort of debate and philosophising that happens in our own homes, or in the pub or in GAA clubs around the country. The sort of stuff that goes to the heart of the matter. Sometimes raw, sometimes over the top, sometimes angry, sometimes funny. That is to say, real.

In stark contrast to the Rose of Tralee world created by other broadcasters, where everything is nice and the only sentences uttered are safe cliches. Think BBC's Match of the Day or Sky, whose policy is to keep the Premier League sweet and never rock the boat. Richard Scudamore and his boys can rest easy in the knowledge that a word of criticism will never come their way. It doesn't matter how ghastly the Premier League becomes, or that England has by far the worst grassroots facilities of any comparable European soccer nation.

The fact that soccer players live like rappers, while kids in council estates don't have a pitch to play on, falls outside the rosy myth that the BBC and Sky are happy to foster.

Sky have a similar approach here. The GAA hierarchy will never be challenged. Nor will the GPA. It's like watching young mormons. If nothing is said, nobody can be unhappy.

It is unsurprising that in his column in The Irish Times last week, Jim McGuinness chose to mount an attack on what I see as RTE's free speech ethos. As we saw when he managed Donegal, Jim's guiding principle is control. He dominated nearly every aspect of his players' lives. When he met the squad for the first time in 2011, each man was presented with a typed behavioural contract, drafted by a solicitor. The agreement was described as 'legally binding' and contained penalty clauses. It was the beginning of a dictatorial masterclass. Players' mobile phones were confiscated after team talks on the morning of big games. An atmosphere of paranoia surrounded the squad.

Read more: RTÉ suits ensure dressing room spat becomes public row

Jim's use of the word 'respect' in his column struck me. When Kevin Cassidy, a great servant of Donegal football, gave some innocuous inside information to respected journalist Declan Bogue, he was promptly dropped. At his press conference after the 2012 All-Ireland final, Jim humiliated Bogue. When Jim entered the room and saw him there, he sat wordlessly, fiddling with his watch. After a long silence, he stood up and walked out, leaving the 40 or so GAA journalists bemused. Soon after, a Croke Park official approached Bogue and told him apologetically that McGuinness would not come back in until he left the room. Bogue did and, shame to say it, his press colleagues stayed on. Easier to be controlled than to speak your mind.

Jim's achievements are extraordinary. He is an extraordinary human being. But he ought not to be above scrutiny. On RTE, he wasn't. We have lauded his team's achievements, while decrying some of the behaviour, the style of play and the profound damage that this style is doing to the game.

Marty Morrisey and TG4 presenter Fiona Ní Fhlaithearta
Marty Morrisey and TG4 presenter Fiona Ní Fhlaithearta

At various times we have taken the domineering managers to task. We have strongly criticised the GAA or the GPA when we believed it was justified. But we also praise players, or teams, or the Association when we see fit.

We are right. We are wrong. Sometimes we fall out with each other, sometimes with the viewers from some county or another. The night I lost my temper with Tyrone and Seán Cavanagh is something I could never see happening on Sky. They'd have said, 'Well, Big Seán did what he had to do' or 'he showed all his experience out there, what a player he is'. When Sky tell us to 'Believe in Better', what exactly do they really mean?

The problem the modern GAA hierarchy has with RTE is exactly the same as Jim's problem. They want control. RTE could come to us and insist that we do not criticise the GAA. They could tell us such criticisms could cause serious problems when the rights negotiations come up again. But they do not. Instead, they hold the line.

Freedom to say what you think is a difficult thing to uphold nowadays. Balance has virtually replaced the impulse to go with your gut. We are lightning quick to moral outrage. The hammering of every slip-up is a national past-time. Most of the press is already just social media. The remainder is coming under serious pressure to succumb. Whether you're a politician or a teacher or a broadcaster, it is better not to say what you really feel. Much safer to use a cliché.

If things continue the way they are going, the media will soon be as real as the Rose of Tralee. It is time we started believing in better.

Read more: Joe Brolly admits he is still 'cringing' over Marty Morrissey comments

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