Tommy Conlon: It's a very fine line between passion and propaganda
Joe Brolly is a very good television sports pundit. Which isn't the same, of course, as saying he's good at reading a game. Because he's not. At half-time and full-time he is frequently left fumbling for clarity and insight on the action that has just unfolded. In these situations he resorts to verbose meanderings and pretentious waffle about systems and strategies.
But he is perfect for television. He provokes reaction, generates debate. He is often giddy, usually humorous and engaging. He complements well a studio colleague like Colm O'Rourke, who gets on with the heavy lifting, the actual match analysis, while Joe larks about in the chair beside him.
Presumably he'd like to be taken seriously. Undoubtedly he'd like to be trusted, as would any public figure. But he has a problem here now, if he didn't already.
Brolly has been transparent over the years about his Ulster allegiances. As a Derry man, he has worn his provincial heart on his sleeve. His punditry aggravates plenty of people but his sunny disposition somehow makes it less offensive coming from him. He is essentially a likeable lightweight, generally to be taken with a pinch of salt.
But on one occasion last year he revealed a darker side. It was three days before the All-Ireland football final between Mayo and Donegal. Des Cahill had pre-recorded an interview with Brolly for the 11 o'clock sports bulletin on Pat Kenny's morning radio show.
It was meant to be a preview of the match. He had a world of angles to choose from. The championship form of both teams. The middle third. Michael Murphy. The Mayo full-back line. Donegal's counter-attack. Aidan O'Shea. Jim McGuinness. The usual array of prognostications.
Instead we got a stream of spin that was so unbalanced, so loaded, and so brazenly one-sided, that it came close to propaganda. Brolly wasn't giving an opinion on this occasion, he was delivering an agenda. He wasn't just pontificating, he was campaigning. He had a specific message to impart. He had his statistics marshalled, his citations ready, his allegations cued.
He appeared to be deeply troubled by Mayo's negativity and cynicism as he saw it. He spoke for almost five minutes. He topped and tailed his contribution with other comments. But for three minutes and 36 seconds he criticised and condemned Mayo's tactics. He cited their performance against Dublin in the semi-final. He'd watched the video. "The statistics were shocking," he said. Mayo had fouled 27 times. Their fouling had been "endemic". It had been "seriously disruptive". It was "cynical" and "tactical". They "blatantly dragged down" various Dublin players. The referee didn't issue any yellow cards.
Listening to it live at the time, with mounting incredulity, we were thinking: right Joe, when are you going to get round to Donegal? But for some reason he forgot to mention Donegal's 25 fouls (and five yellow cards) against Kerry in the quarter-final; or their 26 fouls against Tyrone in a dysfunctional Ulster final. Or the fact that every top county team has been engaged in tactical fouling for at least a decade. Mayo in fact were latecomers in this regard. And they were certainly no worse than their peers.
Brolly himself had spent years eulogising the Tyrone and Armagh teams who'd actually pioneered the practice: the "endemic" and "seriously disruptive" strategy of fouling opponents outside the scoring zone. And he'd been positively gushing about a Donegal team that had reduced Gaelic football to a farce in 2011 with their 13 men behind the ball.
But it was Mayo, of all teams, that finally helped him find his moral panic button. Three days before they were due to play his neighbouring county in an All-Ireland final.
Mayo's tactics, he continued, would be "particularly effective against Donegal since their whole game is running the ball out of defence. I mean, if they're being disrupted like that, it's going to be very difficult for them to gain any momentum." Why was he fretting so much about Donegal?
Cahill eventually managed to interrupt the diatribe. "Who do you think will win?" he asked. In other words, let's broaden the conversation a little. But Joe ignored the question because he wasn't quite finished. "I think on Sunday," he replied, "that the referee
will be the most important person on the pitch." Cahill: "Is that not putting pressure on the ref?" Brolly: "No. As far as I'm concerned, if Derry aren't in the All-Ireland final it doesn't matter a damn to me who wins."
Yes, he was impeccably neutral. Unfortunately, it was hard to avoid the impression that he sounded more like a messenger boy for the Donegal camp than an RTE pundit. Brolly is paid by the national broadcaster. There is surely an obligation on him to observe some basic editorial standards of objectivity and fairness.
In that radio interview last September he abandoned those standards. There wasn't even a semblance of balance in his argument. It was a shameless use of the public airwaves to pressurise the match referee. It was an abuse of his position. RTE should have called him in to explain his remarks.
Last week, the Mayo manager James Horan finally broke his silence on the issue. Brolly denies there was any attempt at public manipulation.
Whose word can we take on this? That depends on who you can believe; it depends on who you can trust.
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