Thursday 18 January 2018

Scepticism beats servile conformism but there are limits

Eamon Dunphy’s volatile courage created a space for legitimate dissent and discomfiting candour not only in soccer but in other sports too
Eamon Dunphy’s volatile courage created a space for legitimate dissent and discomfiting candour not only in soccer but in other sports too

Tommy Conlon

Current alarms about the cruder sensibilities of various sports pundits present a dilemma for those who remember a more deferential era.

In previous generations the commentariat's approach was marked by a timidity that bordered on professional negligence. Their appetite for criticism was practically anorexic. In general they would run a mile from controversy. The culture was high on conformity. The attitude was see no evil, hear no evil. If something unpleasant was begging to be exposed, the reflex strategy was to look the other way.

As a consequence, the big three of FAI, GAA and IRFU was rarely troubled by awkward questions or candid analysis from the fourth estate.

To be fair, it wasn't just a problem in the Irish sporting milieu. We all know it applied to even bigger institutions like Church, State and Fianna Fail too. This infantilised culture helped to nourish all sorts of national delusions.

In these more secular times, the attitude has swung to the other side: scepticism, at best, is the order of the day. For some traditional power blocs, it is open season altogether: the Church and Fianna Fail are mired in public cynicism, if not downright contempt.

The GAA has emerged into modern society in much better health than either of its two institutional soulmates of old. But it too enjoyed for generations a level of support from Gaelic games media that was tribal, complacent and frequently sycophantic. Public criticism was virtually an act of treason. There was never any shortage of GAA fundamentalists ready to attack the offending dissident.

If RTE, for example, was deemed to have stepped out of line at all, it would quickly be on the receiving end of some primitive abuse from Croke Park, or one of its myriad subsidiary committees.

Relations between the national broadcaster and the GAA appear to be much more mature nowadays, even if commercial tensions have escalated as the issue of broadcast rights looms ever larger.

But at least on the editorial front RTE enjoys greater autonomy than in previous decades. Croke Park may not always be happy with the content but in general they seem more relaxed about it these days.

But as with national attitudes to Church and State, the sudden release from careful deference may have led to an excess of careless criticism. As if the years of long pent-up reverence has led to a giddy lurch towards the opposite extreme.

Perhaps like the country in general, RTE isn't quite sure where middle ground is any more. And in the absence of a clear boundary, various pundits have been allowed to step over the mark.

It arguably started with Eamon Dunphy, who back in the day brought a necessary degree of anger to the long-running farce that was FAI politics - and an equally essential level of scorn to its enablers in the soccer media. This was one Irish establishment that badly needed a serious shaking up.

Anyway, Dunphy's volatile courage created a space for legitimate dissent and discomfiting candour in other sports too. Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, it allowed a few blowhards in the door also.

And RTE of course recognised that there was box office gold in these eclectic personalities. No doubt some Montrose executives have swallowed hard while listening to various studio histrionics in recent years. But the ratings seem to override all other considerations.

In this regard, the broadcaster's attitude has been one of cynical tolerance. And in the last decade, the culture at times became nasty as some pundits appeared to be almost competing to make the most offensive remarks. Players and coaches from a variety of sports have frequently been left wounded by comments which ranged from nonchalantly hurtful to deliberately disrespectful.

And this is where the dilemma emerges. Obviously no-one wants to return to the servile mindset of a past era. And it shouldn't be forgotten that there will always be vested interests looking for a biddable media. The FAI, GAA and IRFU would be happier with a more docile critical climate.

High-profile team managers also, being the control freaks they are, would like to see manners put on various commentators. They can control a dressing-room, a county board, even a provincial rugby set-up, so it may be a matter of ongoing frustration when they can't control the media too.

Jim McGuinness argued impressively in his column in The Irish Times last week about the need for more respect and sensitivity towards players. It was in the context of Joe Brolly's schoolyard insult about Marty Morrissey on The Sunday Game.

But McGuinness's credibility on this issue is compromised by his decision to throw a journalist out of that infamous post All-Ireland final press conference in 2012. Nor did he have anything to say when Brolly used his RTE platform to spin an angle about Mayo's alleged tactical cynicism, just a few days before that final. Mayo's opponents, of course, were McGuinness's Donegal.

Brolly overstepped the mark in that radio interview. And this was precisely the time that a senior figure in RTE should have said so. It might have averted the hurt and embarrassment he caused last week. But they let it pass.

Last Wednesday the head of sport, Ryle Nugent, finally took a stand. Brolly was publicly reprimanded and warned.

Crucially, it was not an act of censorship; it was merely the laying down of a boundary. And it was well overdue.

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