Controversial big issues always seem to be side-stepped. Why?

Jim McGuinness.
Jim McGuinness.

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.

The beauty of RTE is that unlike other sports broadcasters, it’s ethos - up until now at least - has permitted us to be fearless. Political correctness is left at the door. 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 the 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 Premiership 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 use exactly the same model here, where the same policy of political correctness is rigorously followed. So, managers can behave how they like with their squads, without scrutiny. The GAA hierarchy likewise will never be challenged. Nor will the GPA. The big issues are side-stepped. It’s like watching young Mormons. If nothing is said, nobody can be unhappy!

It is unsurprising that in his “Irish Times” column last week, Jim McGuinness chose to mount an attack on RTE’s free speech ethos. Like any other dictatorial manager, Jim’s guiding principle is control. He dominated 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.

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 Jim’s post All-Ireland Final Press Conference in 2012, he 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 forty odd 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 behaviours, the style of play and the profound damage it is doing to the game.

An illustration of the point: Steven Poacher, the Ballyholland manager, wrote in the Gaelic Life a fortnight ago that the debate around the blanket defence was lazy and all that was required to defeat it was a little imagination. A friend of mine from Kilcoo texted me that evening and said “ F*** me I’ve heard it all. Ballyholland are playing us on Friday week. Come and watch them. Bring your sleeping bag.” It was a starred game, so Kilcoo had no county players. Ballyholland played from start to finish with twelve defenders and two forwards. The final score, on a perfect evening for football, was Kilcoo 0-6, Ballyholland 1-3. Ballyholland scored a penalty, two frees and a single point from play. Their first point came in the 29th minute. Afterwards, Steven tweeted it was “not a game for the purist,” the politically correct euphemism for “travesty.” The spectators muttered angrily as it unfolded. “ A complete farce;” “ Pathetic;” “ A disgrace” “and The worst I have ever seen.” But to say that publicly will provoke moral outrage. If you say it, even though it is a statement of the bleeding obvious, you’ll be branded “controversial” and heat will immediately come onto you. From managers. From the GPA. From the GAA hierarchy. From the morally outraged (“Well they’re only amateur players” etc ). The result is that it is easier and safer to bullshit.

On RTE, up until now, we have fearlessly taken the controlling managers to task. We strongly criticise the GAA, or the GPA when we believe it is justified. 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 Sean Cavanagh is something that would never have happened on SKY. They’d have said “Well, Big Sean did what he had to do” or “he showed all his experience out there, what a player.” Then maybe a chat about world peace and a poem about kittens. When SKY tell us to “Believe in Better” they really mean “ Believe in Nothing.”

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

Free speech is a difficult thing to uphold nowadays. People who say what they mean are branded “controversial,” even when it is only what the rest of us are actually thinking. Balance has virtually replaced honesty. 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 mean. Much safer to use a cliché. Much easier to be a sheep. To allow yourself to be controlled. By Jim, by the authorities, by the Man.

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 . . . . .