Thursday, June 09, 2011

Carthygate: RTÉ's Strange Relationship with the GAA

Carthygate is a sideshow, a storm in a teacup, a seven day wonder. But what’s really interesting about the standoff between RTÉ, Brian Carthy and the League of Managers is what it tells us about GAA journalism in this country.

The superficial analysis is that the problem developed when Michaél Ó Muircheartaigh stepped down and Carthy did not step up. But it’s more complex than that. It’s to do with the fact that RTÉ doesn’t seem to fully understand just what this GAA is, and how to properly reflect the Irish people’s love affair with it.

An Spailpín is of the opinion that the issue dates back a good quarter of a century to the 1980s, when Mick Dunne retired and Micheál O’Hehir got sick. Both those men were GAA men to the marrow. They had it in their DNA.

The men who succeeded them were not of the same breed. That isn’t to say they were bad at their jobs or didn’t love their wives and children. It’s only to say when we think of a Gael, a heartland GAA supporter, Mick Dunne and Micheál O’Hehir fit the template so much better.

In a way, RTÉ were spoiled by O’Hehir. There was no learning curve for the station; they had perfection delivered to them from the off. How important was Micheál O’Hehir? People of a certain age may remember he did a series of public safety ads to tell people how to navigate level crossings. And he did that because his was the most trusted voice in Ireland. If Micheál O’Hehir said something, you knew he was telling the truth.

But once O’Hehir was struck down by a stroke, it became clear that nobody ever sat down to decide what a GAA commentator should sound like. They never sat down to determine what makes a great commentator, and what doesn’t. Other sports have international comparators; when it comes to Gaelic Games, we’re on our own.

The giant shadow of Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh has to be addressed as well. RTÉ have been happy to present Ó Muircheartaigh as a National Treasure nurtured by the National Broadcaster, making his first broadcast in 1949 and his last in 2010.

Problem is, that’s only half the story. It’s only in the past twenty years or so that Ó Muircheartaigh became the voice of Gaelic games. While O’Hehir was doing the TV commentary, Ó Muircheartaigh was not doing the radio commentary. That was being done by Liam Campbell.

Liam who? Precisely.

The voice of Gaelic Games was a part time broadcaster until Micheál O’Hehir got sick. Before that, RTÉ were quite content to only call Ó Muircheartaigh in when they needed a dig out.

But now both Micheáls are gone, and the nation is coming to the realisation that the National Broadcaster doesn’t seem to fully get the National Games. This is perhaps why the League of Managers assembled to support Carthy in the first place – he might be a drone but he’s their drone, as opposed to the sort of mind that would put together RTÉ television’s extraordinary Committee Room.

The Committee Room is like a flatpack bed that’s been assembled by someone who’s never actually seen or slept in a bed before. He or she has followed the instructions and the bits are all there but as soon as you jump the mattress is like a board or you're impaled by a rogue spring or there’s some other damn thing wrong with it. The bottom line is that you just can't sleep in it. In the case against RTÉ’s understanding of the GAA, The Committee Room would be Exhibit A.

And then there’s Carthy, the man who won’t go away. It’s reasonable to suspect that part of the reason that League of Managers has assembled to support Carthy because he is a good GAA man. A man after their own hearts.

But the problem is that Carthy isn’t being asked to be a good GAA man; he’s being asked to be a radio sports broadcaster on the single biggest sports competition on the island, bar none.

RTÉ have ignored Gaelic Games for twenty-five years. GAA journalism has survived at the station because of the people’s great love for the games and because of good men like Des Cahill who seem to survive despite RTÉ structures, rather than because of them. But now RTÉ are reaping the whirlwind of their neglect.

Brian Carthy is not a commentator whom An Spailpín enjoys. I can’t expand on that as Carthy is infamously litigious and there isn’t much dough in the blogging to give me a cushion. But if it’s a question of taking sides between Brian Carthy and RTÉ head of sport Ryle Nugent – well, it has to be the fetch and the run and the kick and the point and the score to the man from Roscommon, Brian Carthy. God help me.