Contrived Canning controversy displays short-comings of Irish sports journalism

I have come to a conclusion; Ireland is just too small. This dawned on me as I shifted through yet another day’s hyperbole coverage of Joe Canning’s relatively level-headed comments on Henry Shefflin last week.

I have come to a conclusion; Ireland is just too small. This dawned on me as I shifted through yet another day’s hyperbole coverage of Joe Canning’s relatively level-headed comments on Henry Shefflin last week.

All I could think was ‘Is this all they have to write about in the week running up to the most unique All Ireland football final in years, and our first replayed All Ireland hurling final in 50 years?’ We are too insular, too myopic, and too driven by a thirst for controversy than by a real hunger for information and honest comment.

The reaction from much of the Irish sporting media – which spread from the back onto front pages in some cases – was excessive, unjustified and indicative of a basic underlying fact: Irish journalism, including sports coverage, has become entirely too tabloid in its approach and content.

Driving this is the fact that a ‘story’ (and I use that word in its broadest terms) in this country is jumped upon if there is even the slightest chance that it might create a stir and sell more papers, partly due to the relatively small population of sporting heroes we have to make false gods out of.

The ironic thing is that GAA journalists in particular lament the fact that all too often our stars turn out banal platitudes and clichés in interviews that reveal nothing we haven’t heard a thousand times before. And why are players so cautious in their dealings with the media? Because they don’t want to be hung out like Joe Canning was last week. It wasn’t even that what he said was repeated and dissected ad nauseam, in many cases it was taken completely out of context and even exaggerated for the titillation of readers and to ensure the media-made controversy rolled on.

One paper whose coverage was particularly disappointing went as far to call it a ‘bizarre rant’ in their headline. Crazy stuff. Anyone who has ever played sport to any reasonable level will understand where Canning was coming from when he was asked if Kilkenny was ‘cuter’ as a team. Canning said he thought it was unsportsmanlike to run 40 yards to berate a referee.

Does that mean all the journalists and legions of former players who threw in their two-bits believe such behaviour is sportsmanlike? It’s not. Yes, I did it in the heat of a game on occasions but always felt embarrassed by my actions afterwards. It wasn’t sportsmanlike of me, and more importantly it was disrespectful to the referee.

As a working journalist during my days playing county football, colleagues would often call me up prior to a big championship game as they knew I would talk relatively freely and openly and provide some decent copy. I had no fear of the media as I knew how it worked, what to say and what not to say, while still offering a little more than your standard clichés.

(I must admit that after the first interview I gave to a national paper – the Irish Times ahead of my championship debut in 1998 – I did rerun in my head what I had said a few times worrying it could be misconstrued in some way, but Keith Duggan is one of the country’s best and most respectable sports journalists for a reason, and he ran copy true to what I had said in word and feeling.)

But I had an experience a year later that really angered me. It was our first championship match since the tragic death of my dear friend and team mate Shane McGettigan and I received a call from a journalist from an Irish tabloid newspaper.

I agreed to give him an interview on two conditions: that the interview focus on the game and that on no condition would the paper run a headline over the article referring to Shane’s death. He agreed. I never read the papers in the days building up to a big game, so it was only the day after our match against Roscommon in Pairc Sean that I saw the headline over my interview: ‘We want to win it for Shane’. I was raging. I had never said that in the interview and my explicit request had been ignored.

I knew what had happened. I had made one reference in the interview that we all thought of Shane often and missed him dearly, and the sub-editor with responsibility for writing the headlines jumped on this and twisted my words to make the headline he wanted regardless of what the article actually said.

When studying journalism and communications, I wrote my dissertation on the media and the GAA. It was entitled ‘From High Kings to Highball: The GAA and the Media’. It found and argued that the relationship between the two was a symbiotic one, with both entities benefitting from a shared connection.

However, too often Irish media outlets forget that GAA players remain amateur and unlike their professional counterparts in rugby or soccer for example, do not get paid to put their lives on public display. A little perspective and respect is all GAA players ever ask for. Give them that and they’ll give you a lot more copy worth reading and writing about.