Ciarán Murphy: Biased pundits are fine as long as they entertain and inform too

Those calling on RTÉ to use neutrals on GAA panels are unlikely to get much of a hearing

Pat Spillane, Seán Cavanagh and presenter  Joanne Cantweli on the RTÉ studio at Croke Park during the All-Ireland semi-final between Kerry and Tyrone. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Pat Spillane, Seán Cavanagh and presenter Joanne Cantweli on the RTÉ studio at Croke Park during the All-Ireland semi-final between Kerry and Tyrone. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

As Seán Cavanagh and Pat Spillane hammered away at each other on RTÉ television last Saturday before the All-Ireland football semi-final, it would not have taken a genius to discover where both lads, quite literally, were coming from.

Cavanagh was there to put forward the case for Tyrone, and Spillane was there to voice the Kerry side. Their previous allegiances were already known to most viewers, but a moment in their company on Saturday evening left you in no doubt.

The argument was unsatisfactory, and the surgical approach that would have well served a debate around Tyrone’s Covid cases, with what are, in effect, just two or three very defined questions to answer, gave way to a slanging match. It led to a veritable chorus of people suggesting that completely ‘neutral’ analysis panels for these big games are the way to go.

Why do we have people from the counties involved on TV broadcasts anyway? What we saw on Saturday evening seemed like an inevitable byproduct of bias towards one’s own . . . but I nevertheless disagree entirely with that position.

Analysts from the counties involved are important because they will always know more than someone from outside their county ever could.

Even if a ‘neutral’ TV analyst has seen every game that a senior intercounty footballer has played for that team, a person from their own county will probably have seen three or four times the number of games that player has played – whether that’s at underage county level, at club level or at schools level.

People like conflict: 600,000 people have watched that Spillane/Cavanagh clip on social media since last Saturday

It’s just impossible for a TV analyst from outside the county to see that amount of games – they can try and do their homework, but that information is just baked in to the well-informed home pundit – it’s there at that person’s finger tips, ready to be used at the drop of a hat.

It’s important to say here that many pundits do try and bridge that gap and they do that by talking to local journalists, and local radio analysts. The best ones put in that hard work, but it’s still no substitute for first-hand knowledge.

I was talking to someone this week who has been involved in hundreds of these broadcasts over the years who also suggested that ‘home’ pundits also care more, that you would never see a row like that which flared up last Saturday between two neutral pundits.

He was telling me this, and it matters, because people like conflict: 600,000 people have watched that Spillane/Cavanagh clip on social media since last Saturday, so there must be a kernel of truth in there.

Maybe both of Saturday’s combatants saw the reaction to Kevin McStay not being sufficiently critical in the immediate aftermath of the John Small incident in the other semi-final. He clarified his feelings on the tackle on The Sunday Game highlights show, and in print in this newspaper, but it was still deemed to be insufficient.

Some of the abuse he took from Mayo people was laughably over the top. Everyone has to call it as they see it . . . unless you’re talking about one of our own, in which case, get that jersey on and play your part.

The people who say that TV punditry has moved on, and RTÉ needs to move with it, have it slightly wrong

The lesson learned by Spillane and Cavanagh might have been that while 31 other counties might blanche at one’s biases being so clearly laid out, the county you actually live in is the only one that actually matters. You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t, it seems.

In any case, there’s been a definite shift in sports broadcasting generally towards pundits-as-fans, not away from it. On Sky Sports’ Premier League coverage, there is the Man City one, the Man United one (or two), the Liverpool one (or two), and they’re expected to act as a conduit for the emotion of the audience.

They’re selling the spectacle of sport back to us in the way most of us live through it – as an emotional rather than an analytical experience.

So the people who say that TV punditry has moved on, and RTÉ needs to move with it, have it slightly wrong, too, I think. Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher are very good at analysing games, but that’s not the only reason I find them compulsive viewing.

They like correcting each other, they enjoy taking each other down a peg or two and even if they don’t like each other (they appear to get along famously on air, but that’s no guarantee), they respect each other’s opinions enough to laugh at each other and genuinely challenge each other.

They absolutely do not hide the fact they played for Manchester United and Liverpool for a combined total of well over 30 years. It appears to me as if they’re encouraged to ramp it up. They’ve made mis-steps as they try to tread that line, but bias isn’t the problem.

We’re all biased. Hire the right people to entertain and educate us as you go, and we won’t even care.

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