Tipping Point: Extinction fears for TV species of lesser spotted Shit Stirrer

There’s still nothing better than a loose-tongued gouger lobbing grenades into the mix

Often a better ‘watch’ than the Irish team, Dunphy turned half-time analysis into a national institution.

Often a better ‘watch’ than the Irish team, Dunphy turned half-time analysis into a national institution.

 

A week spent peering into the unnatural world of sports punditry suggests there must be extinction fears for that TV sub-species known as the lesser-spotted Shit Stirrer.

Not that such creatures are endangered or anything. Social media teems with them. There they stir vigorously in pursuit of instant gratification. But so much free amateur mischief means the outlook for professionals appears as promising as the bottom of a canary’s cage.

The smug response to that is along the lines of change and inevitable casualties in this brave new mainstream media world where data is king and offence to be avoided at all costs.

So it’s probably no surprise so much self-satisfaction seems to fill the varied sporting studios.

Rows of clean-cut figures parse mountains of data, talking their audiences through tactical tutorials with impressive fluency, and building convincing theses as to why one side have beaten the other.

It’s informative, delivered with commendable personal perspective, and labours under a suffocating reasonableness which makes for deathly boring telly.

Last week so many of the various panels devoted to the Champions League, Six Nations or the GAA combined impeccable expertise and credibility with a deadly earnestness that basically boiled down to everyone agreeing with each other.

Such balance and equanimity are all well and good but sometimes there’s still nothing better than a loose-tongued gouger lobbing wildly indulgent grenades into the mix and getting this party started, baby.

Time was there couldn’t be a panel on Irish TV that didn’t have its very own agitator in chief, some charismatic, extravagant, infuriating, self-anointed shaman tapping into the sporting soul in pursuit of truth, beauty and a weekly tabloid column.

The original of the species was Eamon Dunphy, Ireland’s arch-provocateur who brought journalistic rigour and indignation to RTE’s football panel and also, crucially, an appreciation of the show as show.

In comparison to the gravitas of John Giles or Liam Brady’s steely perception, Dunphy’s flamboyance could seem ludicrously self-absorbed.

But no one ever doubted he was the one the country en-masse tuned in for, anticipating a full Krakatoa of frothing venom on Jack Charlton, maybe even a long postulation on the meaning of life’s great and good, or simply baiting the bejaysus out of Kenny Cunningham.

Often a better ‘watch’ than the Irish team, Dunphy turned half-time analysis into a national institution. And if the posing could sometimes reach ridiculous levels of self-regard the one thing Dunphy rarely could ever be accused of being was boring.

Others followed in his cultish wake. George Hook parlayed his inner clubhouse boor into a cartoon persona that both enthralled and appalled before the self-appointed tree of Gaelic truth, Joe Brolly, flounced into our lives.

Joe Brolly’s switch to Eir was rationalised with all the contradictory hauteur of the born shit stirrer.
Joe Brolly’s switch to Eir was rationalised with all the contradictory hauteur of the born shit stirrer.

He reigned supreme for years in RTE’s GAA coverage, waspishly alternating between mawkish bucolic visions of sandwiches for goalposts and spitting disdain at anyone daring to counter his intuition with anything as impertinent as an alternative opinion.

Last year Brolly got his marching orders from RTE. Now he’s on Eir Sport, a subscription channel he once decried as a money-grubbing tick eating into the GAA’s moral fibre. Except it isn’t anymore apparently, a switch Brolly has rationalised with all the contradictory hauteur of the born shit stirrer.

No doubt there are plenty who’re mightily relieved they’re spared his shaping and are delighted Dunphy is parked in Podcastville. Both in turn probably relish that idea. When love and hate is your currency the only enemy is indifference.

However, the bland uniformity that seems to have filled the vacuum provokes not only nostalgia but unease.

Fashions change as do tastes, and an information obsessed world has provoked a much more statistical approach to the role of pundit.

For one thing software that goes ‘ping’ is more cost-effective. But hard-nosed bureaucratic caution manifests itself editorially too with the consequence being safe, anodyne coverage that ultimately does the audience no service.

Maybe such circumspection is an altruistic reaction to the social media badlands. More possibly it’s a fear of negative headlines or dread of being sued. The consequence though is a middle-of-the-road approach that’s unlikely to ever get anyone in trouble but is also a recipe for tedium.

It’s an environment that makes survival of the shit stirrer species all the more critical.

They might be the sort of individual who’d be as welcome at your front door as two-feet of flood water and what they do can come across as ridiculous egotism sometimes.

But at their agitating best they can also supply vital appreciation of a broader context and recognise that statistical evidence and sporting truth are far from synonymous. Numbers mightn’t lie but they can certainly equivocate.

Reaching for such truths is both ambitious and conceited, a combination ripe for tripping over the line into offence and insult. Apparently Brolly tripped once too often last year and paid the price for letting his famously loose mouth flap too much.

But it’s worth asking if RTE’s audience is the one losing out because of such prurience because the freedom to be inoffensive is no freedom at all.

Offence is subjective and valid criticism has to have the freedom to risk offending. That doesn’t mean facilitating the criminal and disgusting. But trying to stamp out the obnoxious seems to have also constricted the space for robust debate in comparatively trivial arenas.

If exaggeration or sarcasm can’t be employed for fear of someone feeling insulted it leads to a different type of intolerance.

It means the days of the shit stirrer on sports panels look numbered and that’s not irrelevant. A lot of it is mischievous. But it can also be a much needed kick against conformity and cosy consensus. It’s no fun being on the receiving end but there isn’t much fun either watching the alternative.

Ultimately any culture afraid to accommodate those prepared to rock the boat for fear of causing offence can’t be in a healthy state.

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