Gloves come off as Michael O’Leary and Joe Duffy slug it out over seats

Radio review: Ryanair boss hogs the airwaves but meets his match in Sean O’Rourke

Michael O’Leary of Ryanair: the Hamlet of mock indignation. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Michael O’Leary of Ryanair: the Hamlet of mock indignation. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

 

Joe Duffy has done a great deal of good in his time, but if he ever ends up in line for canonisation, it will surely be due to Wednesday’s Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), where he performs the unlikeliest of miracles. Hard as it might be to believe, Duffy makes you feel sorry for Michael O’Leary. Well, almost.

The outspoken Ryanair boss appears on the phone-in show following days of complaints about the airline’s seat-reservation charges, in a story first raised in this newspaper's Pricewatch column. A succession of callers tell of paying what they see as unacceptably high prices to sit together on flights rather than accept the randomly allocated free seat option. While the annoyance behind each individual case may be justified, the cumulative effect makes the listener as wearily indifferent as a minimum-wage call centre operator.

Grievance fatigue would probably have put an end to the matter had O’Leary not decided to wade in

Indeed, grievance fatigue would probably have put an end to the matter had O’Leary not decided to wade in. A man whose response to media firestorms is to reach for a can of petrol, O’Leary has no interest in mollifying his upset customers. “You’re perfectly free to complain,” he says, typically bullish as he stands his ground against host and callers alike.

O’Leary rebutts the charges that algorithms are fixed to scatter passengers who don’t pay for seats and sounds bemused when a caller suggests outside experts should examine the airline’s system. He maintains passengers get separated more frequently because more people are buying their seats, which is plausible. Yet callers keep upbraiding him on-air. 

Even O’Leary, normally so gleeful in conflict, sounds frustrated as he yet again reels off his rote rebuttals. It’s around this time that one feels something suspiciously like sympathy for him. 

It’s a fleeting sensation. Ever the provocateur, he decides to get under Duffy’s skin. Adopting a patronising tone, O’Leary asks, “Sorry, do you have a sensible question?” Duffy explodes. “How dare you,” the presenter splutters, sounding genuinely offended. He asks for an apology, which is not forthcoming. Instead, O’Leary suggests the host is feigning offence, prompting Duffy to dub his guest “the Hamlet of mock indignation”. 

Both men have a stake in keeping the pot boiling: Duffy for ratings, O’Leary for publicity. But the mutual needle is unedifying

There is, of course, something of a Punch and Judy show to the encounter. Both men have a stake in keeping the pot boiling: Duffy for ratings, O’Leary for publicity. But the mutual needle is unedifying, especially when the stakes are so low. Duffy should reserve his indignation for more important issues. He’s no saint, but he’s better than this.

O’Leary’s Liveline appearance comes after a frenetic day of radio activity for him, starting on Today With Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), where he agitates for the construction of a second runway at Dublin Airport. In this case, the presenter gets the right tone of response.

O’Rourke treats his guest’s more outrageous claims with dismissive amusement, chuckling when O’Leary claims passengers “want” to pay reservation fees. But O’Rourke presses him on more substantial issues, such as post-Brexit scenarios for air travel. It is a model on how to handle a self-publicist like O’Leary, though the latter still achieves his aim by getting valuable airtime. (And, yes, a substantial role in this column too.)

Silly season

Later, O’Rourke is in giddy mood as he joshes with sports correspondent Darren Frehill about the earnings of English ex-footballers employed by the BBC. “Before you go, what do you think Gary Lineker is worth?” O’Rourke asks, adding, “We’re talking broadcasters’ salaries here.” Frehill doesn’t speculate, on the grounds of it being “dangerous territory”. Undeterred, O’Rourke discusses the subject with media analyst Roy Greenslade.  

On the face of it, the publication of top BBC presenters’ pay rates is a classic silly season item, padding out a programme low on hot topics.  

John Humphrys has been knocking around for some time, so maybe the BBC is paying for his experience

Still, it’s notable that O’Rourke alights on one particular salary. As Greenslade talks about the surprisingly large wage packet earned by veteran newscaster John Humphrys, who presents BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, O’Rourke muses that the money may be deserved. “Humphrys has been knocking around for some time, so maybe they’re paying for the experience.” Given O’Rourke’s own experience and indeed longevity – he informs Frehill he quit sports reporting four decades earlier – is it possible he was making a case for someone else besides Humphrys? Following news this week that RTÉ lost nearly €20 million last year, he couldn’t be blamed for doing so.

George Hook also pores over the BBC earnings on High Noon (Newstalk, weekdays). He decides the Beeb’s presenters deliver good value, then predictably uses them as a stick to beat RTÉ with, unfavourably comparing the size of the audiences delivered by the State broadcaster’s big names with those of their British counterparts. It’s classic Hook – the commercial broadcaster perpetually berates the public sector and baits its snowflake liberal cheerleaders. (Unsurprisingly, he has an ideological love-in when he interviews the ubiquitous O’Leary.)

But then he takes an unexpected turn and bemoans the gender pay gap highlighted by the BBC figures. Moreover, he goes one further and applauds the fact that some of RTÉ’s best-paid figures are women. It’s a reminder that Hook isn’t all about bluster and provocation.  

Later, even as he talks about his “irrational fear of the left”, he has a surprisingly friendly debate about left-wing politics with Social Democrat councillor Gary Gannon that is fair-minded and instructive. 

At times, Hook even sounds reasonable. Now that really is miraculous.

MOMENT OF THE WEEK: TÓIBÍN THE TEACHER

Presented by John Kelly, The Reading List (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday) looks at lesser-known literary classics in the company of other writers. Last week’s edition is the best yet, focusing on Another Country, James Baldwin’s 1962 novel on race and sexuality. Novelist Colm Tóibín shows he is also an astute critic and a vivid teacher of literature. It helps that he has a good repartee with his host, as when Tóibín stresses the importance of African-Americans in US culture. “If you remove jazz, what do you have?” Tóibín asks. “Line dancing,” comes Kelly’s droll reply.

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