Joe Duffy cools hotheads while Ray D’Arcy applies refreshing pressure
Hot topic: Taoiseach Enda Kenny with fellow Ministers this week to launch the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
His show is hardly renowned as a model of moderation and restraint, but Joe Duffy last week highlighted his own remarkable powers of forbearance. For days, the highly charged subject of abortion had dominated the national conversation, but Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), the nation’s premier forum for rash opinion and ill-tempered debate, had ignored the topic with ostrich-like tenacity.
Keeping his powder dry as the fireworks went off everywhere else, Duffy covered increasingly esoteric issues, from higher insurance costs for thatched cottages to the inappropriate alteration of iconic wartime images.
Then, on Wednesday, Duffy stopped teasing his audience and invited his listeners’ opinions on the freshly approved Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. Within minutes the loose cannons were firing off their first salvos. Eamonn, a self-described counsellor of indeterminate provenance, made wild claims about the proportion of women suicidal after abortion, before warning that “the first killing of the innocent is always the most difficult: that was established in Nazi Germany”.
This vintage display of anti-abortion scaremongering seemed an encouraging omen for supporters of the Bill, not to mention for fans of deranged radio, but Duffy brusquely cut across Eamonn to move on the next caller. In doing so, the presenter set out his stall for the occasion: while raw emotions were vented, Duffy steered the debate with a steady but firm hand.
Rather than play to the peanut gallery, Duffy sought out the reasons for his contributors’ stances, which were weighted heavily towards the anti-abortion side, and calmly refuted them. One caller, Karen, was particularly exercised by the provision for suicidal pregnant women to have a termination if approved by two sets of three doctors. “Whether you like it or not,” Duffy clarified, “the Supreme Court has said the issue of suicide has to be dealt with.”
Likewise, when Edel claimed that “modern medical evidence” showed abortion was not a solution for suicidal ideation, Duffy countered that the decision would be made by doctors trained in modern practice, “so what’s the worry?”
The traffic wasn’t all one way. Marcella phoned to say that the prospect of a suicidal woman appearing before a medical board reminded her of the communist-era Czechoslovakia of her youth: the state should not decide what a woman does with her body, she said.
Even when Marcella’s views were vigorously contested by Aoife – who, like many anti-abortion callers, reserved their particular ire for Fine Gael – the exchanges remained civil.
The credit for this goes to Duffy, who gently deflated any hot air from proceedings. When Aoife waxed that “we’re a good nation, we love life”, Duffy pointed that, in fairness, most countries were the same.
And as many callers lamented that the legislation would introduce “abortion on demand”, he reminded them how travel to the UK has become ever cheaper: abortion has been a fact of life here for decades, for all the hyperbole about Ireland having been “a pro-life country”.
Throughout it all, Duffy showed that for all that his adeptness at stirring up a storm in a teacup about trivial matters, he had a sure touch and astute instincts when it comes to handling an issue of real importance.
Less composure was in evidence on The Ray D’Arcy Show (Today FM, weekdays). During his interview with Micheál Martin, the Fianna Fáil leader, last Tuesday, the presenter exuded a spirited rambunctiousness as he took his guest to task on issues from the crash to, yes, abortion.
Never one to shy away from editorialising on the latter topic, D’Arcy returned to the matter, wondering if the politician knew anyone who had travelled to Britain for a termination – Martin said he didn’t, to the presenter’s vocal disbelief – and asking what he thought would happen if Ireland didn’t have the “safety valve” of the UK.
“I would imagine the pressure internally would be far greater,” Martin replied. His diplomacy elicited mocking laughter from D’Arcy, who bemoaned our “national hypocrisy” on the matter.
D’Arcy was equally forthright on other matters. When Martin said cutbacks and tax hikes had gone too far, the host’s response was casually contemptuous: “Austerity isn’t working; you’re hopping on that bandwagon now.”
D’Arcy also opined that Martin, as a minister in the government that oversaw the crash, had “no right to say anything” about Enda Kenny’s administration. “Do you not feel that sometimes, in your quiet moments?” D’Arcy asked. “Ah, you’re probably not going to admit to it.”
Martin somehow managed to maintain his smoothly unflappable veneer throughout, but his spiel sounded glib in the wake of D’Arcy’s fiery questioning. If the presenter’s posturing at times sounds calibrated to consolidate his position as the populist king of the midmorning airwaves, in this case his withering attitude had a ring of bracing honesty. D’Arcy suggested that, when it comes to refreshing radio, playing it cool isn’t always the best option.
Moment of the Week: Dead honest
Last week’s Miriam Meets (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday) had the playwright Tom Murphy and his actor wife, Jane Brennan, providing Miriam O’Callaghan with fascinating glimpses into their personal and creative lives. It ended on a valedictory note, as Murphy spoke about age, death and the afterlife.
“I worry about pain in the approach to death, I worry about incontinence and infirmity, but death itself doesn’t bother me,” he said.
“Do you think we go anywhere after?” asked O’Callaghan.
“No,” came the emphatic reply. It wasn’t the usual Sabbath message, but its starkness was striking.