Paul Williams vs Pat Hickey. No contest

Radio Review: It's was less Rumble in the Jungle and more Cakewalk on Newstalk

Pat Hickey at the men’s lightweight double sculls final at the Olympics in Rio. Photograph:  James Crombie/Inpho

Pat Hickey at the men’s lightweight double sculls final at the Olympics in Rio. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

If the build-up is to believed, the encounter between Paul Williams and Pat Hickey is set to rival storied clashes as the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila for fireworks.

In the red corner, the straight-talking presenter of Newstalk Drive (weekdays), who has tangled with some of Ireland’s most dangerous criminals. In the blue corner, the former head of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI), whose position as arguably the most powerful figure in Irish sport crashed down when he was arrested in Brazil on ticket touting charges.

Sparks will fly. The truth will out. Forget Frost/Nixon, Williams/Hickey is the new show in town.

But when, after days of teasers over various shows, the full interview is broadcast on Wednesday, it turns out to be the gentlest of sparring sessions: the Cakewalk on Newstalk, as it were. From the moment that Hickey says he cannot discuss his ongoing court case in Rio – only wise, to be fair – it’s clear this won’t be much of a contest.

“I’d like to just emphasise that I’m totally innocent of all charges,” Hickey states. Instead, he corrects the notion he ran up large legal fees for the OCI and stresses how profitable the organisation was under his stewardship, with minimal interruption from his host.

Williams attempts the odd light tap in the direction of his guest. He notes that some coverage of Hickey’s woes had “the clear implication that there was no smoke without fire”, helpfully adding that this might “tarnish your good name”. In response, Hickey describes his humiliation at being arrested in such visible fashion, and repeats a Brazilian judge’s observation that his subsequent imprisonment was disgraceful. He notes that sport minister Shane Ross “scarpered back home” without inquiring about him, and says that he has a heart condition as a result of his ordeal.

In this telling, Hickey’s treatment does seem excessive for his alleged offences. But when he goes on to sing his own praises as an unpaid official who has given “great service” to Irish athletes – “they don’t see me as the monster I’ve been portrayed as” – Williams doesn’t respond with even mildly awkward questions about, say, the disparity in travel arrangements between Irish Olympic officials and actual Olympians. 

He does give his wronged guest the opportunity to show his harder side, however. “Lots of people said many things about me when I was away,” Hickey remarks. “My legal team have kept a record of everything, so when I clear my name I’ll spend some time reading over all those.” In other words, no more Mr Nice Guy.

If the interview provides a platform for Hickey to hit back at critics, it does few favours for Williams’s tough guy image. His personal courage in reporting on the criminal underworld is beyond reproach, and his partnership with co-host Shane Coleman has developed the rough-and-tumble chemistry of a mismatched buddy movie. But while Williams happily takes swipes at “lefty darlings”, he appears to lack the nimble on-air footwork to trouble a guest as seasoned as Hickey. 

Meanwhile, Jonathan Healy, guest host on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays), positively revels in wishy-washy values such as balance and neutrality. Joshing with Williams and Coleman during the handover between shows, Healy cheerily talks about occupying the high moral ground and jokes about building a big fence to sit on. 

Sure enough, Healy approaches his temporary stint with a good-natured civility and an open attitude, but rarely clashes with his guests. He gives Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley largely free rein to bemoan the government’s proposed changes to bin charges, only half-heartedly putting forward any counter-arguments. 

He is better when dealing with less pressing issues, such as a plan in Berlin to ban all sexist advertising, which he discusses with reporter David Charter. True, at one point Healy refers to some advertising as “sexy” rather than sexist, thus recalling the spirit of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnell and his famous line about an offensive album cover: “What’s wrong with being sexy?”

Otherwise, he treads a scrupulously balanced path. He describes the Berlin move as “handwringing” but reminds an outraged listener complaining about “dreary feminism” that the item featured “two men talking about this issue”. 

And occasionally, his own views become clear. When one listener takes to Twitter to decry Healy’s praise for Irish naval rescues of migrants in the Mediterranean, he cannot hide his irritation. “I am proud of our naval service and what they’re doing there,” he says, in a miffed tone. As his much-missed tenure as an afternoon news host attested, Healy’s easy manner masks deeply held principles and a firm sense of decency. 

Brave indeed is the outraged listener who tussles with Sarah McInerney on Newstalk Drive (weekdays). The presenter continues to upbraid those hardy texters who dare to annoy her. When a listener describes the planned removal of baptismal requirements for admission to Catholic schools as “anti-Christian”, she rejects this. Her voice rising by half an octave, she characterises the current arrangement as “discrimination on the basis of religion”. 

McInerney’s forceful statement makes for a bracing counterpoint to the right-leaning editorialising of Williams. It’s certainly as provocative or justifiable, depending on one’s point of view. Broadcasting in slots that bookend the day, it’s just a shame they can’t trade their opinions on the same programme.  Now that would be a clash worth listening to.

Radio Moment of the Week: Duffy shows his clout

Once again, Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1) proves that politicians are fine and well, but if something needs doing urgently, Joe Duffy is your only man. On Monday, he talks to Wexford man Michael Devereaux, who has been separated from Kathleen, his wife of 63 years, after her application to join him in a nursing home was rejected by the HSE.

It’s heartbreaking, as a distraught Devereaux talks about his “nightmare”. “We were loyal citizens all our lives,” he says, “it’s terrible to think that the same country has led us into this situation.” It’s almost unbearably grim radio, but effective: the following day, the HSE decision is reversed. Duffy deserves credit.

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