Radio: Cormac Ó hEadhra’s fireworks end RTÉ’s night with a bang

Review: ‘The Late Debate’, ‘Talking Point with Sarah Carey’

Late Debate: Cormac Ó hEadhra invites on guests who have opposing views and contrasting styles

Late Debate: Cormac Ó hEadhra invites on guests who have opposing views and contrasting styles

 

There’s an adage, commonly attributed to the Scottish poet Andrew Land, that people use statistics as a drunk man uses a lamp post: for support rather than illumination. Listening to The Late Debate (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday-Thursday), it is tempting to conclude that Cormac Ó hEadhra regards the show he presents as most people regard a fireplace: as a source of heat rather than light.

The current-affairs programme has always had a whiff of cordite, with tongues as well as ties loosened in the late-night setting. But under Ó hEadhra’s stewardship it’s not just politicians and pundits getting stuck in. The host also provides the friction, not so much prodding guests as jabbing them for a reaction.

As a result the show is rarely dull, no matter how arid its subject matter. The apparent disparity between Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan’s public statements about the Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe and her instructions to her lawyers at the O’Higgins inquiry may have dominated last week’s news cycle, but it’s probably fair to say that it hasn’t been a burning topic around the nation’s watercoolers. In Ó hEadhra’s hands, however, the issue turns into a ding-dong.

The presenter habitually looks for weaknesses in his guests’ arguments before sinking his jaws into them. When the Fine Gael TD Noel Rock seems to suggest that the commissioner’s barrister took a different approach to McCabe of his own volition Ó hEadhra sounds outraged: “Are you suggesting that he” – the barrister – “wasn’t acting on instruction?”

Rock says he doesn’t know, but Ó hEadhra continues to harangue him: “That’s a serious accusation.”

Similarly, when discussing pay restoration in the public sector, the presenter politely invites the Sinn Féin TD Maurice Quinlivan to outline who shouldn’t get pay rises, only to do a U-turn when he gets the answer. “So to people earning over €50,000 Sinn Féin are saying, ‘We won’t give you a pay rise,’ ” he thunders.

Ó hEadhra also uses the old tactic of inviting on guests with opposing views and contrasting styles. This leads to some exquisite exchanges between the voluble security specialist John O’Brien and the quietly acerbic columnist Cormac Lucey.

Speaking about Garda reform, Lucey posits that rapid institutional change is possible only with large-scale personnel change, citing his own experience in post-communist east Germany. “It might be stretching the metaphor to compare the Garda to the Stasi,” says O’Brien, a former garda himself. “It was a bread factory,” Lucey says, his tone more pitying than irritated.

With the conversation pinging between legal technicalities and pure speculation, the uninitiated are unlikely any wiser about the O’Sullivan affair. But Ó hEadhra’s sparky approach means the casual listener is at least likely to stick around.

A more cordial air suffuses the debate on Talking Point with Sarah Carey (Newstalk, Saturday), although it’s not for the host’s want of trying. Carey plays the agent provocateur even when the topic is as sensitive as mental health or, as she terms it, “the politics of depression”.

The show gets off to a promising start as Carey interviews the British psychologist and author Oliver James, who reels off one effortlessly contentious assertion after another. He says that the rise of individualism and the decline of collectivism have led to a rise in depression, that the advertising boom has made people try to be someone other than themselves and that Anglo-American feminism has turned many women into “men in skirts”. James makes many fascinating points and is more accepting of modern treatments for depression than his manner suggests. But these finer points get somewhat lost amid the hand grenades he tosses about.

There are fewer fireworks when Carey engages with her panel. The guests disagree about the merits of various treatments. The psychologist Leslie Shoemaker berates the psychoanalyst Colman Noctor for his ostensibly dubious attitude towards cognitive behaviour therapy. But while Carey does her best to raise the temperature by dismissively characterising CBT as “the Government’s therapy of choice”, the expected quarrels fail to appear. Instead the panellists listen to each other and, after some disappointingly civil exchanges, agree that each approach has its place. Carey seems torn between her desire to hear all sides and her instinct to stir things up.

When the conversation veers toward the concept that depression is rooted in low self-esteem, Carey’s scepticism boils over, as she suggests all this is a “neoliberal conspiracy”. “If we are in this society where there is job insecurity and the cultural solution becomes mindfulness rather than changing society, is there something sinister in that?”

It’s an intriguing question, but rather than rising to the bait the panellists embark on another conversation about the efficacy of sundry therapeutic approaches. The result is informative, if surprisingly short of disputation. Such are the perils of putting a bunch of therapists together in a room. Perhaps Carey needs less tolerant guests.

Moment of the Week: Mary Wilson wears her art on her sleeve After Enda Kenny’s latest platitudes Jo Mangan of the National Campaign for the Arts appears on Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) to highlight the new Government’s neglect of the sector. Mangan makes some startling points to Mary Wilson, telling the host that Ireland’s investment in the cultural sector is a fifth of the European average. Wilson then gets outraged on Mangan’s behalf. Of the Government’s spending priorities Wilson asks: “Does it feel like you’re always at the end of everything?” And when Mangan hopes that Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys will secure more funding Wilson sounds doubtful. “Do you think she is in your corner?” she asks. “There’s no reason why she wouldn’t be,” replies Mangan, not sounding entirely convinced.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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