Radio: Gaybo grills the Garda while Sharon snaps back at the paparazzi

Gay Byrne’s Sunday anecdotes suggest the veteran host is as stimulating as ever; Sharon Ní Bheoláin proves her mettle on ‘Liveline’, hitting out at tabloid intrusion

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

Just when it seems that An Garda Síochána’s image can’t get any worse, the tranquil atmosphere of Sunday afternoon is rudely interrupted by more tales of dubious policing practices. Just to compound the force’s woes, the latest revelations come not from some disgruntled whistleblower, but from the very embodiment of Irish heartland values: Uncle Gaybo himself.

Then again, anyone who has ever tuned into Sunday With Gay Byrne (Lyric FM, Sunday) will know that the show’s soundtrack of pleasant vintage jazz is frequently punctuated by the astringent commentary of the veteran host. And while the account of heavy-handed Garda behaviour turns out to be mild fare compared to the current controversies overwhelming the force, it shows how Byrne remains as ornery, unpredictable and compelling a broadcaster as ever.

From the off, the presenter projects the distinctive mix of mannered self-deprecation and overbearing confidence that has long been his trademark. “The dreaded lurgy struck this week,” he says, his uncharacteristically croaking voice indeed betraying some class of a chill. “But I’m going through this week with my customary courage and stoicism, for which I am justifiably famous.”

Byrne conducts much of the ensuing programme as a slightly dyspeptic stream of consciousness. He rails about newscasters forsaking the phrases “a couple” and “a few” in favour of “a number”, before going on to praise BBC sports presenter Clare Balding as the best broadcaster in Britain, all the while showing off a deep knowledge of his beloved music. This mildly dotty patter is cut short, however, when Byrne adopts his best editorialising tone to begin his “real life story”. He tells how an acquaintance had a glass of wine at a restaurant despite being the designated driver, and how having been marginally over the limit when breathalysed near a Garda checkpoint, he was handcuffed, bundled into a squad car and driven to a station. Tested again at the station, the man was under the limit, and released.

Byrne is critical of the garda’s action, albeit mildly – “When I heard it, I thought it was excessive” – but his overall attitude is harder to divine. As the chairman of the Road Safety Authority – he unapologetically uses his programme as a soapbox on the issue – he sympathises with the rationale behind the man’s cuffing: “He said it was the most scary, nasty experience he has ever had – he doesn’t realise it is designed to be so.”

Byrne also sounds irked at the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that deemed a drink-driving suspect’s arrest unlawful because of unjustifiable handcuffing. Drawing on his trusted auld Dubbalin lexicon, Byrne says that the Garda should be able to restrain “gurriers”, while again saying such actions were excessive in the case of his acquaintance. All this is served up with piquant asides about the closure of Garda stations and the futility of evading checkpoints.

As so often before, the tension between Byrne’s innate personal conservativism and his querying instincts yields an intriguing clash of ideas, even if in this case the discourse is with himself. He may not always be consistent, but Byrne retains the ability to seize his audience’s attention.

As it happens, there are some kind words about the Garda on radio last week. On Monday, newsreader Sharon Ní Bheoláin appears on Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), paying tribute to the support she has received from officers investigating the online harassment she recently suffered. Her praise for the force is surpassed only by the invective she heaps on the tabloid press, whose publication of paparazzi photographs taken outside her home has left her “sore, embarrassed and humiliated”.

It is the kind of item that presenter Joe Duffy revels in, taking in as it does celebrity, crime and human interest. But Ní Bheoláin avoids playing the victim, instead striking a fine balance between dignified fortitude about her stalker ordeal and undisguised loathing of the “rags” that intruded into her private life. “I’ve broad shoulders, I’m perfectly able to deal with this [harassment] on my own,” she says. “What I’m not equipped for are these low lifes who hide in a car on my street and pap me.”

It is a measure of the newsreader’s revulsion at the tabloids’ behaviour that she expresses sorrow for the man charged with stalking her, after he was named in one paper. “I don’t believe the prosecution will be successful,” she says, “and that’s deeply disturbing and upsetting.”

Normally publicity-shy, Ní Bheoláin carries herself admirably throughout. But she also displays a certain media savvy in choosing Duffy’s populist forum over a more conventional talk show to express her rightful unhappiness. (Her admission that she gets her morning news from rival station Newstalk rather than from her RTÉ colleagues on Morning Ireland is also striking.) By the end of her interview, Liveline ’s listeners are rallying to Team Sharon.

Faced with such a formidable backlash, resistance is futile: by the following morning, a tabloid picture editor is apologising for his paper’s actions on Breakfast (Newstalk, weekdays). It’s a rare victory for decency, won largely by Ní Bheoláin’s understated mastery of the airwaves.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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