Radio: Pundits fall flat as politicians shatter on Sean Moncrieff

Review: Today with Seán O’Rourke; The Last Word; The Anton Savage Show; Moncrieff; Rising Time

Sean Moncrieff pulls off the seemingly impossible by hosting political slots that are entertaining and even enlightening. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times

Sean Moncrieff pulls off the seemingly impossible by hosting political slots that are entertaining and even enlightening. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times

 

The polls have finally closed, giving the pundits who have spent weeks dispensing expert predictions and informed speculation something concrete to analyse. As they survey the constituencies the verdict from two of Ireland’s most eminent political scientists is as unequivocal as it refreshing: they don’t know what’s going on.

If you’re wondering how you missed this unusual moment of candour, it may be because it occurred half a century ago, when Brian Farrell and David Thornley were analysing the 1965 general-election count. In an archive clip unearthed by John Bowman and aired on Today with Seán O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) Farrell and Thornley – both academics turned broadcasters – spark off each other to enjoyable effect. Farrell opines that guessing the outcome is “a waste of time” on the basis of the votes counted. Thornley gleefully says that their role is “to fall flat on our faces for the general delectation of the listeners, and this I am prepared to do”.

The clip is played to illustrate how election coverage has changed with the development of exit polls and computer models. But the item is also a reminder that political uncertainty is hardly a new phenomenon, with Bowman digging out an awkward exchange of his own with an outgoing taoiseach, Charles Haughey, from the indecisive 1981 election.

As avid students of politics Bowman and O’Rourke have a rare old time donning their anoraks and poring over campaigns of old, but there’s the odd wily observation too. Bowman points out that although Micheál Martin may have ruled out coalition with Fine Gael, the Fianna Fáil leader also told O’Rourke that he would listen to the electorate. “That’s a blank cheque,” says Bowman, with a wry chuckle. Watch that space.

Listening to Bowman’s typically thorough piece, it’s difficult not to feel a pang of longing for the past, particularly when he reveals that before 1961 there was no radio coverage of election campaigns, for fear of prejudicing the result.

As canvassing reaches the home straight, some presenters clearly can’t wait for the pre-election moratorium to kick in. On The Anton Savage Show (Today FM, weekdays), for example, the presenter sounds like he’s going through the motions as he analyses the final leaders’ debate with the political correspondent Gavan Reilly. Savage sounds happier talking to the author Eoin Colfer about whether “leaders’ debate” warrants the possessive apostrophe, which gives a good idea of the host’s desperation to find any unpolitical topic to chat about.

Gavan Reilly again discusses the debate with Matt Cooper on The Last Word (Today FM, weekdays), where the pair are joined by Alison O’Connor, herself heard earlier on O’Rourke’s show. Such has been the merry-go-round of pundits on talkshows that there is an air of deja vu to proceedings. It might be unfair to call all this a waste of time, but the endless loop of discussion and speculation has produced less clarity than confusion.

Still, the election hasn’t been an entirely negative influence on the airwaves. Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays) pulls off the seemingly impossible by hosting political slots that are entertaining and even enlightening. Under the banner of “Quickfire Candidates”, Sean Moncrieff’s brief but broad-ranging interviews have given politicians an opportunity to prove they are capable of more than sniping at opponents.

As Aodhán Ó Ríordáin of Labour tells Moncrieff that he previously picked up penalty points on his way to appear on the programme, he shows off a self-deprecating streak, a rare quality in his profession. One listener even texts to compliment Ó Ríordáin on his personality, while adding that he still won’t get their vote.

Paul Murphy of the Anti-Austerity Alliance comes across as committed and earnest, but he is surprisingly sketchy on some details: he can’t remember what year he sat his Leaving Cert. As for Damien English, the Fine Gael Minister seems good-humoured but oddly devoid of political curiosity, recounting how he joined the party at the behest of a business teacher.

Even more revelatory is roving reporter Henry McKean’s self-explanatory “Carpool Candidates” slot with the Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter. With his ingenuous poise and impeccable civility, McKean may have an unlikely manner for conducting vox pops, but he clicks with the former justice minister, even as he archly confesses to being “a little bit starstruck”.

McKean covers issues as diverse as Shatter’s stint as a seller of women’s clothing, his brief career as a novelist (with readings of steamy excerpts) and his fractured friendship with Enda Kenny, allowing his guest to open up somewhat. He laughs in a reasonably unforced way, albeit largely at his own jokes. He comes across as thoughtful, if still smarting at his exit from office. And he is forthright about some of the unpleasantness he faces as a Jewish politician.

“Unfortunately . . . there’s some degree of anti-Semitism in Ireland, ” he says, pointing the finger at elements on the left for much of the abuse. It’s a jarring moment. Shatter says that he ignores such insults, but his tone – more disappointed than disturbed – suggests otherwise.

It’s enough to turn you off politics, as if there wasn’t reason enough already.

Moment of the Week: Shay’s short song

On Monday’s Rising Time (RTÉ Radio 1) Shay Byrne ends with The Byrds’ version of Mr Tambourine Man, a track as short as it is sweet. But not short enough, it seems. Ninety seconds in Byrne starts to fade out the song. “I thought I had an extra minute,” he says, apologising. “Oh well, have a lovely day.” Cue the sound of buttons being pressed, followed by the song increasing in volume. “The ad break won’t play,” he now explains, “so we get to play this. It’s going well.” Little wonder that when the ads finally play the chastened host can be heard muttering to himself. “We love technology,” he says ruefully.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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