Radio: Racial discrimination versus gushing tributes to Nelson Mandela

On Newtalk, George Hook tackles a black-and-white issue while Ivan Yates airs some shibboleths of his own

Released: Nelson Mandela in Soweto in 1990, four days after he left prison. Photograph: Georges De Keerle/Getty

Released: Nelson Mandela in Soweto in 1990, four days after he left prison. Photograph: Georges De Keerle/Getty

Sat, Dec 14, 2013, 01:00

The world may have said goodbye to a courageous fighter for equality and respect, but there remain some hardy souls fired by a similar fearlessness. True, George Hook is not everyone’s idea of Ireland’s Nelson Mandela, but he is, if nothing else, unafraid of speaking his mind, no matter what sensitivities are involved. On Wednesday’s edition of The Right Hook (Newstalk, weekdays), to take one example, the presenter punctuated a discussion of racial discrimination in Ireland with the recollection that on the few occasions he encountered “black faces” as a young man he “looked at them like alien beings”. And so the legacy of Madiba lives on.

Hook’s candid remark came during a bracing but worthwhile conversation with the former government adviser Gerard Howlin about how gushing Irish tributes to Mandela contrasted unfavourably with the treatment of many immigrants here, what Hook’s guest called “the patina of delusion about the effective apartheid in our society”.

By way of explanation if not mitigation, the presenter ventured that few other modern countries had experienced the change in racial demographics that Ireland had, while admitting that this was “a top of the head comment”.

He then showed off the depth of his research by asking a question taken from a listener’s text, namely that no British-style debate was taking place in Ireland about immigration policies, an assertion that Hook said was “absolutely right”. Howlin answered that although it was legitimate to ask if such policies were working, it was wrong and even dangerous to conflate this with the abuse of people who are already here: “Let us not confuse the two issues.” It was a quiet but categorical response to those who might muddy the waters of debate about immigration.

To be fair to Hook, for all that he wades into delicate subjects with the subtlety of a beefy rugby player diving into a ruck, he does cede his ground when countered with cogent arguments. He spoke to the journalist Deirdre O’Shaughnessy about the widening income gap between men and women, introducing his guest with typical blunderbuss wit: “So, according to you, it’s getting worse for men.” (Say what you like, Hook is unencumbered by white male guilt.) But when O’Shaughnessy suggested that one possible way to rebalance gender inequality in the workplace was for fathers to have the same parental-leave entitlement as mothers, Hook sounded as if he had stumbled across some sobering nugget of wisdom. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he mused. “I’d buy that.”

Hook is, one suspects, more thoughtful than his perennially ornery disposition suggests. On Tuesday, when discussing how sport boycotts had helped to isolate apartheid-era South Africa, the presenter noted that touring rugby teams had often provided succour for the racist state, from the All Blacks who left out Maori players to the Irish squad that visited in the early 1980s. He concluded that his beloved game had been the worst offender at breaking the boycott. Whatever else, Hook was prepared to face up to inconvenient truths.

Ivan Yates, one of the presenters of Breakfast (Newstalk, weekdays), had shibboleths of his own in the crosshairs this week, as he tackled the supposedly work-shy culture of the Civil Service. In the light of a Government report that said a performance- review system for State workers gave a false picture, with less than 1 per cent of employees deemed in need of improvement, Yates spoke to a Civil Service manager who said she had been told by her personnel department to change an unfavourable grade for one of her staff or face questions from higher management and unions.

It was a jolting interview: with increments dependent on acceptable grades, managers were clearly reluctant to mark down underperforming colleagues.

But the discussion that followed, between Yates and the management consultant Eddie Molloy, was not as enlightening. Molloy made some interesting points about lack of accountability at the top – senior civil servants could hide behind Ministers and vice versa – and suggested the system offered little incentive to work hard. But the chiming world views of Yates and his guest became somewhat hectoring. Harking back to his time as a minister, Yates dismissively recalled those civil servants near retirement who “leaned on the shovel”. More power was needed to sack incompetent workers, Molloy said, as he focused on teachers in particular. Both men agreed that the pressures of the private sector encouraged people to work harder.

All of which may be true, but there was no brooking the possibility that private-sector performance reviews could be also affected, this time negatively, by personal factors. And there was no dissent from the implicit assumption that the constant demand in the private sector to prove one’s worth was inherently positive: the workplace need not be a pit of social Darwinism any more than it should be a holiday camp.

It took a texting listener to point out that supposedly dispassionate private-company reviews that find fault with workers can have the side effect of denying bonuses or raises.

All in all it was a missed opportunity to analyse a subject that clearly requires serious attention. Yates is not a two-dimensional right-wing caricature, as was highlighted by his swipe at the anonymity of ESB management during the recent strike threat. But he needs to do more than loudly voice his opinions. Having the courage of your convictions is one thing, allowing them to be challenged is another.


Moment of the week: Anchor misses a beat
Sticking with Newstalk’s Breakfast show, co-anchor Chris Donoghue committed an unfortunate sin of omission on Monday, leaving out a crucial noun when he spoke about the memorial for the “former South African Nelson Mandela”. Though, in fairness, it was still an accurate statement.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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