'I think of standing for election every day'
After 10 years on ‘Liveline’, the broadcaster talk to KATHY SHERIDANabout family, money, political aspirations and being the conduit for Ireland’s complaining masses
NEVER HAS AN interview subject sparked such a synchronicity of sighing. Joe Duffy? “God, do you have to?” sighed a slew of the cynical and the underwhelmed.
And yet . . . “Talk to Joe”, the promo urges, and they surely do, because the four words guaranteed to strike terror into every stratum of Irish society look like this: “I’m ringin’ Joe Duffy.”
His own propensity to the prolonged sigh may be rivalled only by Vincent Browne’s, but the difference is that Duffy presides over the second most listened-to show in Irish radio, and arguably the most powerful. He is the zeitgeist or he is the patron saint of reactionaries, depending on which critic is talking. And, come next week, he will have been doing it for 10 years.
So is he being endlessly schmoozed by cowering corporates? Not a bit of it. He gets hardly any invitations at all, he says benignly. And he’s not expecting cakes or flowers for the 10th anniversary either, he adds, sitting in his dapper daily uniform of suit, shirt and tie, playing with worry beads. “We’re an equal opportunity complainer, aren’t we? Is there an institution in Ireland that Livelinehasn’t complained about?”
There’s that word “complaining.” Isn’t there way too much of it, sighs The Irish Times? He knows the charges: chief agitator of the national cauldron of indignation, disgust and outrage; head-wrecking negativity, carping and despondency.
“When I come down [in] that lift every day [to the studio], the two words in my head are ‘entertainment’ and ‘libel’. We’re a live programme of people who are not used to it. We can’t play music under pain of expulsion from the building. We don’t do pre-record[ing]s. So the minute it starts, at a quarter to two, you’re flying without wings . . . I say to my gang, what’s the difference between Livelineand other shows? The answer is live punters at 1.45 in the day where everything else has been sucked up since 7am.”
The driver for Duffy is numbers. Only a show with critical mass can produce such affecting radio as the one involving people audibly suffering from cystic fibrosis; or spark thousands of requests for organ donor cards, as it did following the call from scriptwriter – and Duffy’s old college mate – Frank Deasy; or be the chosen forum for Susie Long, suffering from terminal cancer, to rail against the two-tier health system; or reel in traffic-stopping exchanges from armed robber, John Daly (shot dead a few months later), calling on his mobile from Portlaoise prison. So it’s about numbers, says Duffy, and the only way to retain those numbers is by being consistently entertaining. “It’s critical. We have to make decisions to keep people listening. You can’t do Ryanair, or Aer Lingus or AE every day, you’d have no listeners . . . I am open to criticism and some of it is justified. The programme can be too negative, it can be too complaining, but that’s the way of the world, unfortunately.
“We are a forum for people and because of the size of the programme, a lot of them think they can get some redress by coming to Liveline. That’s the nature of the programme. I get it from people when I go out, I hear ‘oh it’s very negative or downcast’ and I’m very conscious of that. Because if it’s consistently negative, you will end up with no listeners.” He reads the critics and has decided that they confuse him with his callers. “What they’re really giving out about is the callers, not about me. Kevin Myers called me the skinhead of Irish radio and obnoxious stuff like that, and I feel like saying to him – ‘Kevin, give me one quote or line that I’ve said that supports that theory’ . . . What he’s talking about is that we’re letting people on who give out. But that’s the nature of the business.”
But is there a heartsinking, complaint culture at the root of a show such as Liveline? Or has Duffy’s life shaped his consciousness in a way experienced by few Irish broadcasters? His mother Mabel, now 81, worked part-time as a cleaner in the old Semperit tyre factory in Ballyfermot, a menial, back-breaking job, while rearing six children. “She went out at 4 every afternoon and she’d come home just after 9 o’clock. I used to sit waiting for her with her slippers. My father for a lot of the time was either idle or in England working . . .”. Doing part-time jobs to get through secondary school, Duffy devoured books and “lived” in the library, in an area where a Leaving Cert was a rarity – he was the first in the family to get that far – never mind university.
HIS INVOLVEMENT IN a summer youth project with Pat Carey, now the Government chief whip, then a teacher in Finglas, and Donal Harrington, gave him ambitions of going to third level. “My father opposed me going into third level because it would be a loss of income coming into the house. Mum said ‘let Joseph do it’. I remember. I even know where I was standing when she said that . . . I wanted to better myself, learn more. I just wanted to get out of Ballyfermot.” He pauses, aware of how that sounds. “Some of the best laughs and moments have been there,” he says. But there is no need; his affection for the ordinary people who shaped and encouraged him is unmistakeable.
He was four years older than his peer group by the time he made it to Trinity and spent his first year “totally living in fear, because I was trying to catch up”. Come second year, Trinity opened an exit to Nassau Street and Duffy was so enraged by the suggestion that Trinity was flinging open its gates to all the people of Dublin, that he wrote a letter to The Irish Times, saying that someone from Mount Merrion was 44 times more likely to attend third level than anyone from Ballyfermot. That led ultimately to his election as president of the students’ union. The campaign transformed him. “I just became a different person when I talked about growing up . . . I suppose you could say I found my voice.”
That political scent never left him. “I still think – would you not stand for politics?” he asks himself. “I think of it every day”.
He has been asked to stand by all three main parties. “This year I knew I was going to be asked to stand in Dublin Central but I got knocked down on April 9th.” Would he have done it? “You have to consider every serious suggestion.” That impulse is clearly powerful and – possibly – intensifying. Last Sunday’s headline over his Budget column in the Irish Mail on Sunday, based on his mother’s experiences, was unusually unequivocal: “A kick in the teeth for women, the low paid and the young.”
Against that background, it’s hardly surprising that his instinct is to defend his Livelinecallers, often collectively dismissed as welfare spongers, pensioners, bored housewives and taxi drivers. He bridles in particular at the suggestion of a “mob mentality”. “I hate that word. I hate it. It’s pejorative. That’s like saying a mob elected the Government – because there’s 426,000 of them, remember. It’s obviously said by people who don’t listen to Livelineregularly because you don’t hear the hanging and flogging brigade on Liveline, you don’t hear racist stuff – but that’s what people say is the mob.”
The top story today is the proposal to give property owners the right to kill burglars. “A mob would all think, ‘hip hip hooray’. But I know one of our callers will be a woman whose husband shot a burglar dead and she will say that it ruined her husband’s life . . . We’re a lot fairer than the commentators give us credit for.” Surely some callers drive him up the wall? “I don’t think there’s ever been a caller that I disliked . . . Well, the big galoot to me was your man who came on under false pretences and made that comment about Monica Leech. That was annoying. I can cut my own microphone but I’ve no control whatsoever over contributors’ so I couldn’t cut him off.”
As for that other cause celebre last year – when the Minister for Finance called RTÉ’s director general, Cathal Goan, to complain about a show discussing the precarious position of the banks – he insists management were quite sanguine about it.
“I can tell you I did not get a call from Cathal Goan. I was made aware of the Minister’s call by management, that’s all. The suggestion that we were prevented from doing another programme is nonsense. Nonsense.” The “surprise” was when he got the following Sunday’s papers and saw it was the lead in a couple of them – “obviously leaks from the Minister’s office. I got a good kicking . . . It has since transpired, of course, that on the same night as the show, Brian Lenihan was out in David McWilliams’s house, sucking garlic and saying we don’t know the half of it. And on the Saturday, a few days after the show, he introduced the bank guarantee scheme and said it had nothing to do with Liveline.”
AT A PERSONAL level, Duffy’s €400,000 contract with RTÉ has come under scrutiny in recent times. He quietly took a cut this time last year “before anyone”, he says and, over 12 months, reckons he is down about €60,000. “When I see people who came into RTÉ with me 22 years ago retiring on civil servants’ pensions, there’s a good bit of me now that is sorry I didn’t stay like that. I went on contract only when I started filling in for the summer and they said if you want to be paid for the extra work you do during your holidays, you have to go on contract. I’m self-employed. I don’t get a salary or wages. I don’t get anything that goes along with that, such as a pension.
“You’re entitled to nothing, as they keep reminding you. You’re an egg supplier and if they decide tomorrow they don’t want my eggs, I’m gone, with no pickets outside the gate, no redundancy, no sick pay.”
But you’re paid more than the Taoiseach? “That’s nonsense. He’s on wages, he’s entitled to a pension for life. I was told that if I was to be entitled to the pension he would get, it would add 51 per cent to my salary to buy that pension. And if – God forbid – he dies, his wife and family are entitled to half that pension for their lives . . . And by the way I should never be compared to the Taoiseach. He does a really important job . . . I read that Ivan Yates before he was 50 had drawn down a quarter of a million euro of a pension from his time in the Dáil so it’s all pointless and unfair.
“I’ve never complained about my salary and I won’t, but the head of the Combat Poverty Agency wasn’t living in poverty. Is that the object of society now – for everyone to have an equality of poverty? I studied, I worked for three years after my Leaving Cert, then I went back to college, I got no grant whatsoever despite the fact that I was from Ballyfermot and from a very, very poor background, I worked at night time when I was in Trinity and every summer.
“I say it to my kids that one of the great things about being human is that we try to better ourselves. I’ve tried to better myself and I make no apology for that. I don’t flaunt any money I have. I’m not to be found in night clubs or in four-or five-star hotels or restaurants . . . Any money that I have goes to my family. I live in a modest house in Clontarf, a terraced house, not a trophy home.”
He believes there is snobbery involved. “I remember meeting a fella who said, ‘You’re working in RTÉ? Do they know your background? Do they know?’ And you’re like, hang on, are you saying because I’m from Ballyfermot that I’m not entitled to this? Is it because of my background that you’re deeply upset I’m earning a few bob? Would you rather I was being looked after by the Simon Community?”
His guilt revolves around “the generality of stuff”. He has volunteered for the Society of St Vincent de Paul since he was a boy and still addresses conferences and assembles hampers. When he and June were looking for secondary schools for their triplets, they sought out places with a “good Vincent de Paul ethos”. Ellen ended up in the Holy Faith school near home, and Ronan and Seán in Belvedere College, a Jesuit fee-paying school in the north inner city. “I’m evangelical about education. I don’t open supermarkets but any request to go to a school I’ll do, anywhere, because I know the difference.”
Last Easter, while removing books from the boot of his car, a car drove into him, shearing a leg almost in half. A rod was inserted through the bone from knee to ankle and now the knee locks painfully when he walks, a calamity for a man who used to walk the Bull Wall every day at 6.30am. He is still troubled by nightmares, flashbacks of a wheel coming towards his head, and – bizarrely – embarrassment. “I’m lying on the ground. I’ve a suit on. There’s some fella standing over me saying ‘Joe, you didn’t put a ticket on your car; they’re going to clamp it – But it’s all right, I did it for you.’ That was about a minute after the accident. He put it on the dashboard. I’d never been in hospital, never missed a day sick . . .
“After that, I was getting panic attacks. I couldn’t get up the stairs so I’d be lying in bed downstairs, texting June at 3am, saying please come down quick. I didn’t know where I was. Yeah, I did get some counselling.”
For the family, it revived memories of another tragedy, when his 25-year-old brother Aidan, working for an alarm company, was killed near Maynooth, while driving a “dodgy company van”.
He has substituted his 6.30am walks with lengths of the local pool, but otherwise his modest life is as it was. He never watches television and always has three books on the go. He is a keen painter and takes classes from Brian McCarthy, “who is a genius”. His money, he laughs, goes on fire engine models. He has about 120 of them lined up in what June calls “the panic room . . . I dust them with a little dry paint brush. Sad or what? I just bought three from America for the kids to give me for Christmas.”
He has never been busier. In addition to Liveline, last week he made five programmes with the President at Áras an Uachtaráin, to be broadcast from Monday to Friday next. He will also be taking Spirit Moves, a radio programme on ethics and morality, to live television on Sundays from January 3rd.
Is it enough for Joe Duffy? Probably not.
Born January 27th 1956 in Mountjoy Square, Dublin and reared in Ballyfermot in a family of six. His mother was a part-time cleaner; his father worked in England and later as a packer in Glen Abbey.
Worked with Arks Advertising after school, then attended Trinity College. He became a probation and welfare officer, which he gave up to train as a producer in RTÉ. He won a Jacob’s Award for his reports on Gay Byrne’s morning radio show and was sometime co-presenter, until dropped. A period followed as RTÉ’s roving reporter until he started presenting Liveline10 years ago next week.
Getting involved in a summer youth project in Ballymun in his teens, which stirred ambitions to go on to third-level education.