Fintan O’Toole: Why I will not appear on Newstalk again

George Hook’s rape comments are the result of the station’s flagrantly sexist strategy

Broadcaster George Hook says he is "truly sorry" for comments he made about rape on his radio show, "High Noon." Audio: Newstalk

 

What I have to say is of no consequence. The organisation against which it is aimed will be no more conscious of it than a speeding car is of a fly mashed into the corner of its windscreen. But here it is anyway: from now on I won’t be appearing on any Newstalk programmes.

I’ve appeared on the station from time to time over the years, though not to the extent that, say, its owner, Denis O’Brien, would even have noticed. But I can’t do it any more, for the simple reason that Newstalk has become the most flagrantly sexist public organisation in Ireland. It is long since time for anyone with a conscience to stay out of its airspace.

Newstalk is not a private business. Its use of the bandwidth is licensed by the State, through the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

Newstalk had its licence to operate as one of only two independent national talk radio stations renewed a year ago, largely because no one else applied for the licence. But it is emphatically not a private concern – as citizens we are ultimately responsible for it. And this means that we are complicit in an operation that is staggeringly and systemically sexist.

George Hook’s claim last Friday that a woman was partly to blame for her own rape has created trouble for the station with one of its main commercial sponsors, the Dalata Hotel Group.

But it was not the first time he had suggested that a woman bore responsibility for being raped. In 2015, he commented on the case of Niamh Ní Dhomhnaill, who was repeatedly assaulted by her boyfriend while she slept: “You are sharing a bed with somebody . . . Is there not an implied consent therefore that you consent to sexual congress?”

When Ivana Bacik described these comments on air as outrageous, Hook presented himself as the victim: “You throw out words like outrageous and suddenly poor auld George is in the dock . . .”

The “poor auld George” stuff was good enough for Newstalk then, presumably because his crassness had no commercial costs for the station. Advertisers did not object. And it has a context: Newstalk’s very deliberate projection of itself as a male domain.

A study in 2014 found that the least gender-balanced weekday shows on Irish radio were The Right Hook on Newstalk, with 81 per cent male voices, and Newstalk Breakfast, with 86 per cent male voices.

Newstalk seemed to be responding to these findings in June 2016 when it announced a new line-up of presenters that included Sarah McInerney as co-anchor of its drivetime show and Colette Fitzpatrick as co-host in the breakfast slot. But it has now restructured its schedules again – to keep women presenters off the airwaves on weekdays during the prime hours of 7am to 7pm.

Newstalk has decided to make itself into the equivalent of a 1950s Irish pub

Fitzpatrick is gone from the station altogether; McInerney has been moved to a one-hour show on Saturday morning, where she replaces another disappeared female, Sarah Carey.

These women are at least as good at their jobs as the men who are replacing them. Their only problem is that they are female. Newstalk has made a highly conscious choice: dawn-to-dusk blokes – Vincent Wall followed by Paul Williams, Shane Coleman and Alan Quinlan, followed by Pat Kenny, George Hook, Seán Moncrieff and Ivan Yates.

Reactionary radio

This doesn’t happen by accident. It is a strategy. Newstalk is increasingly upfront about its desire to emulate the reactionary, testosterone-fuelled style of talk radio in the US.

It is abandoning any pretence at objective presentation. Its own blurbs describe its main “news” shows as “opinion-led” and “full of personality”.

The emphasis has switched from the journalist to the blowhard – news subjects are to be filtered through the (overwhelmingly right-wing) opinions of the “personality” presenter. It is not impossible for a woman to play this role, but it is quintessentially blokeish. Rush Limbaugh is the role model.

It should be no surprise that if you create a boys’ club of “opinion-led” radio, you end up with stuff like Hook’s comments about rape. The US model of talk radio lives by assaulting so-called political correctness. To be “full of personality” really means to be full of piss and vinegar. The rocket fuel is a high-octane mix of male privilege and male self-pity.

The trick is to present reactionary clichés as if they were brave transgressions, to scorn real victims while presenting yourself as the real victim: “poor auld George” crucified by the PC brigade.  

And if that’s the way Newstalk wants to go, journalists, politicians and business leaders have to decide whether they want to go along with it. Newstalk won’t miss me for a second, but it would miss Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, Gerry Adams and Brendan Howlin, Frances Fitzgerald and Katherine Zappone. A station that has a problem with women should have a problem with the democratic system as a whole.

Newstalk has decided to make itself into the equivalent of a 1950s Irish pub, a safe zone where you can banter with the lads and be in no danger of having to listen to a female voice. A republic should have only one answer to that: Time, gentlemen, please.

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