Three is the magic number on Liveline

The Spunout sex advice controversy provided juicy material for Joe Duffy and Tom Dunne

Joe Duffy: teenage kicks. Photograph: Alan Betson

Joe Duffy: teenage kicks. Photograph: Alan Betson


For presenters wanting to spice things up this week, three was the magic number. No matter that gardaí were murmuring mutinously and the euro zone was once again plunged into crisis, the go-to topic across the band concerned an online article offering questionable sexual advice on a niche website.

There was some public-interest value to the story about SpunOut, a partially State-funded site for young people, having a three-year-old post with tips on threesomes, but its real worth was the controversy it generated.

Current-affairs hosts, from Matt Cooper on Today FM to Shane Coleman on Newstalk, covered the matter, but, as one might expect, the person most adept at transforming the issue from molehill into Matterhorn was Joe Duffy, on Liveli ne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays).

Teenage kicks
On Monday, the presenter spoke to Sylvia, who calmly mused that it was inappropriate to proffer advice on such outre acts to adolescents; as the mother of a teenager, she disliked the article not only because it was partly funded by taxpayers but also because it appeared to normalise threesomes, which could be psychologically damaging for teens.

Lest the programme descend into cogently argued debate, Duffy punctuated Sylvia’s eminently rational views by reading out juicy excerpts from the article, slowly dripping fuel on to the fire with the steady hand of a master. He then let rip with an indignant flourish: “Is this a joke?” The topic thus teed up, the games could begin.

Except that they never quite did. Callers like John objected to the article on valid grounds – that it sanitised and legitimised a dubious act for impressionable teens – while conceding SpunOut was otherwise a very helpful site. At most, dissenters like Liz, a public-health nurse, worried about the future for young people. Faced with this outbreak of reasonableness, Duffy had to fan the flames himself. Talking to Richard, who spoke with an undergraduate’s ingenuousness about “friends of friends” who indulged in such acts, the presenter’s tone bordered on the aggressive: just because orgies happened, Duffy barked, should we give advice about them?

When another caller, John, observed that it was essentially a sideshow driven by media attention, the presenter was dismissive: “That’s the world we live in. I wouldn’t get overly upset about that.”

Coming from a broadcaster whose show is awash with knee-jerk outrage, this was remarkable advice. Were people to take the irritations of modern life in their stride, Duffy wouldn’t have much of a programme to preside over most days.

The topic was handled more illuminatingly on Tom Dunne (Newstalk, weekdays). As the father of two young children – a fact his listeners are regularly reminded of – Dunne approaches parent-related issues with a slightly anguished sincerity.

He was clearly uncomfortable with the SpunOut article, grappling with the notion that he might be a prude. Then again, as his callers recounted hair-raising tales of teenage behaviour, his emotions were understandable. Emma, a nurse, spoke of dealing with sexually active but hopelessly naive 14-year-olds, while Seán in Cavan told of being shown mobile-phone footage of 13-year-old boys taking advantage of a drunk 12-year-old girl.

Alarming as these stories were, they suggested that, amid a cascade of internet porn and youthful sexualisation, a single online article was unlikely to trigger carnal mayhem, however ill judged its counsel. As it was, the on-air furore over the SpunOut post was akin to parents cautioning children not to stick peas up their nose: if they hadn’t considered doing it before, they almost certainly did now.

Humbling perspective
A humbling example of putting things in their proper perspective was to be found on The John Murray Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), when the host interviewed Colin and Wendy Parry, whose 12-year-old son, Tim, was one of two children killed by an IRA bomb in Warrington 20 years ago. It was difficult not to share their feelings of “disbelief, mixed with horror” as they recalled searching for their boy before learning he was fatally injured.

Just as memorable, however, was their lack of rage over what happened, both at Tim’s funeral and in the years after, when they set up a peace centre. “We were so lost, empty and swamped with grief that it kept anger at bay,” said Colin.

Most strikingly, they did not want to discover who exactly had planted the bombs. “What is to be gained from knowing? If we knew, it might change our emotional balance,” said Colin.

Murray gamely attempted to inject some grit into the conversation, vainly asking if the pair ever wavered in their peace endeavours. But in the face of the Parrys’ remarkable equanimity, Murray soon abandoned his efforts. When something is genuinely important, there’s no need to add any spice.

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