The easing of the Omicron wave might spell good news for most of us, but it's in danger of causing bad blood between Shane Coleman and Ciara Kelly. A couple of times during the week, the co-presenters of Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays) cross swords about the pace – or otherwise – of reopening in response to the improving situation.
Even allowing for the fact that the show’s format obliges the hosts to bicker over the sujet du jour, the ostensibly positive pandemic story generates a surprising amount of friction between the pair, sounding much less contrived than some of their other set-tos.
Just let me ask the question, he says, in an exasperated tone normally reserved for recalcitrant guests
The first rumbles are heard on Monday, as Kelly expresses deep unhappiness at the apparent lack of urgency on reopening. “I see no justification for this slow exit, we’ve passed the peak,” she says, voicing concern for workers in the hospitality sector. “They aren’t public servants sitting back and still taking their wages every week,” Kelly adds, in what seems like an unnecessary pop. Coleman tries to take a counter-position – “What’s the panic?” – but struggles to be heard. “Just let me ask the question,” he says, in an exasperated tone normally reserved for recalcitrant guests.
On Wednesday they’re at it again, with Kelly restating her position with even more vigour than before: “Get out of our faces.” Coleman half-heartedly counsels caution, but it’s no match for his co-host’s energetically marshalled argument that we need to open quickly while the coast is relatively clear. “We need a policy of opening when we can and closing when we have to,” she concludes.
Kelly’s conviction is genuine, but hardly radical: as the week progresses, it seems that much of the Cabinet agree with her. Even so, it makes for invigorating radio. Meanwhile, the perennially moderate Coleman may disagree with his colleague, but forcefully puts her points to Minister of State for Sport Jack Chambers. When the Minister talks of “room for optimism in the coming weeks”, the host presses him on why changes can’t be made sooner.
With the current wave receding, questions about wider strategy are raised. Talking to public health expert Prof Anthony Staines and Independent TD Marc MacSharry, Kelly hears both guests express dissatisfaction with official policy even as they differ on the next course of action.
MacSharry wants to reopen at once, noting the lack of evidence about infections in hospitality settings. Staines favours a gradual reopening but agrees on the lack of data, which hampers decision-making. “Because of Nphet’s decision not to do their job properly, we’ve found ourselves in this situation,” Staines says calmly but firmly. It’s a jolting verdict. Kelly doesn’t add anything, but then she doesn’t need to.
For all the tensions over the speed of reopening, the subject counts as light relief in an emotionally fraught week, as Ashling Murphy is buried and a man is charged with her murder. The two presenters cover the story’s main developments, and examine the grimly stubborn issue of gender-based violence, once more in the spotlight. (Though Kelly has never ignored the latter topic, speaking out on it with eloquence and indeed anger throughout her broadcasting career.) But whether consciously or not, their news agenda doesn’t dwell on the horrific details of Murphy’s murder.
Perhaps it’s that dreadful perspective that makes a debate about deer culling between farmers’ representatives and vegan activists seem cartoonishly lopsided, or Independent TD Mattie McGrath’s questioning of RTÉ’s independence (over a lack of “alternative voices” on the pandemic) come across as ludicrously predictable. Their occasional disputes notwithstanding, Kelly and Coleman’s morning formula is not only effective but welcome.
I was detained, there's no doubt, I had no free access. I won't be going to the office on my own
The week's melancholy events unsurprisingly lead to a more subdued atmosphere than usual on the normally sparky Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), with Cormac Ó hEadhra and Sarah McInerney giving extensive coverage to events in Tullamore while discussing the ramifications in depth. The heightened awareness of random violence is evident in other areas too, as reporter John Cooke speaks to Minister of State for Disability Anne Rabbitte about increased intimidation of politicians.
The Minister recalls a recent encounter when a man confronted her alone in her constituency office for 40 minutes, during which he complained about vaccines and lockdown measures. “I felt a bit agitated because I felt trapped,” she says. “I was detained, there’s no doubt, I had no free access.” Rabbitte stresses she doesn’t want to appear like she’s whingeing, but clearly has been rattled: “I won’t be going to the office on my own.” It’s a disturbing snapshot of how anti-lockdown sentiment can spill over into threatening confrontations.
But in the midst of tellingly downbeat items like psychotherapist Joanna Fortune’s advice on how best to talk about murder to children, there are still moments of much-needed frivolity. On Monday, Ó hEadhra interviews Trinity College zoologist Collie Ennis on how the natural world has been thrown out of kilter by warmer winters, with particular attention paid to the “fornicating fox”. The host opens the item with a recording of squealing vulpine mating, or “animal audio porn” as he dubs it, before learning that Trinity’s resident fox has been “going at it” earlier than usual. “The Trinity Ball came early,” Ó hEadhra chuckles contentedly, before pleading with his co-presenter: “Save me from myself.”
McInerney duly steps in, with more pertinent questions about the ecological knock-on effects of mild seasonal weather. Ennis replies with the example of frogs spawning early, which can lead to a die-off if things freeze over in March. “It’s a house of cards,” he says. “Just takes one animal to get out of sync and it can affect a lot of others up the food chain.”
What starts out as a lark turns into an informative, thought-provoking sequence. Moreoever, for all the chuckles, it’s no laughing matter. It’s one of those weeks.
Radio Moment of the Week
Listeners tuning into Niall Carroll’s Classical Daytime (Lyric, weekdays) at noon on Monday may be alarmed – or exhilarated – when the unthreateningly pleasant orchestral tones of John Barry’s theme from the movie Chaplin come to an abrupt halt, followed by complete silence. After a while, one wonders if Carroll has gone rogue by suddenly playing John Cage’s minimalist composition 4.33, in which musicians famously do not play any instruments. Alas, nothing so radical: after five minutes of dead air, a continuity announcer makes herself heard. “We are very sorry for this interruption to our scheduled programmes, and we will return to them as soon as possible,” she says with creditable calmness, before playing some Tchaikovsky for reassurance. When Carroll eventually reappears on air, he doesn’t even mention the unplanned intermission. Nothing to hear here, as it were.