Cormac Ó hEadhra, usually an irresistible force, is stopped by an immovable bureaucrat

Radio: RTÉ’s Drivetime host is frustrated by a spokesman’s stance on Covid vaccines

Drivetime presenter Cormac Ó hEadhra met his match in imperturbable European Commission spokesman Stefan de Keersmaecker. Photograph: RTE

Drivetime presenter Cormac Ó hEadhra met his match in imperturbable European Commission spokesman Stefan de Keersmaecker. Photograph: RTE

 

Cormac Ó hEadhra, it’s probably fair to say, isn’t one of nature’s diplomats. Faced with guests whom he deems insufficiently forthright, he his instinct is to pile in until he receives a satisfactory response or, at the very least, generates a lively row. On Tuesday’s Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), however, the presenter meets his match, failing to elicit either straight answers or on-air pyrotechnics when he quizzes that most formidable of opponents, an imperturbable Eurocrat. 

Interviewing the European Commission spokesman Stefan de Keersmaecker about the sudden delay in supply of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine,
Ó hEadhra starts off with the seemingly uncontentious suggestion that this development comes as a surprise. 

“You understand I cannot comment at this stage on these new elements,” de Keersmaecker replies, adding, “We’ll see how to respond.” Ó hEadhra’s own reaction, naturally, is to press further, asking if the pharmaceutical firm unilaterally decided the delay. “As I said, I’m really not in a position to enter into this at this stage,” the spokesman reiterates.

De Keersmaecker’s implacability makes even the slickest political spin sound like a whistleblower’s exposé. Finally, even the indefatigable host runs up the white flag

So it continues, the host trying to finagle juicy information from his guest, only for his guest to kick to touch with metronomic efficiency. Quizzed about contingency plans for a vaccine shortfall, de Keersmaecker says, “Let us not speculate on scenarios.” Sounding increasingly frustrated, Ó hEadhra wonders if the delivery pause will delay vaccine supplies or comply with contracts. “Again, I cannot comment on this situation,” the official replies, his audible intake of breath the only sign of any agitation.

It’s a dispiriting interview for listeners seeking hard information. De Keersmaecker’s imperative may be to avoid controversy with the situation in flux, but his implacability makes even the slickest political spin sound like a whistleblower’s exposé. Finally, even the indefatigable host runs up the white flag. “Thank you for giving us the information you have,” the presenter says ruefully, his irresistible force bowing to the immutable object of unwavering bureaucratic caution.

It’s only a temporary blip, however. Flying solo for the day while his cohost, Sarah McInerney, works her new sideline on Prime Time, Ó hEadhra is back to his genially belligerent self when he talks to the Green Party Minister of State Joe O’Brien, who is proposing a one-off “solidarity tax” on high-earning individuals and companies that have profited during the pandemic. 

It’s an intriguing idea, although O’Brien seems vague about how it might work, noting that the International Monetary Fund originated the proposal. This cuts no ice with Ó hEadhra, who points out that having suggested the tax here, his guest can face questions on it. The presenter is particularly interested whether the measure would be aimed mainly at multinationals, and whether this is possible. “Why not? It’s in our gift,” the Minister answers, with all the wonkish policy detail of a casual pub conversation. 

Kudos to Cormac Ó hEadhra: anyone can start an argument by themselves, but it takes real talent to foment a row among Government partners

The real pushback comes from O’Brien’s ostensible Coalition partner. The Fine Gael TD Jennifer Carroll MacNeill is concerned at such a levy being introduced in a country she lauds for possessing one of the world’s most progressive income-tax systems and having dramatically reduced inequality. (The country in question is Ireland, in case you’re wondering.) Speaking with the earnestness of a champion debater, Carroll MacNeill worries that such a tax could imperil the economy, as well as the programme for government. 

On this evidence the solidarity tax is a nonstarter, but the discussion does draw attention to ideological fissures running through the Coalition. “You can debate it among yourselves,” Ó hEadhra says impishly, concluding the enlighteningly fractious item. 

Kudos to the host: anyone can start an argument by themselves, but it takes real talent to foment a row among Government partners.

At the opposite end of the temperamental spectrum is Ryan Tubridy (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), for whom civility is paramount. Commendable though Tubridy’s manners are, however, he gets carried away on Wednesday. He recounts how after greeting “the lads” who deliver goods to a local shop, “I weirdly come away with a loaf or six eggs”, despite, he hurriedly adds, not asking for them. In return, Tubridy not only thanks the delivery men but names the small food companies they work for. 

It’s a thoughtful gesture, and while one might also argue that Tubridy is handing out plugs in return for favours, he’s set his bar low. Any worries that the presenter might be impoverishing himself with such altruism are dispelled as he cheekily wonders if he’s due a discount when paying his television licence. It’s jokey small talk, of course, but given how everyone else’s licence fees pay his generous salary, Tubridy might display more self-awareness.

When Efraim Zuroff goes from talking about needing a sense of humour in his job to describing a woman ‘who murdered Jewish babies by smashing their head with a huge rock’, Ryan Tubridy is taken aback by the swift shift in tone 

Having revealed the perks of the job, Tubridy moves on to far more serious matters. He interviews Dr Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, an American-born Israeli who tracks down perpetrators of the Holocaust, despite their dwindling numbers: his guest describes himself as “the only Jew who prays for the good health of Nazis”. 

Tubridy’s own interest in the subject is obvious, flagging its “historical, political, ethical” elements beforehand, but it’s tough stuff. Though the host calls his guest a “Nazi hunter”, a term that carries a frisson of danger thanks to countless conspiracy thrillers, the reality is both more prosaic and more horrifying. Zuroff talks about the difficulty in securing convictions, while dismissing any “misplaced sympathy” for those brought to book in later years.

It’s an absorbing conversation, covering everything from moral reckoning to realpolitik. But the enormity of the topic doesn’t sit easily with the smaller scale human-interest tack of Tubridy’s morning show. When Zuroff goes from talking about needing a sense of humour in his job to describing a woman “who murdered Jewish babies by smashing their head with a huge rock”, the presenter is taken aback by the swift shift in tone. 

For all his intense engagement with his guest, Tubridy sounds relieved as the conversation ends: “I think we all need a breather after that.” No argument there.

Moment of the Week: Matrimony matters

Marriage is usually a reason for celebration, but a more uncomfortable air prevails on Newstalk Breakfast when Shane Coleman talks to Alena Kate Pettitt, a member of the “traditional housewife” movement. Pettitt talks about women being able to devote themselves to family without their choice being derided, which is fair enough.

But Pettitt can sound less like a devoted wife than a culture warrior, claiming her online detractors are “career-minded” and “single women”. Moreover, she advocates “submission” as key to marriage: “We take it from the biblical perspective, which means that the wife submits to her husband, but her husband submits to God.” 

Pettitt is polite but provocative, but Coleman seems reluctant to tackle his guest more robustly. His cohost, Ciara Kelly – a career woman with a family – is less coy. “I’m triggered, I have to say,” she says, after Coleman finishes the item. More’s the pity that it wasn’t Kelly doing the interview.

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