George's grandstand performance lets the Minister off the hook


RADIO:George Hook’s on-air jousting with Michael Noonan was a lively and irreverent pantomime

In the midst of his marathon coverage of Wednesday’s Budget, George Hook relayed news of scuffles with demonstrators outside Leinster House with an opinionated flourish. He had a problem with protesters, he told listeners of The Right Hook (Newstalk, weekdays), because rather than provide alternative solutions to problems they operated on a “kneejerk” level of “illogicality”. His irritation was understandable. With their populist sloganeering, aggressive attitude and fuming righteousness, the demonstrators had appropriated much of Hook’s on-air arsenal.

When he had earlier spoken to Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, the presenter dispensed with any pretence of dispassionate objectivity. “You got a pat on the head from Olli Rehn,” said Hook, referring to the EU comissioner for economic and monetary affairs, “and I’m sure he made you best boy in class, while the plain people of Ireland are paying for it.”

Getting into his stride, Hook characterised his guest as a “school bully” before tearing into the regional inequities of the value-based property tax, with specific regard to the Minister’s constituency. “I’m sure it plays well in Limerick,” he railed, “where property costs less than Dublin.”

By the time the discussion turned to changes in PRSI, Hook had completely abandoned probing queries in favour of grandstanding soundbites. By way of a question on the across-the-board tax increase of €264, he fulminated that “not since Marie Antoinette said ‘let them eat cake’ has there been a more unfair tax system.”

Hook’s fury allowed the Minister to present himself as the reasonable, even wronged party. “Can I answer this question, and then I’ll answer the next one?” Noonan at one point interjected in his most patronising classroom voice. “That’s the best way to have an interview.”

On one level this jousting was a terrific tonic to earnest encounters elsewhere: Noonan’s later interview with Mary Wilson on Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) was as respectful and dull as Hook’s was irreverent and lively, without eliciting much more from the Minister. But if the Newstalk presenter’s indignation caught the mood of the day, it was also self-defeating, reducing his highly pertinent objections to the level of pantomime.

Then again, even when he took a more temperate approach, Hook was prone to baffling asides. Talking to Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, he wondered why the Government hadn’t considered more “off the wall” revenue proposals, such as legalising cannabis. Undeterred by Howlin’s retort that such a move would be “off the head”, Hook continued to discuss this possibility with the economic commentator Damien Kiberd. Whatever he was on, Hook’s shtick ensured a few memorable moments on an otherwise forgettable afternoon.

Since the departure of Ivan Yates Newstalk Breakfast (Newstalk, weekdays) has become less of a soapbox and more like a news programme, with his copresenter Chris Donohue allowed to use the journalistic instincts too often eclipsed by his former colleague’s bullish presence. But in Yates’s absence the show has also lost its previously strong (if occasionally objectionable) identity. The current coanchor, Norah Casey, is yet to fully stamp her personality on proceedings beyond occasional allusions to her business background. (Referring to the supposed mismanagement of Government departments, Casey said, “This would not happen in business,” as though no enterprise has ever gone bust through organisational incompetence.)

So the appearance of the former RTÉ newsroom heavyweight Charlie Bird on Tuesday’s show seemed at first glance a foolhardy move, providing as it did a radio platform for a popular – and currently unoccupied – alternative presenter. Sure enough, Bird made his mark, giving an engaging and at times endearing account of his long career’s ups and downs.

Stating that he left RTÉ to “break the cycle of standing outside Leinster House”, Bird sounded wistful as he spoke about missing the cut and thrust of journalism. When he discussed his short-lived stint as Washington correspondent, he injected a candid personal note, saying he missed his family. “I thought, Feck it, to hell with people, I’m going to come back,” he said, ruefully. “Maybe I had made a bit of a mistake, but so what?”

But even as Donoghue quipped that “Norah’s JobBridge is up at Christmas”, the show’s presenters had little to fear in terms of Bird taking over their, ahem, nest. He joked about the novelty of being in a non-RTÉ studio – “I’m breaking out in a cold sweat” – but still sounded tentative, and his tendency to leave sentences hanging in the air underlined the fact that ad-libbing was not his strongest suit on his own Saturday radio show on RTÉ Radio 1.

In the end, Bird’s interview was most notable for providing a glimpse of the appealing personal side buried beneath his public image. When it comes to ministerial interviews, however, there might still be an opening.

Moment of the week Dev and all that jazz

The Lyric Feature: Out With Paganism and All That Jazz (Lyric FM, Friday) told the story of the campaigns in 1930s Ireland against jazz music and the licentiousness it supposedly offered. The documentary presented jazz as a vibrant, cosmopolitan and even proto-feminist alternative to the pious, parochial society of Éamon de Valera’s Ireland. So it was interesting to hear the vintage clip of de Valera articulating his hopes for an ideal Ireland, “joyous with the noise of industry”, in which people “valued material wealth only as a basis for right living”. In a week when optimism was in short supply, de Valera’s vision was surprisingly inspiring.

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