Hard choices for hard news shows


RADIO REVIEW:WITH THE AUDIENCE for Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) slipping in the recent national listenership survey, it seemed rash for its anchor Aine Lawlor to warn people off a report on Wednesday’s show.

But the item in question was devastating radio, and Lawlor’s counsel that it was distressing listening proved correct. Paschal Sheehy, RTÉ’s southern editor, spoke to Una Butler, the Co Cork whose young daughters, Zoe and Ella, were killed in 2010 by her husband, John, who then took his own life; he had suffered from depression. The interview was predicated on the bereaved mother’s plea for legislation to allow families more involvement in the treatment of people with mental illness, but it was difficult to focus beyond her appalling loss.

Her story was all the more painful for the spare detail with which she recounted it. Butler spoke of her husband’s being “a bit down on himself” when she went to work that morning, but it was only when she was unable to track him down that she began to feel uneasy; returning home, she met a garda who told her, in an ominous understatement, that there was “a crash up the road”. She had been, understandably, in a state of shock and disbelief. “I said John wouldn’t do something like that,” she recalled.

Mercifully, that was as graphic as it got. But her call for greater family participation in treatment, especially when children were involved, was based on equally shocking statistics. Since 2002 there had been 35 children murdered by a parent, as well as five spouses and 15 suicides. Filicide, she said, was not as rare as people believed. As for her own experience, she said she could never forgive her husband for killing her children, adding her life was now a living nightmare.

It was a gut-wrenching interview, throughout which Sheehy stuck to factual questions. But its emotional loadedness jarred with the format of Morning Ireland, which normally tackles upsetting items analytically, if sympathetically. Tuesday’s discussion with the child psychologist David Coleman about the suicide of the bullied Co Donegal schoolgirl Erin Gallagher was sensitive but informative, grounded in the guest’s expertise. Butler’s “excruciating pain” may have been starkly evident, but it was perfunctorily curtailed for the next news item. There is a reason why such raw items are usually aired on more-open-ended talkshows. Even allowing for reduced ratings, not to mention the dreadful punch packed by Butler’s story, Morning Ireland is maybe better following its traditional formula.

Tom Dunne(Newstalk, weekdays) can generally be counted on to stick to his trusty approach, maintaining his innately upbeat persona when faced with tricky topics. With bullying sadly back on the agenda this week, Dunne looked at the subject from a novel angle, wondering whether parents should advise their children to face down their tormentors while looking to his own experience to provide inspiring answers.

Dunne remembered how, when bullied as a child, his mother said he should stand up to the boy in question. When the bully eventually found out where he lived – “with the help of my friends, I have to say,” he noted wryly – a fight ensued, with Dunne emerging the victor. “I won, he ran away and it was like being let out of jail,” he said, still sounding surprised at the outcome.

If the presenter’s youthful trauma ended well, others were uncertain they would advocate confronting bullies these days. More assertive body language and the report of abuses to parents made up a more fruitful tactic, said an anti-bullying expert, Mona O’Moore. But there was at times a slightly archaic feel to the segment, harking back is it did to days when bullies roamed playgrounds and schoolyards rather than the anonymous realm of the web, where their cowardliness is less easily exposed. But in examining a topic drenched in tragedy, Dunne provided a welcome shard of optimism.

While Dunne tends to view the glass as half-full, Louis Walsh’s vessel is in perpetual danger of overflowing. Talking to Maxi on From Mayo to Miami (RTÉ Radio 1, Monday), the boy-band manager was so relentlessly buoyant that one almost forgot about the calculating eye that has guided blandly manufactured acts like Boyzone and Westlife to global success. Walsh spoke effusively about the showband circuit on which he cut his teeth – where, significantly, cover versions were the stock in trade, just as they would be with his later pop acts – and talked about his personal closeness to his fellow X-Factor judges Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne.

Even so, a contradictory portrait emerged. He proclaimed his love of music but was frank about the virtues he sought in an act – “enthusiasm is more important than talent” – and was candid about their internal pecking order: “There can only be one Paul McCartney, and there’s always a few Ringos.” He reiterated how little he cared for the trappings of success while talking about his property portfolio and his purchase of a vintage Rolls-Royce from Elton John. He ultimately had a jaded view of the music world he had entered as an apparently fresh-faced teenager. “It’s hard to make real friends in the business,” he remarked.

These were tantalising glimpses of the complex character beneath the spinning shtick, but they went unexplored in favour of chummy anecdotes with Maxi. The positive approach isn’t always the most interesting option.

Radio moment of the week

George Hook’s refusal to kowtow to political correctness is part of his appeal, but even he must know there are loaded terms he shouldn’t use lightly. On Tuesday’s The Right Hook (Newstalk, weekdays) he told how he had thrown up his weekend breakfast, explaining that he was on medication for gout, which had “raped my stomach”. You weren’t raped, George, you were sick. It’s an important distinction.

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