Joe Duffy calls out Gemma O’Doherty, Dee Wall, Ben Gilroy and their anti-vaccine theories

Radio: The Liveline host sounds furious at the ‘hijacking’ of Nicole Cahill’s death

Joe Duffy questions why no media organisations have taken legal action to stop far-right activists spreading dangerous and abusive misinformation online

Joe Duffy questions why no media organisations have taken legal action to stop far-right activists spreading dangerous and abusive misinformation online

 

More than any other Irish radio personality, Joe Duffy uses an array of voices to signal the tone of an item on Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), the better to nudge listeners’ emotions in the required direction. There’s the raucously overplayed jollity he deploys during lighthearted items, ideally with callers sharing stories of Dublin in the rare auld times. Or there are the exaggerated huffs and sighs that showily indicate his exasperation at official indifference or injustice.

Most ominous of all is when Duffy drops into an earnest semi-whisper: part emollient, part portentous, it’s a surefire advisory that the material which follows isn’t for the faint-hearted.

Unsurprisingly, this is the intonation the host adopts on Tuesday, when he talks to Deb Cahill about her late sister Nicole. Deb is upset that anti-vaccination campaigners have falsely attributed Nicole’s death to the Covid-19 vaccine and are using her image to promote their protests. Lowering his voice, Duffy describes his caller’s decision to speak out about this “hijacking” as “extraordinarily brave”, for reasons that he will soon make clear.

Duffy calls out by name right-wing activists such as Gemma O’Doherty, Dee Wall and Ben Gilroy, who have been pushing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. ‘You’re powerless against this venom,’ he says

Deb recalls that soon after Nicole died, social-media posts circulated blaming the vaccine for her death: “To go to your social media when you’re still grieving and see that, it isn’t fair on the family.” She stresses that “we are positive she did not die of the vaccine” – Nicole had had serious underlying conditions since childhood – and that no anti-vaccine campaigners contacted the family to discover the truth.

Bad as all this is, even more shocking is the abuse Deb has suffered when asking some people to remove false posts about Nicole. “You have people say you’re murderers,” says Deb, trying not to break down.

It’s around this time that Duffy ditches his concerned voice for an altogether more forceful timbre. He calls out by name right-wing activists such as Gemma O’Doherty, Dee Wall and Ben Gilroy, who have been pushing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. “You’re powerless against this venom,” Duffy says.

He wonders why no media organisations have taken legal action to stop far-right activists spreading dangerous and abusive misinformation online, as Beaumont Hospital did when O’Doherty called it a “death camp”. “If big institutions don’t take them on, who will? Where will they stop?” he asks, his anger palpable. “Why are so many people afraid of these people?”

Where some of Duffy’s vocal turns can come across as hammy or forced, in this case he sounds authentically furious, as he seeks to call time on the vile behaviour of O’Doherty and her followers. At the same time, the host doesn’t lose sight of the personal tragedy at the centre of the story, as Deb shares memories of her sister: “We want her to be remembered as a lovely, bubbly person.” It’s a poignant moment in an otherwise jolting piece of radio, driven by Duffy’s sincere fury.

Josh Willis’s account of his wife’s final days is particularly harrowing. He recalls how she entered intensive care after giving birth and was then transferred to a Covid ward after rallying briefly, only for her condition to abruptly ‘take a dip’

On Wednesday he returns to the theme, talking to Aneta Safiak, who experienced threats after she confronted O’Doherty for using a photograph of her son in a racially inflammatory post. But having made his point, Duffy moves on to other topics.

He hears from Afghan-born Mohammad, who speaks of his fears for his unmarried sisters back in his native land now that the Taliban have come to power. Mohammad is under no illusions about the Taliban, sounding weary about the years of warfare in Afghanistan that prompted him to move to Ireland 17 years ago. “At least my kids have not had the same experience,” he says.

Again, one person’s story illuminates a wider issue, though one can’t help thinking that the host is trolling the far right by highlighting a positive message of immigration. When Duffy is hosting stories as striking as these, there’s no need for his other voices.

There are grim pandemic tales when Philip Boucher-Hayes, guest host of Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), talks to Josh Willis, who last week buried his wife, Samantha, on the same day that he baptised their newborn daughter. Boucher-Hayes says his guest is speaking about this tragedy in order “to raise vaccine awareness” – Samantha, who died from Covid, was unvaccinated – though Josh is more concerned with his family’s dreadful circumstances.

Josh recalls how his wife, a care worker from Derry, followed public-health advice by not getting the vaccine after learning she was pregnant; when the advice changed, he says, Samantha decided to postpone getting the jab until after her baby was born. “We were so close to the end and we had been so careful,” he says.

His account of Samantha’s final days is particularly harrowing. He recalls how she entered intensive care after the birth, and was then transferred to a Covid ward after rallying briefly, only for her condition to abruptly “take a dip”.

For a broadcaster to feel awkward in the face of grief is understandable. One suddenly appreciates why Duffy, who deals with such situations regularly, adopts various guises from his on-air toolbox

Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment comes when Josh describes the reaction of their four-year-old daughter, Lilyanna, to her mother’s fatal illness: “Who will be my mummy then?” Even the habitually composed Boucher-Hayes is winded. “Oh Lord,” he blurts out at one stage.

As it is, the host initially appears unsure how to approach this difficult conversation. “Fair play to you is all we can say,” he says to his guest early on. Such awkwardness in the face of grief is understandable: one suddenly appreciates why Duffy, who deals with these situations regularly, adopts various guises from his on-air toolbox. Moreover, with his heartily confident on-air persona, Boucher-Hayes doesn’t seem a natural fit for such delicate encounters: certainly, he sounds much more comfortable when later talking to the researcher Aoife Gallagher about the proliferation of online misinformation.

As his interview with Josh progresses, however, the host finds his emotional pitch. He gently elicits poignant details from his bereaved guest, who will miss “the wee silly things” about his wife.

After 18 months of stories of lives lost to the pandemic, such raw grief is as hard to hear as ever.

Moment of the Week: Charlie Watts brought to book

The death of Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones drummer, prompts some interesting tributes from RTÉ Radio 1’s daytime presenters on Wednesday. Ryan Tubridy, for instance, dutifully describes the famously dapper musician as a “diamond geezer” yet somehow contrives to talk more about his beloved Beatles elsewhere on his show.

Luckily, Ray D’Arcy hosts a more illuminating tribute, as the musician and broadcaster Fiachna Ó Braonáin remembers the “warm, unassuming” man who welcomed him when his band Hothouse Flowers supported the Stones. By way of illustrating the drummer’s lack of interest in rock’n’roll trappings, Ó Braonáin relays an anecdote of a friend whom Watts asked for directions to a rare-book shop in Dublin. When, years later, Ó Braonáin’s pal encountered the superstar again, Watts remembered him straight away: “You showed me where that bookshop was.” A diamond geezer indeed.