Joe Duffy exposes the fiction of the HSE’s vaccine ads

Radio: Duffy may not curry favour with radio advertisers, but he serves his public well

Joe Duffy was parsing advertisements on Tuesday and then again on Wednesday, though this time with more intent

Joe Duffy was parsing advertisements on Tuesday and then again on Wednesday, though this time with more intent


Joe Duffy had better hope RTÉ’s licence fee isn’t abolished any time soon, as he’s clearly not currying favour with the network’s advertisers. For two days running on Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), Duffy shows that he’s neither in thrall to commercial considerations nor overburdened with juicy topics, as he debates the merits of ads airing on the national broadcaster.

On Tuesday Duffy talks to Monica, who dislikes the current television campaign for carbon monoxide alarms: “I think it’s an absolute disgrace.” This seems like a harsh judgment on a clip featuring an animated canary singing cautionary ballads in a strong Dublin accent, but Monica’s objection is to the use of the word “poxy”: “It’s an awful word to be using on television and radio,” she says. “I think you’ve used it five times already,” replies a deadpan Duffy. Other listeners disagree with Monica, with one suggesting that people have “more to worry about than some mildly offensive ad”.

You’d think so, but Duffy nonetheless spins the discussion out for an hour, pivoting between amusing anecdotes and tragic tales. He has a fond conversation with actor Phelim Drew, who recounts how he unsuccessfully auditioned for the offending ad, despite the brief stipulating that the singing canary should sound like his late father, Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners.

The mood is less jolly when the host talks to horse trainer Michael “Mouse” Morris, whose son Christopher died of carbon monoxide poisoning while travelling in Argentina. As to the ad, Morris merely states: “It works.” Odd as it sounds, it’s a satisfactory job from Duffy too: an item that begins as a petty complaint becomes something more poignant. 

Duffy is again parsing advertisements on Wednesday, though with more intent this time. The Government’s revised vaccination plan, now prioritised by age rather than profession, comes under the spotlight, with 64-year-old caller Sue expressing delight that she is now due a jab. “I think we were probably born in the same year,” Sue says to Duffy, who seems slightly miffed at his age being revealed: “I don’t remember.”


But his real irritation is reserved for the new HSE radio ads announcing that phase one of the vaccination rollout has been completed. As several callers attest, this is not the case. Carol reports that her 96-year-old mother is still awaiting her shot; as is Helen, who as a septuagenarian with chronic asthma surely qualifies as vulnerable.

More damningly, the host hears from Dr Patrick O’Connor, who says his clinic won’t finish vaccinating over-70s until next month. “It’s giving wrong information and it’s upsetting a lot of people,” the GP says of the ad. Meanwhile, the host plays the commercial several times for effect, as well as for real during an ad break: not so much biting the hand that feeds as devouring the entire arm. 

But Duffy’s annoyance is well placed. His description of the overpromising ad as “a three-card trick” seems apposite, except instead of gaining the confidence of the mark, sorry, listener, it diminishes it. In highlighting silly official errors at a time when a weary population is being chided over sticking to the rules, Duffy may not curry favour with putative advertisers, but he serves his public well.

If Duffy’s insistent focus on a single line in one ad seems excessive, he’s only taking his cue from Government Ministers. On Wednesday’s Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe reacts angrily when presenter Gavin Jennings asks a loaded question about the reopening of children’s shoe shops. Jennings remarks that “your party has a particular history when it comes to children’s shoes”, a reference to the imposition of VAT on such footwear by Fine Gael’s John Bruton in 1982, prompting a robust response from the Minister. 

After noting that Bruton’s decision was made decades ago, Donohoe rejects the “implicit suggestion that my party and myself are not aware of the health needs that young children have”. Caught off balance by the Minister’s reply, Jennings apologises, but his guest is having none of it. “It was more than just a phrasing of the question, you were making an inference,” the Minister says, his voice audibly shaking as he stresses how all Government actions are about trying to save lives.

Donohoe’s cold fury at the implication of callousness is understandable, but while Jennings’s question is undeniably slanted and snide, it is factually accurate. By being too smart for his own good, however, Jennings cedes the initiative to his guest, which may be a bigger sin from a news anchor’s perspective.

Moreover, while the Minister maintains a characteristically courteous demeanour as he delivers efficient but evasive answers about pandemic policies affecting millions, it’s notable he only loses his cool when his party’s reputation is called into doubt. Some priorities remain the same.

Donohoe has regained his calm when he appears on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays), where any disagreements about the progress of vaccine rollouts are dealt with “respectfully”, as the Minister says. It helps that Kenny takes a technocratic approach to the interview, only really sounding exercised by videos of raucous socialising in a south Dublin park: his guest duly joins the condemnation of the “appalling scenes”.

Kenny’s annoyance at such misbehaviour is justified, but he appears to view delinquency as more naturally rooted in some places than others. On Tuesday, he talks to Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust about the concept of “rewilding”, whereby biodiversity is encouraged by, among other things, reintroducing certain wild species such as wolves. It’s an informative discussion, though Kenny’s initial focus on the lupine element of rewilding draws predictably mocking reactions from listeners.

Dire consequences

One text in particular predicts dire consequences if predatory wildlife again roam the Wicklow Mountains. “It’s only a matter of time before Yogi Bear and co are wandering down to the Square,” Kenny reads. He then muses that “they might meet their match” at the Tallaght shopping centre.

It’s meant as a joke – Kenny laughs with gusto at his own wit – but also sounds clueless and even condescending. All in all, not a great advertisement for himself. 

Radio Moment of the Week: Hamilton misses

Best known as a soccer commentator, George Hamilton is also a reliably engaging host on his weekend show The Hamilton Scores (Lyric FM), where the pleasant classical soundtrack is interspersed with his comprehensive musical knowledge and his seemingly inexhaustible supply of anecdotes about Vienna. But ever the sportscaster, he makes the occasional gaffe in his commentary.

On Saturday, having played a rendition of Seán Ó Riada’s song The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee, Hamilton reads a text from a Dublin-based listener named Mary, who is homesick for her Cork hometown. “You can take the Mary out of Cork,” Hamilton chuckles, “but you can’t take the Cork out of Mary.” Sorry, what? Poor Mary. Hamilton might do well to give cork gags more leeway.