Katie Hannon’s winning formula: sharp questioning and wry derision

Radio: The Late Debate’s quietly authoritative presenter is the show’s key asset

The Late Debate: host Katie Hannon. Photograph: RTÉ

The Late Debate: host Katie Hannon. Photograph: RTÉ

 

The people phoning into Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) sound hacked off, and no wonder. With faceless forces in foreign states disrupting plans and puncturing the incipient mood of national optimism, Joe Duffy hears caller after frustrated caller wonder how similar failures can be avoided in the future.

Indeed, such is the disappointment surrounding Lesley Roy’s failure to reach the final of the Eurovision Song Contest that it squeezes out discussion of such less pressing issues as the ransomware attack on the HSE.

One Liveline caller likens the performances of some of Ireland’s Eurovision rivals to a ‘soft-porn show’, complaining about ‘suspender belts and that kind of thing’. ‘That was the fellas. What about the women?’ replies Joe Duffy

Many of the opinions that follow are, as one might expect, endearingly loopy. One caller, Maeve, likens the performances of some of the Irish singer’s rivals to a “soft-porn show”, complaining about “suspender belts and that kind of thing”. “That was the fellas. What about the women?” replies Duffy, channelling his inner 1970s stand-up comedian.

Another caller, Paul, is irritated that songs are now “corrupted” by accompanying stage spectacles, hearkening back to the simpler days of Irish Eurovision winners such as Dana and Johnny Logan. “They didn’t have all this crazy European continental circus,” Paul says, his dismissive description inadvertently summarising the appeal of the song contest for millions.

On occasion, Duffy enters into the spirit of things himself, wondering if established Irish acts should enter the contest “as an act of patriotism”. The author and former RTÉ producer Julian Vignoles, who previously headed Ireland’s Eurovision delegation, concurs. “If you want to see the Tricolour flying in the green room in Azerbaijan or Rotterdam you need acts that are very experienced,” he says, though one wonders if conquering Baku is inducement enough for successful artists.

To be fair, Vignoles provides insights into to why Ireland is no longer the Eurovision force it was, changing fashions chief among them. But, in truth, dreaming up a winning formula isn’t the main focus here: rather, it’s nostalgia, be it curmudgeonly or wistful. There’s a certain inevitability when Duffy ends up chatting to Dana Rosemary Scallon about everything from her grandchildren to the Eurovision now. (“Sometimes I feel the artist is fighting with the effects behind them,” is her verdict.) 

All this seems a bit of a letdown after the candid conversations about menopause that electrified Liveline over the previous fortnight, when the succession of women sharing their experiences again underlined Duffy’s ability to tap into hitherto hidden aspects of Irish life. Equally it’s heartening to hear people expending emotional energy on the reassuringly trivial enterprise of the Eurovision, rather than fret endlessly about the all-encompassing catastrophe of pandemic. Oddly, Roy’s premature exit ends up as a reason to be cheerful.

Without blaming the HSE for being attacked, its coolly articulate former chief information officer makes clear the potential cost of skimping on funds in vital areas such as cybersecurity

Duffy doesn’t ignore the cyberattack that has led to such disruption and distress in the health service: on Monday he talks to the former hacker Darren Martyn, delivering a primer on the world of online crime in some decidedly untechnical language, such as characterising ransom ultimatums as “demanding a hape of money”.

For those seeking more nuanced information on the broader ramifications of the attack, Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) is particularly informative, whether discussing the impact on patient care with Dr Colm Henry of the HSE or the chances of catching the perpetrators with the cybersecurity expert Brian Honan. 

Perhaps the most illuminating interview comes when the Morning Ireland presenter Audrey Carville talks to Richard Corbridge, formerly chief information officer at the HSE. Corbridge speaks highly of his erstwhile colleagues and explains the difficulties of upgrading IT systems across the service. But, prompted by Carville’s astute queries, he also suggests that there has been underinvestment in IT security compared with that by other countries. “It’s a smaller resource than perhaps it ought to be for an entire health system,” he diplomatically says, agreeing with Carville’s assertion that we are “seeing the consequences of that underinvestment”.

Without blaming the HSE for being attacked – the health service is a “victim of a crime”, as Honan, the IT expert, notes later in the programme – Corbridge’s coolly articulate contribution makes clear the potential cost of skimping on funds in vital areas. 

Dramatic as the HSE hack is, the remorselessly shifting tectonic plates of the housing shortage continue to dominate current-affairs discourse on the airwaves, nowhere more so than on The Late Debate (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday-Thursday). Katie Hannon’s nocturnal panel show pays only brief attention to the cyberattack, perhaps because her guests are in agreement that it is a bad thing: as the programme title suggests, consensus is not the aim here. Housing is another matter, reliably generating friction throughout the week, typified by Tuesday’s testy jousting between Malcolm Byrne of Fianna Fáil and Louise O’Reilly of Sinn Féin.

One of The Late Debate’s key assets is its presenter: Katie Hannon shepherds her guests with a mix of informed questioning, quiet authority and, when necessary, wry derision

What differentiates The Late Debate from its daytime peers is the time afforded to each issue, which means that policy detail isn’t subsumed by political point-scoring, as when Rory Hearne of Maynooth University pours cold water on Government proposals in emphatic fashion. The show’s other key asset is Hannon herself, who shepherds her guests with a mix of informed questioning, quiet authority and – when necessary – wry derision.

The Fine Gael TD Kieran O’Donnell gets a taste of the latter treatment on Wednesday. Hannon dissects Coalition rivalries in sprightly style, expressing surprise at the positive reception Fine Gael deputies gave to the solutions of Fianna Fáil Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien – “Were ye not supposed to be gunning for him?” – before cutting O’Donnell short as he catalogues previous housing policies: “Spare us the history lesson.”

The programme does have its longueurs, what with guests appearing after a long day and debates sometimes getting bogged down on familiar party-political sticking points. But even when dealing with predictably depressing topics, Hannon brings a winning world-weariness to proceedings.

Concluding Wednesday’s discussion on housing, she drily remarks: “There’s no doubt we will be returning to this again. And again. And again.” The same old song, indeed.

Moment of the Week: Daddy daycare

With lockdown obliging many fathers to spend more time at home, Dermot and Dave (Today FM, weekdays) have a pertinent chat with the author Dave Diebold, who’s written a book about quitting his newspaper job to help raise his four children. Diebold admits that the likes of the school morning rush hour weren’t easy at first (“My way of acclimatising was lying in bed listening to everyone downstairs”), but with all four offspring now at college, he’s happy. 

The hosts sympathise with knowing irreverence, with Dermot Whelan opining that “when you’re a dad and you try to weigh in on these things, you just end up embarrassing yourself”. Diebold duly obliges by naming his wife on air. “Oh God, I shouldn’t name her. I said in the book I wouldn’t,” he says. “It’s too late now.”

The things families have to endure from fathers – and husbands.

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