Newstalk’s petrol price debate loses perspective – there is a war going on

Radio: Rising fuel costs receive extensive coverage on Kieran Cuddihy’s show

Is it too soon for Covid nostalgia? Of course, no one in their right mind would wish a return to the mortality rates, swamped hospitals and severe lockdowns of peak pandemic. Still, the sound of Kieran Cuddihy arguing with Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly about the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) on The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays) is oddly comforting, a throwback to the familiar days when pestilence was the apocalyptic horseman of choice, before the baton had been seamlessly passed to its fellow equine herald of doom, warfare.

But seriously folks… Tuesday’s encounter between Cuddihy and Donnelly is a reminder that, even as the war in Ukraine rages on, the pandemic hasn’t gone away.

The Minister is on to discuss several matters, from the Government’s newly launched women’s health action plan to the proposal to give €100,000 to the bereaved families of health workers who died of Covid. The host hears out his guest respectfully, if occasionally dubiously. It’s when Cuddihy asks about partners of pregnant women not being allowed at antenatal appointments at the National Maternity Hospital that things really hot up.

The topic of rising petrol prices generates as much passion as Putin's actions

The host, audibly irritated as the Minister cites public health advice for such restrictions, points out that Nphet has said there’s no such rationale to do so. “Are Nphet wrong or are you wrong?” Cuddihy asks. “I doubt you’re going to say it’s you, so why are Nphet wrong?”

Donnelly remains calm – he’s faced far fiercer interrogations during the pandemic, after all – replying that the advisory board’s advice relates to national policy, but local measures are allowed. Cuddihy is placated, but it seems like a strange point to get worked up about in the first place, especially right now.

In fairness, Cuddihy does deal with Ukraine, regularly hearing from reporters and aid workers on the ground. But what really adds fuel to the fire, at least in terms of sparks flying on air, is the subject of rising petrol prices. The topic receives extensive coverage on the show – unsurprising, given its drivetime slot and presumed commuter demographic – as well as generating as much passion as Putin’s actions.

Monday has the host fielding calls from listeners agitated by increasing costs. Irish Times consumer correspondent Conor Pope appears on Tuesday reassuring the host that despite the oil squeeze, there's no need for panic.

Not everyone agrees. On Wednesday, Cuddihy hears coach operator Caoimhe Moloney outline how rising prices are assailing her industry. She welcomes the excise duty cut, but still claims that private coaches soon won’t be able to fulfil school transport duties, with contracts based on fuel costings that have since doubled.

These are certainly critical matters for the transport and haulage sectors. But as Moloney urges Ministers to get on the Government jet and seek EU derogations on further fuel subventions, there’s little acknowledgment that, well, there’s a war on. Moreover, the host rarely mentions this during the discussion. A sense of proportion wouldn’t go amiss.

Then again, Cuddihy also hears from Beatrice Fihn of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, who starkly describes the devastation caused by nuclear weapons. To bowdlerise Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins: too much fecking perspective.

There's little danger of being overwhelmed by feelings of dread when Ryan Tubridy (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) is around, so determined is he to remain upbeat. "I'm jumping far away from serious matters this morning, just for a few minutes, to give us all a little breather," he says on Wednesday.

He’s as good as his word. In short order, he enthuses about 1970s thriller The Day of the Jackal, parses a list of the best takeaways in Ireland and, most incongruously, recounts how the crown of thorns – yes, that one – ended up in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. (“Like a blender given at Christmas, they were re-gifted,” he explains, possibly sacrilegiously.)

Soon the woes of the world do indeed seem far away, if only because one is lost in wonder at Tubridy’s ability to spin such slim material into a 20-minute monologue. In the current environment, this is not a complaint.

Tubridy's studied 'one of the guys' approach can have its limits

He extends this light approach to interviews. Following the discovery of the wreck of the Endurance, the ship from Ernest Shackleton’s storied 1915 Antarctic expedition, Tubridy talks to diver Rory Golden, who starts with a disclaimer that he’s a “polar fan” rather than an expert. It’s a good-natured, broadly informative conversation, but one suspects not far from the kind of casual chat Tubridy would have over a pint.

Similarly, his talk with former Irish rugby player Mark McDermott about working as coach of the Russian national team is interesting without being wildly insightful. McDermott describes people there as being friendly once you know them, mixing prosaic observations – very few Russians speak English, it seems – with more telling ones: “Seldom did I engage in political conversations, because the barriers come down straight away.”

Again, the relaxed atmosphere prevails. But while a break from professional punditry is welcome, one starts to wish for more specific detail following one layman’s take after another. At times like this, Tubridy’s studied “one of the guys” approach has its limits.

It's not as if he's incapable of more granular interviews. Only the week before, he hosted wide-ranging encounters with playwright Conor McPherson and novelist John Boyne. And on Thursday, Tubridy talks involvedly to Claire Cronin, the new US ambassador to Ireland. Of course, it's just the latest manifestation of the host's oft-touted interest in American politics: if he was obliged to sign a register of interests, he'd probably be listed as a foreign agent.

Sure enough, the host makes the de rigueur references to JFK. But it’s an affable yet interesting item, as the ambassador discusses her personal history and public service, her connections with resident Joe Biden and, of course, Russian’s invasion of Ukraine.

For all his distractions, Tubridy knows these are serious times.

Radio Moment of the Week

On Wednesday, Sean Moncrieff (Newstalk) has his weekly farming slot with Mairead Lavery of the Irish Farmers Journal, who gives a sobering overview of the impact of the war in Ukraine on the world's food supply. She recounts how Ukraine and Russia's combined share of the global wheat market has grown from negligible to 30 per cent in three decades, notes the potentially devastating effects of cereal shortfalls for Africa, and outlines the serious food security challenges for Ireland. "In all my years farming, it's the biggest threat we've ever had," she says of the "horrible" situation in Ukraine.

It’s a typically enlightening contribution from Lavery, and as Moncrieff sorrowfully notes, her last for the show: “Thanks to you for reminding us every week where our food is actually coming from.” Lavery’s reliably engaging presence will be missed, now more than ever.