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Nudity, teenage sex, porno movies and plain old fornication: Liveline has it all

Joe Duffy can’t believe his luck – er, sorry, ears – when callers splutter about Normal People

Normal People: Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel. Photograph: Enda Bowe/Element Pictures/RTÉ

With all that’s going on in the world, it’s hard to begrudge people a bit of harmless nostalgia. Sure enough, it’s Throwback Thursday on Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) when Joe Duffy hosts a discussion that conjures up memories of those halcyon days of the 1970s when people spluttered in outrage at the filth being spewed into their homes by the telly. Back then a TV show like The Spike could be condemned by the taoiseach for depicting nudity. Now, despite everything that has changed in Ireland since, a television show like Normal People can be condemned for depicting nudity, albeit by Liveline callers, not a demographic always noted for nuanced judgment.

The current small-screen adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel prompts one listener, Mary, to phone Duffy about the programme’s sex scenes, saying it was like watching “a porno movie”, a genre she later admits she hasn’t watched. One can sympathise with Mary’s clearly genuine shock, which seems at the teenage years of the fictional characters as much as at the nudity itself.

Duffy’s next caller, Tommy, is made of sterner stuff, however, as he condemns the programme for promoting “fornication” among young people in particular and outside marriage in general. This is morally wrong, Tommy says, before, inevitably, talking about abortion. Duffy nips this conversational tangent in the bud – but, surely sensing radio gold, keeps Tommy on the line.

The host’s broadcasting instincts mean he keeps returning to Tommy. Perhaps it’s because his star guest’s rigid morality seems fixated on sex with an intensity that would have done Archbishop McQuaid proud

Tommy is calm and polite, and obviously sincere in his Christian faith, deeming sex only for procreation within matrimony. But he asks appallingly intrusive questions of those who disagree with him – of whom, predictably, there are many. He asks Duffy what he would think if his daughter appeared in such scenes. (Duffy replies that his daughter loves both the book and the TV programme.) He asks a religion teacher, who says she lets her pupils decide if teenage sex is right for them, if she approves of “the teaching of promiscuity”. He asks Máire, a mother of teenage boys, why she bothered marrying if there’s no difference between sex inside and outside marriage. “Because there’s more to marriage than sex,” an exasperated Máire replies, admirably resisting the temptation to tell Tommy to go and procreate himself.

Along the way Tommy talks about “sluts”, refers to women in their 40s as “girls” and seems to connect the pandemic with immorality in society, in each instance drawing Duffy’s ire. But the host’s broadcasting instincts mean he keeps returning to Tommy, even after other skirmishes have broken out. Perhaps it’s because his star guest’s rigid morality seems fixated on sex with an intensity that would have done Archbishop McQuaid proud. That said, the makers of Normal People must be equally thrilled with the free publicity.

In the end, though, even Duffy grows tired of it all, as when another caller, Catherine, talks about unmarried women “who got into trouble” being unhappy. “The heartbreak I’ve heard in this chair for the last 10 years was women having to give up their child,” the host replies firmly, finally pointing to the elephant in the room for those who would have us return to strict Catholic morality. There is, of course, an easy way out of this argument, as when Duffy asks Catherine if she’ll watch the next episode of Normal People. “I don’t think I will,” she says. Problem solved.

On Wednesday, Ivan Yates opens his show by announcing that, rather than do his usual comment slot, he’s going to have “a bit of a rant”. As a radical departure from the norm, this is akin to Duffy declaring that he’s about to take a phone call on air. But, having been in relatively subdued form on The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays), Yates has had enough of all this public-health blather, and wants to “change the national conversation”. And as his regular listeners will know, there’s no stopping the Sir Rants-a-lot of Irish radio once he dons the shining armour of iconoclasm, mounts the trusty steed of fearlessness and unsheathes the rusty sword of bluster.


Actually, most of what Yates says is eminently sensible. Addressing the catastrophic state of the economy, he asks how many people will have to work part-time or for less money when they return to their jobs, assuming they still have them. He wonders how long the Government can afford emergency payments, suggesting everything from public transport to local authorities will need “emergency transfusions” of cash.

Above all, he chafes against what he sees as the unquestioning consensus towards the current pandemic strategy, guided by advice from the opaque National Public Health Emergency Team, or NPHET, concluding that politicians have outsourced responsibility on vital economic decisions to the advisory group.

These are all urgent questions, although the media hasn’t been the Pravda-like puppy Yates implies. But the way he frames his complaints is more striking. He describes NPHET as a “tower of Babel”, full of “Balubas and lulu people”, aka academics. He says that “we all know the story now” on health measures (do we?) and calls for an end to the “rubbish” of “health experts who are on the road to nowhere”.

This is less a rant than irresponsible drivel. Deriding expertise in such florid terms is straight out of the shock-jock playbook, however much Yates insists that he wants “an adult conversation”. It’s hard to talk like a grown-up when you’re trading in childish insults. Of course, there’s an element of stirring the pot, as betrayed by his amused air when he reads out furious texts from listeners. But it’s an uncomfortable tirade, undermining the validity of his pertinent questions.

With so many people dying from the virus, Ivan Yates might pay heed to current etiquette and be more mindful about what spouts from his mouth

His outburst hasn’t come out of the blue. The day before, Yates talks to the former RTÉ reporter Charlie Bird, who is also concerned about media complacency. “We live in a democracy and should be allowed to ask questions and not be criticised for it,” he says. He’s vague on exactly what hard questions aren’t being asked but correct about the lack of data. Bird is also loath to criticise his old colleagues when Yates, sticking to the avian theme, claims that RTÉ merely “parrots” public-health information. But the normally straight-talking host is strangely evasive when Bird asks Newstalk to lift its ban on Irish Times journalists.

Yates also talks to the former US talk-radio host Michael Graham, a regular conservative voice during George Hook’s Newstalk tenure. Graham enjoys trolling liberals and the Euroweenies of the EU while doubting the effectiveness of many public-health measures, as Yates limbers up for Wednesday’s rant by excoriating Ireland’s “green-jersey groupthink”.

Yates should of course express his doubts, which ultimately come from a conventional centre-right position. He interviews Danny McCoy of the employers’ group Ibec, who voices the same concerns as the host but in less loaded language. And one understands the presenter’s frustration with the daily grind of wall-to-wall Covid-19 coverage: he follows his polemic with an unavoidably dull item on wearing face masks. But with so many people dying from the virus, Yates might pay heed to current etiquette and be more mindful about what spouts from his gob.

On The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays) the host has no qualms about letting “health experts” have their say. On Tuesday Kenny talks to Dr Chris Luke, a consultant in emergency medicine, who starkly assesses the fight against coronavirus. “We’re no more than a quarter way through,” he says, comparing any success against the “incredibly devious” virus to “being three points up against the All Blacks in the first 15 minutes”. In his opinion this is a perilous moment: “We’re beginning to drop our guard, because we’ve got vigilance fatigue.”

Equally, Luke doesn’t believe in health experts calling the shots on the economy. “Medics should not be leading countries,” he says. But he thinks it vital that they be on advisory panels. Indeed, he says panels should be expanded to include scientists, historians and even “poets like Eavan Boland, who wrote this poem Quarantine, for goodness sake,” he says, referring to the Irish poet, who died with cruel suddenness last week (see below). Luke’s conversation, deftly handled by Kenny, reminds listeners that it’s not just the economy that needs reopening but society as a whole.

A similar line is taken by another health professional, Dr Sam McConkey, when he appears on Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). The infectious-diseases expert has become such a ubiquitous presence in the media, Ivan Yates’s show included, that one wonders how he finds time for his day job. But he speaks great sense when he talks to the Morning Ireland presenter Rachael English on Wednesday.

He disagrees with the argument that pits health concerns against economic ones, “because the strongest predictor of health in any society or individual is really their wealth”. But McConkey also suggests that “equity” is another key health predictor, and that decreasing inequity should be a factor “if we want to rebuild our world in Ireland in a sustainable way”. Either way, the decisions require broad consensus, and, ultimately, “those debates are best had not on the airwaves but in Dáil Éireann”. Like Yates, McConkey raises important questions, but he doesn’t harangue his audience in the process. As the old song says, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. But that’s another Liveline discussion altogether.

Radio Moment of the Week: Eavan Boland’s greatness

Coming amid the current crisis, the unexpected death of one of Ireland’s greatest writers, the poet Eavan Boland, doesn’t receive as much coverage as it should, but Monday’s Arena (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) helps redress the situation. Fellow authors attest to Boland’s immense achievement, in poetry and beyond, in bringing her voice to the male-dominated world of Irish literature, with the writer Sinéad Gleeson praising her for “turning the domestic into something political”. Archive recordings of Boland’s reading underline her poetic brilliance – “formal excellence, huge psychological insight, but so accessible to all,” according to the director of the Arts Council, Maureen Kennelly – as well as the values and convictions that underpinned her work, as when the late poet says, “The treatment of women and the dark shadows over the Magdalene laundry will always be a stain on the country.” Now more than ever, she will be sadly missed.

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