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Pat Kenny’s bad news diet: ‘There’s only so much you can take’

Radio Review: Newstalk host tackles tricky topics in characteristic fashion

More than most current affairs presenters, Pat Kenny sounds comfortable dealing with bad news. When discussing difficult topics, the veteran broadcaster is a blend of the coolly analytical and the luridly speculative, carefully dissecting stories while hypothesising worst case scenarios.

But appearances can be deceptive. Kenny might appear energised when covering melancholy events, but it doesn't mean he's happy about it. On Monday, while discussing the effect of bad news on children with psychotherapist Colman Noctor, the host lets out a veritable cri de coeur: "What is there to be cheerful about?"

Kenny is asking his question from a child’s point of view; his tone is matter-of-fact rather than despairing. But it’s still jarring to hear, as again when he later mutters, apropos the deluge of grim stories on mobile devices, that “there’s only so much you can take”.

As for the efficacy of negotiations, Kenny bemoans the tendency of 'the Brits' to pocket EU concessions without reciprocating

In fairness, he may have a point. As Noctor describes young people being adversely affected by everything from Covid and the Ukraine war to the housing and climate crises, he echoes his host’s glum outlook.

“Children seem constantly braced for the next disaster,” Noctor says, “There isn’t an awful lot for them to be enthusiastic about.” Nor for the rest of us.

But for all that, Kenny tackles the week’s knotty issues in characteristic style. His treatment of the British government’s plans to unilaterally change the Northern Ireland protocol is chunkily factual. Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI reels off figures debunking the Boris Johnson (and DUP) line that the protocol is crippling business in the North, stating that while the arrangement has incurred £195 million in costs, it has added £1 billion extra in sales to the Republic.

While Kenny’s guests take a level-headed approach, with former taoiseach Bertie Ahern urging talks on the issues, the host brings his idiosyncratic brand of political diagnostics to the discussion. Tory leaders like Johnson and Liz Truss regard Northern Ireland as an “irrelevancy”, he says, and are “playing silly buggers” with the protocol for internal party reasons.

As for the efficacy of negotiations, Kenny bemoans the tendency of “the Brits” to pocket EU concessions without reciprocating. “They’re like Oliver Twist with the begging bowl, ‘I want more’,” he says derisively.

Long a symbol of cosy elitism, the Leinster House bar turns out to be legally dubious as well, operating as it does without a licence.

Coupled with insightful contributions from Kelly and Ahern (whatever else about the former Fianna Fáil leader, he knows all about tricky negotiations on the North), the host’s entertainingly intemperate asides make for a meaty discussion on a drearily stubborn if crucial issue. But his approach doesn’t always work.

His discussion on the National Maternity Hospital – another dependably draining yet important topic – lacks spark, despite the presence of independent TD Michael Healy-Rae: usually a reliable source of fireworks, the Kerry deputy’s settings are stuck on drone in this instance.

There’s not much detail either, with Kenny’s grilling of Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane descending into futile haranguing. The host seems irritated at Cullinane’s insistence that the hospital site can be gifted to the State rather than be leased through complex contracts: for all that he enjoys pithy characterisations himself, Kenny is suspicious of his guest’s simple solution.

“Is it unnecessarily complicated or just typically complicated?” he muses. Perhaps it’s his engineer’s training, or maybe just experience of the world, but either way Kenny knows life is rarely easy.

Those who hold that a TD's lot isn't too bad are given more ammunition on Lunchtime Live (Newstalk, weekdays), as host Andrea Gilligan discusses the infamous political perk that is the Dáil bar. Long a symbol of cosy elitism, the Leinster House bar turns out to be legally dubious as well, operating as it does without a licence.

Gilligan talks to People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy, who thinks that the bar – which operates on the basis of "custom and practice" - should be closed, and not just because it is, as the host says, a "shebeen". "The more fundamental point is that the vast majority of people don't have a bar in work," Murphy says, a principle that "doubly or triply" applies to the nation's legislature.

No more doubles or triples before votes if he has his way. Journalist and former transport minister Shane Ross takes a different view. He agrees the bar should be licensed, but paints a prosaic picture of this supposed den of bibulous privilege. "It isn't a haven of drunkenness at all, it's where people go for a sandwich."

Though a hardly a pressing issue, it seems like a tailor-made topic for a phone-in show like Lunchtime Live, providing a readily identifiable target for listeners to get exercised about. But the item falls flat, with Gilligan unsure how to approach it. At one moment, she asks whether closing the bar would be a populist gesture.

At another, she sums up the incongruity of the situation in ploddingly expository fashion. “It’s a little like if I decided to set up a bar here in Newstalk and sell Lunchtime Live cocktails,” she says. “I have to get a licence for it, I suppose people will wonder why those in the Dáil wouldn’t have to do the same.” Ah, now we get it.

While Gilligan sounds uncomfortable playing the rabble-rouser, she is more assured with less forced items that chime with her naturally benign on-air presence. She converses easily with the seemingly ubiquitous Colman Noctor on the importance of sibling birth order, a more engrossing subject than it initially seems, and has an absorbing discussion with callers on whether the children of working mothers do as well as those raised by stay-at-home parents.

(The consensus, probably unsurprisingly, is that they do.) As for the Dáil bar, Gilligan isn’t the only one who can’t get worked up about it: most texters think it should stay open. People have bigger things to worry about these days.

Radio Moment of the Week

On Tuesday, Ray D'Arcy (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) talks to author Jon Ronson about the ferocity with which culture wars are waged in today's world. The wryly articulate Ronson offers perceptive views of conspiracy theories, abortion rights, internet libertarianism and cancel culture.

But he sounds unusually nervous when discussing the especially charged issue of transgender rights. “It’s very hard for people to talk about transgender issues because it’s such a minefield,” Ronson says, “How can you have any kind of civilised conversation when it’s that furious?”

D’Arcy picks up on his guest’s discomfort: “If people like you – and I can hear it in your voice – are afraid to have open adult discussions, that’s not good.”

“It’s certainly not going to bring people into the fold, all it’s going to do is make people stay away,” Ronson says glumly, before swiftly moving on. Telling, and depressing.