Radio: ‘Drivetime’ balance reveals one side to Gaza story

Impartiality unintentionally skews RTÉ news show’s coverage of Palestinian conflict, while Jon Snow’s outrage is more deliberate

Audrey Carville: the journalist has been doing a sterling job as a summer presenter on Drivetime

Audrey Carville: the journalist has been doing a sterling job as a summer presenter on Drivetime

 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always polarised opinions, but such has been the carnage in Gaza that it has been particularly difficult to remain neutral on the issue. Still, displaying an admirable commitment to journalistic balance, Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) tries to steer a middle course on the issue. At least until Wednesday, when Audrey Carville hosts a discussion that is so skewed towards painting Israel as heartless and cruel as to render the national broadcaster’s attempts at impartiality a joke.

Or that would be the case were it not for the fact that the person so effortlessly drumming up pro-Palestinian sympathies is a spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry. The official, Paul Hirshorn, is there as a counterweight to Prof Avi Shlaim, who decries the Israeli assault while also stressing that the indiscriminate Hamas rocket attacks, which by then have killed three Israelis, are war crimes too.

Faced with Shlaim’s claims, such as “killing civilians is wrong, period”, Hirshorn clarifies matters. He says that the Israeli military has “set a new standard under very difficult circumstances”. Carville duly asks: “What new standard have you set?” Hirshorn replies that steps are being taken to minimise civilian casualties in the face of the actions of Hamas, “a monster with a killer strategy”.

Carville, who has been doing a sterling job as a summer presenter on Drivetime (and who incidentally quizzes Shlaim in equal depth), asks whether “600 civilian deaths” is an acceptable casualty level. Hirshorn says that “at least 250” of the dead are “terrorists”, while admitting that “there are a few hundred civilians”. He predicts that, once fighting ceases, up to half of those killed will turn out to be militants.

Perhaps realising he is implying that 300 civilian deaths is an acceptable number, he quickly reminds listeners that the real responsibility for the slaughter lies with Hamas.

It’s a chillingly cool appraisal, not helped by Hirshorn’s apparent traces of a South African accent, which has the unfortunate effect of recalling attempts in the 1980s at defending the indefensible by apologists of apartheid. The spokesman’s nods to compassion only compound matters, as he briefly acknowledges that “the people of Gaza are having a very difficult time now”. Quite. By the time Hirshorn reassures listeners that “the Palestinian people are not our enemies”, it’s like a sick joke. The most rabid Hamas propagandist could hardly do a better job at caricaturing the state of Israel as uncaring and brutal: rarely have two sides of a story combined to such one-sided effect.

In Gaza itself, however, matters are lethally lopsided in the other direction. The Channel 4 newscaster Jon Snow checks in from the besieged enclave on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays), where he combines harrowing personal vignettes with an impassioned overview of the whole dreadful affair.

Describing the situation as “one of the most appalling human catastrophes I’ve ever witnessed”, Snow recounts how his Palestinian producer-cum-local-fixer has been unable to access his family home, which is in a heavily bombarded sector: he has not seen his 10-day-old son, while his five-year-old daughter screamed down the phone that she would never see him again.

Kenny, whose sureness of touch with current affairs is as strong as ever, quizzes in a sensitive but nuanced way, wondering why Hamas persists in firing rockets to hugely unequal retaliation. Snow answers that the problem is more deep-seated: “The Israelis do not want to cede any of the land in the West Bank to its rightful owners, and that is at the root of the whole thing.”

If Snow’s take is slanted, it hardly seems callous or unreasonable. His concern ultimately seems to lie with the human tragedy unfolding around him. Both sides, he says, have proved that it’s impossible to use modern weapons without killing civilians, with only the American-made missile shield sparing more Israeli deaths. “Maybe the US should install a shield in Palestine,” Snow suggests. It’s a world-weary jest rather than a realistic solution, but it’s also the nearest thing to an even-handed view in a harrowing week.

A more evenly matched contest is heard on The Right Hook (Newstalk, weekdays), as the columnist Ian O’Doherty goes toe to toe with Michael Nugent of Atheism Ireland about whether RTÉ should drop the Angelus. In truth, George Hook’s two guests hardly discuss this, preferring to squabble about the legitimacy of the UN or the continued primacy of the Catholic Church in primary education. As the pair assume stereotypical roles – O’Doherty the contrarian claiming Catholicism is an easy target, Nugent the myopic activist dismissive of the church’s good works – their host despairingly pleads with them to stick to the topic.

Hook nails his own colours to the mast, boasting about his schooling by the Presentation Brothers, and how the vast majority of the order’s pupils were never abused. “That’s setting the bar low,” says Nugent, not unreasonably.

Hook adds that he would retain the Angelus, if only because he gains listeners at 6pm as people switch over from the bells ringing on RTÉ.

By the end, the presenter, whose show has seemed flat of late, is in high spirits at the ding-dong. Hook may never win the no-bell peace prize (sorry), but he says the exchange has been “great craic”. If only all disputes were so benign.

Moment of the Week: The sound of silence
On Lunchtime (Newstalk, weekdays), reporter Richie McCormack introduces a clip of the St Patrick’s Athletic manager, Liam Buckley, on his team’s (ultimately fruitless) tie with Legia Warsaw: cue the deadest of dead air, for what seems an eternity. Enter host Jonathan Healy, who smoothly takes the reins. “It’s a new studio,” says the unruffled host, “so things aren’t as well as they should be. Carry on.” A carry on, indeed.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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