Radio: Everybody’s getting tangled up by the Garda tapes story

Confused commentators were tied in knots trying to unravel the Garda controversy. Maybe RTÉ’s new science series could help make sense of it all


As one might expect when a potentially seismic political crisis breaks, an atmosphere of chaos and confusion prevails, as beleaguered public figures scramble to cover themselves. And that’s just in the studio of News a t One (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). On Tuesday its presenter, Áine Lawlor, has to deal with dropped connections, dead air and discombobulated contributors while trying to provide some clarity on the scandals enveloping the Government and the Garda.

As the news emerges of Martin Callinan’s departure as Garda commissioner, Lawlor assembles a formidable array of commentators and politicians, only to lose roughly half of them. After delivering his analysis of the situation, RTÉ’s crime correspondent, Paul Reynolds, goes Awol when Lawlor asks about further developments. The broadcaster’s political correspondent David Davin-Power then cuts across another conversation: “I presume you don’t want me any more,” he languidly intones before hurriedly adding that he didn’t realise he was on air.

Lawlor then asks Davin-Power a question, “as you are still with us”, only to be greeted with seemingly interminable silence. The presenter somehow maintains her cool, but she sounds relieved when Pádraig Mac Lochlainn of Sinn Féin appears on air when requested.

It’s knockabout stuff, giving listeners a taste of frantic activity surrounding a fast-breaking story – no matter that it’s actually down to technical glitches. “All I can say is, no one is bugging the lines,” Lawlor jokes. She utters this line before the emergence of news about secret Garda phone tapes, at a stroke adding prescience to her other skills.

Matters proceed on a more even keel the following day, on shows such as Breakfast (Newstalk, weekdays) and Today With Seá n O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). But for all that the various presenters can take a slightly more considered approach, they are unable to come up with much in the way of answers, at best only asking more pertinent questions.

On BreakfastShane Coleman quizzes Brian Hayes of Fine Gael about why Minister for Justice Alan Shatter only learned of the tapes a fortnight after his department was informed. “I don’t want to dump on officials,” Hayes says, “but the question has to be asked why he wasn’t shown the letter.”

“So you are dumping on officials,” comes Coleman’s rueful response.

Over on O’Rourke’s show, the reporter Brian Dowling posits some perceptive thoughts as he ponders the vagueness surrounding the proposed commission of inquiry into the taping controversy, bemoaning the lack of “absolute clarity of purpose” around it. “It’s very perplexing,” he says, winning the understatement-of-the-week prize.

With seasoned reporters fumbling in the dark for concrete facts, Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) seems as good a source as any for opinionated speculation about the matter, if not actual information. On Tuesday retired gardaí phone in to sympathise with Callinan. One caller, Walter, blames the former commissioner’s departure on “a frenzy in the media” and, less obviously, on the public’s “short memories” about a force that has lost members in its fight against crime and dissident-republican terrorism.

Asked by Joe Duffy if the force’s reputation has been damaged, Walter is adamant: “Not by An Garda Síochána. We have given too much down the years.”

It’s a telling if inadvertent glimpse into the kind of instinctive institutional loyalty that has landed the force in its current hot water. Amid the fog of supposition surrounding a murky affair, it’s as close to a revealing insight as one gets.

Other shows have more success making sense of apparently impenetrable matters – or, more precisely, grey matter. What Woody Allen described as his second-favourite organ, the brain, is the subject of the inaugural edition of What’s It All About? (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday), a promising science series presented by Seán Duke and Colette Kinsella.

From the off it’s clear that scientists are not the show’s primary target audience. Over a backdrop of futuristic sound effects, Kinsella and Dr Brendan Kelly describe the brain as composed of “stuff” that is “mushy” and “squashable”, terms not usually found in neurosurgery textbooks.

Rather than dissect their subject, so to speak, Duke and Kinsella instead use a set of unexpected but arresting vignettes to illustrate how the brain works and how it can go wrong. They meet Donna, a woman whose philandering, bigamist husband swindled her before moving on to his next wife, by way of showing how psychopaths are “not sick, just wired differently”. They tell how up to a third of the population may be infected by Toxoplasma gondii , a mind-controlling parasite that jumps from rats to cats to humans, resulting in everything from poor dress sense to increased traffic accidents.

With the presenters weaving accessible scientific exposition with accounts of meditative techniques and zombie cockroaches, What’s It All About? is more diverting romp than forensic study – and all the better for it. Listeners might even learn something, which is more than can be said for the blanket coverage of the week’s political events.

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