RTÉ presenters keep cervical screening on the air as authorities fail the test

Joe Duffy, Ray D’Arcy and Mary Wilson highlight different aspects of the controversy

Vicky Phelan is going to concentrate on her own treatment now, she tells D’Arcy: “I won’t have achieved anything with what I’ve done if I’m not alive.”

Vicky Phelan is going to concentrate on her own treatment now, she tells D’Arcy: “I won’t have achieved anything with what I’ve done if I’m not alive.”

 

If the measure of a scandal is the amount of airtime devoted to it, then the Government should start ordering election posters now. The cervical cancer screening controversy has grown so fast that the week’s radio has at times been like a raw news feed, each programme seemingly revealing more tragic or egregious developments with dizzying speed. As Joe Duffy ruefully notes on Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), “I don’t know if anyone can keep up with it”. 

But the impression of positions and indeed administrations becoming untenable is hard to escape as the information slowly drips out on the airwaves. Duffy’s show, for one, gives extensive coverage to the stories of women whose lives have been turned upside down by failures in the screening programme, as well as by shortcomings in the wider health system. 

One caller, Gaynor, recounts how her late sister was told that her ongoing agony after getting the all-clear from cervical cancer was due to period pain, despite the fact she no longer had periods. Duffy also hears from David, whose late wife Nicola had her cancer missed by a smear test, and who was advised by a doctor to attend a gym to alleviate her pain. Such accounts, by turns heartbreaking and shocking, give vivid voice to the personal hurt behind the headlines.

This ability to let people tell their tale is of course Liveline’s great strength, especially at times of institutional failure. But Duffy also highlights the other issues that have compounded the tragedy of diagnoses being withheld. He talks to solicitor Caoimhe Haughey, who describes the approach of the State Claims Agency to misdiagnosed patients as being one of “deny, delay and defend”.  Similarly, a well-meaning call from Dr Sean Hogan shows the gulf that can emerge between medical professionals and the public. 

‘Out of proportion’

Hogan says that “the fear this has put into the community is way out of proportion” to the number of women affected. He may seek to reassure rather than dismiss concerns, but he strikes an off note. “I’m one of these people and my fear isn’t out of proportion,” responds Fiona, who has spent the morning trying to get information from a helpline. She is polite in tone, but her fury is obvious. “This is 2018, not giving patients information is not acceptable,” she says, voicing the nub of the matter for those affected.

There are telling contributions from less obvious quarters. On Monday’s edition of the frequently flippant Ray D’Arcy Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), the host talks to Vicky Phelan, whose court settlement with a US laboratory triggered the scandal over non-disclosure of smear test errors. It is, unsurprisingly, an emotional interview. Phelan, who is terminally ill, is upset at the news then emerging that 17 women not informed of screening mistakes had died in the meantime. “I could have been one of those women,” says Phelan. But her mettle is evident too. “By God am I going to take these guys on, it’s disgraceful what they’ve done to the women of Ireland,” she says.

D’Arcy provides a sympathetic ear, but is also alive to the air of anger surrounding the issue. He replays the startling interview given on Morning Ireland (RT É Radio 1, weekdays) by Dr David Gibbons, who in 2008 resigned as chair of an oversight group for the National Cervical Screening Programme after his prescient concerns about the outsourcing of lab testing to America were dismissed. IF this doesn’t raise the hackles enough, we hear that the head of the screening programme at the time was Dr Tony O’Brien, now the embattled director-general of the Health Service Executive (HSE), the body at the centre of the row. Phelan does well to contain her rage as D’Arcy asks her about the apology she received from O’Brien after the court case. “That apology is null and void,” she says tersely.

Impressive figure

Phelan cuts an impressive figure, but is still taken aback by the scale of what has happened. “Jesus, I don’t think anyone could have imagined the magnitude of it,” she says. She also issues a stark reminder of the grim personal circumstances that brought her to this point. She is going to concentrate on her own treatment now, she tells D’Arcy: “I won’t have achieved anything with what I’ve done if I’m not alive.” With this statement, she cuts to the poignant heart of the matter.

It’s an anomaly of the broadcasting world that despite this being a gender-specific issue of seismic proportions, it’s rare to hear women discussing it on air. Perhaps that’s why Mary Wilson sounds even more studiously determined than usual when the topic arises on Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). Speaking to social protection minister Regina Doherty, the host pointedly remarks that “I’ve been talking to a lot of women” about the issue.

For her part, Doherty takes the cue to voice her own strong feelings about the fact “these women weren’t told information about their bodies when others knew”. Regarding HSE boss O’Brien’s statement that he is taking the scandal personally, Doherty says “damn right he should”, adding that letting him resign before his scheduled exit would be “too easy”. 

It’s unusually blunt language, but the Minister’s tone grows noticeably less strident when the focus shifts to possible government culpability. When Wilson suggests that there are also “big questions” for Minister for Health Simon Harris, Doherty lamely counters that “you can only act on information given”, and dodges accusations of Government foot-dragging by trotting out cliches about known unknowns and moving goalposts. 

What starts out as a candid political interview ends up being a more customary exercise in buck-passing. But as long as the scandal dominates the airwaves, the buck could stop anywhere. 

Radio Moment of the Week: History depleting
After President Michael D Higgins expresses concerns that history is no long a core subject for the Junior Cert, Henry McKean conducts an illuminating vox pop on the matter for Sean Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays). McKean’s older interviewees generally voice support for a stronger place for history in the curriculum, but the younger speakers cause some alarm. One young man recalls his Junior Cert history exam, but sounds hazy when McKean asks for more details. When pressed, the student remembers that he had to write about two historical figures; one was Christopher Columbus, “who showed the earth wasn’t flat”; the other he can’t remember. What was that saying again? “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Quite.

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