In its role as a public-service broadcaster, RTÉ is running a campaign highlighting the perils of fake news, under the banner Truth Matters. It's a laudable attempt to combat one of the most insidiously corrosive aspects of the contemporary world, but one wonders whether the national network's heart is really in it. After starting with ominous ads suggesting a marauding army of zombies can be vanquished by turning on the news, the next strand in the campaign eschews broadcasting altogether.
Instead, RTÉ has opted for a podcast series, presumably on the basis that online consumers of misinformation never listen to the radio. Presented by the RTÉ journalist Della Kilroy and Shane Creevy of the media tech company Kinzen, the podcast, synergistically titled The Truth Matters, has perceptive guests and useful insights. But in terms of intent, if not content, it falls short.
The mission of the four-part series is straightforward, as Kilroy outlines: “Start a conversation, help you learn the skills to identify misinformation and play your part in combating the spread online.”
The Truth Matters looks at the methodology of fake news but rarely dwells on the reasons behind widespread alienation from mainstream media
To this end, the first episode explains the difference between disinformation and misinformation (the former deliberately false, the latter merely wrong) and hears advice on how best to check online stories for veracity. The second, latest instalment examines the proliferation of conspiracy theories such as QAnon, as well as the tricky question of how to talk to people who believe in such phenomena. "Countering with facts doesn't work, unfortunately," the analyst Aoife Gallagher glumly suggests.
But it’s hard to know whom the podcast is aimed at. Some casually chatty interplay between Kilroy and Creevy aside, the format is more akin to a conventional radio show, while the earnest expositional tone has echoes of a public-information programme. Given that the series seeks to spread its message beyond “old media” audiences – it’s a podcast, after all – the traditional template and primer-like style seem odd.
And, with its tips on combatting fake news, the series comes across as preaching to the converted rather than reaching out to social-media users likely to consume online misinformation. It looks at the methodology of fake news but rarely dwells on the reasons behind widespread alienation from mainstream media. The warning by the American author Dan Gillmor that “we will pay the price” unless we tackle wider inequality, corruption and lack of opportunity is a rare moment when expert analysis is delivered in the urgent vernacular currency of the online sphere.
In fairness, as a fully paid-up member of the established media, RTÉ can hardly pass as a maverick influencer, never mind change the minds of those who “believe the Government and media are lying”, as Gallagher says. As it is, Kilroy and Creevy do the best they can with their brief. But ironically, in terms of audience impact, The Truth Matters might be better as a straight radio series.
Gunplot has been rivetingly revisiting the arms trial of 1970, the seismic scandal that saw the future taoiseach Charles Haughey, among others, face charges of gun running
That said, it's only right that RTÉ should increase its podcast output to ensure its relevance in a digital world. But the finely tuned skill sets of radio production don't necessarily carry through to the podcast universe, where the swashbuckling likes of Blindboy and the 2 Johnnies are kings. There are exceptions, however. Gunplot, made by Radio 1's Documentary on One team, has been rivetingly revisiting the arms trial of 1970, the seismic scandal that saw the future taoiseach Charles Haughey, among others, face charges of gun running.
Produced and narrated by Nicoline Greer and Ronan Kelly, the podcast reconstructs the labyrinthine intrigue behind the plot to import arms during the early days of the Troubles, uncovering the often bumbling efforts by Army intelligence officers and government ministers to procure weapons for the embattled Catholic minority in the North.
Many of the headline points have already been flagged in the accompanying RTÉ television documentary, such as the tacit support the plot apparently received at the very top of government. But the podcast expands on the story, giving context, expanding on personalities and making enjoyable diversions, such as the novelist Frederick Forsyth’s hair-raising brush with the German arms dealer contacted by the plotters. Though it’s slightly jarring for listeners of a certain vintage to hear this pivotal episode recounted in conversational style by the narrators, the expansive approach brings the period alive, evoking the chaos and charged emotion surrounding the increasing violence in the North.
It’s no surprise that Gunplot should translate online so well. Just as the story-driven US radio series This American Life yielded the seminal podcast series Serial, so the Documentary on One’s offbeat tales from Ireland past and present are well suited to the medium’s intimate scale.
The team’s growing confidence with the form shows: despite its broad canvas, the current series has a more cohesive narrative thrust than The Nobody Zone, their previous podcast about an Irish serial killer. Moreover, as it reaches its final episodes, Gunplot is an object lesson in unpicking facts from a blizzard of conspiratorial speculation. The truth matters, as they say.
The Black and Irish Podcast features illuminating anecdotes on how African and Irish cultures can coexist or clash, all conducted in a lively yet thoughtful way
Not all podcasts need be as elaborately produced, however. Produced by RTÉ, The Black and Irish Podcast is an offshoot of an Instagram account of the same name, focusing on the experiences of people of African heritage in Ireland. Presented by Leon Diop, Femi Bankole, Amanda Ade and Boni Odoemene, the podcast's second season continues to combine absorbing discussions on identity – which Ade views as "something we're in the process of defining for ourselves" – with illuminating anecdotes on how African and Irish cultures can coexist or clash, all conducted in a lively yet thoughtful way.
Unsurprisingly, the spectre of racism and exclusion also hovers in the background. Last week’s episode, with the guest podcasters Femi and Kenny, features a telling exchange on the lack of black representation in Irish public life, with all agreeing they look to the UK for role models. This even extends to soccer, where a dearth of black players on the Republic of Ireland team stands in contrast to England’s squad: “We need to see more black people in more prominent areas of the culture,” is the verdict.
Having made a start with The Black and Irish Podcast, RTÉ could think about giving its hosts more airtime on the radio too. Listeners aren’t colourblind, after all.
Radio Moment of the Week
Bob Dylan's 80th birthday, on Monday, brings forth many on-air tributes, with highlights including John Kelly's special edition of Mystery Train (Lyric). But best of all is Christy Moore's appearance on The Ray D'Arcy Show (RTÉ Radio 1). The singer pays homage in song with Zozimus and Zimmerman, a composition about Dylan and a 19th-century blind street singer from Dublin. There follows a typically freewheeling interview with Moore, who talks about his life, his music and the appeal of Dylan with modesty and openness. As his fellow Kildare man D'Arcy moderates with awed affection, Moore reminds the audience that Ireland has a mercurial musical icon of its own.