What Paul Williams could learn from Sean O’Rourke
Radio review: Paul Williams is becoming Newstalk’s Mr Controversial while once-feared news presenter Sean O'Rourke enjoys himself, even as he’s outfoxed by the President
Sean O’Rourke: Loves to talk about sport in general and the GAA in particular, the only topics outside current affairs that seem to animate him.
Is Sean O’Rourke losing his edge? Three years ago he was the most formidable news anchor on the block, and his firm stewardship of News at One was viscerally testified to by the long procession of browbeaten politicians laid low by his questioning.
So thisweek on Today with Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) comes as a bit of a shock. The presenter chuckles constantly, joshes with guests and generally projects a conspicuously jolly demeanour. This has the same discombobulating effect as watching Robert De Niro’s transformation from intense method actor to gurning celluloid clown (if not quite so depressing).
In fairness, there are mitigating circumstances behind O’Rourke’s jocular persona. On Tuesday, he is broadcasting from the National Ploughing Championships, the annual farming and rural living extravaganza at which all RTÉ personalities are contractually bound to have great craic every year. More than most, O’Rourke seems to revel in the spectacle.
This is especially the case when he can also talk about sport in general and the GAA in particular, the only topics outside current affairs that seem to animate him. Hence there are good-natured conversations with hurler Joe Canning and rugby-playing brothers Rob and Dave Kearney, not to mention endless speculation on whether Mayo can beat Dublin in the All-Ireland replay. (This being “the Ploughing”, support for the Dubs is in short supply.)
The approach even extends to O’Rourke’s interview with President Michael D Higgins. The presenter adopts an air of genial familiarity, which the President reciprocates by namechecking O’Rourke’s philosopher brother Fran. It’s a stimulating exchange, surely one of the few times when a head of state talks about farm machinery, free market excesses and “Aristotelian journeys” in the space of a few breaths.
The presenter lets his guard down enough to be bamboozled when he attempts to discover if Higgins plans to run again. O’Rourke initially takes a sideways route, contrasting his guest’s current robust physical condition with the limp he carried during the 2011 election. The President swats aside this transparent ploy with an extended riff about the surgeon who helped him.
O’Rourke then lobs an uncharacteristically softball query: “How will you decide what you want to do at the end of seven years?” The answer is as wily as it is evasive: “I would say I might have news for you in the Ploughing in 2018.”
O’Rourke belatedly presses Higgins, but is outfoxed again. “If you’re going to keep your furrow straight, you can’t rush things,” says the President, using the occasion to dodge the issue in sleek form.
The host’s merry mood continues the next day, even when talking to a dying man. In fairness, the man in question is Clive James, whose terminal illness has been so prolonged that he has been making jokes about his failure to die for some time now.
The two broadcasters have a great time talking about the sinister clownishness of Donald Trump, the brilliance of American television drama and, yes, the imminence of death. It reaches the point that O’Rourke feels comfortable joking about his guest’s unlikely longevity. It’s all a testament to James’s robustly thick skin, if not his host’s sensitivity.
Lest anyone think O’Rourke has become a soft touch, he reminds listeners of his prowess as an interrogator. He interviews Gerry Kelly of Sinn Féin about allegations, made by a former British agent on the BBC’s Spotlight, that Gerry Adams sanctioned the murder of IRA informer Denis Donaldson in 2006.
Kelly tackles these claims by questioning the bona fides of the spy: “If someone phoned into your programme with that story, you would cut him off.” O’Rourke dismisses this tack: “If we’d been checking him out for a year, we might put him on,” he replies.
Kelly’s point – that there is no evidence to back the allegations – may be valid, as may be his assertion that they are designed to damage Adams. But O’Rourke sees it differently. The choice, he says, is between a current affairs show with “a rock solid reputation” and a political leader who denies any IRA involvement, “which no one believes”.
It’s quite the riposte. The old O’Rourke hasn’t gone away, you know.
Meanwhile, the new presenters on Breakfast (Newstalk, weekdays) are beginning to find their feet, with Collette Fitzpatrick displaying a pleasing line in mordant wit. Business journalist Vincent Wall tells of a new Google invention that allows users to “talk to a device in your house that will talk to all the other devices in your house, like your fridge or heating, and not only activate them, but control them.” “They’re called wives, Vincent,” comes Fitzpatrick’s deadpan reply.
On the other hand, Paul Williams is taking to his role as professional Mr Controversial with alacrity. For two days running, he trolls Gaeilgeoirs, comparing them to fundamentalists and ending Thursday’s heated interview with Julian de Spáinn of Conradh na Gaeilge with this graceless kiss-off: “If it’s such a beautiful indigenous language. Why is it mandatory?” Or as Alan Partridge might put it, “Needless to say, I had the last laugh.”
It is, of course, Williams’s rightful prerogative to question whether Irish should be compulsory, and he sounds justifiably aggrieved at the memory of being “beaten to a pulp” by a teacher for his inability to recite prayers as Gaeilge. But his need to put one over the clearly offended sensibilities of his guest demonstrates an unappealing pettiness, one unbecoming for a news anchor on national radio, even one with Williams’s hard man image.
Maybe he should ask Sean O’Rourke for a few tips.
Radio Moment of the Week: Panti’s Rebel yell
Part chat show, part cabaret, Pantisocracy (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday) features Rory O’Neill’s transvestite alter-ego interviewing “interesting people”. But the format makes clear that the most interesting person in the room, at least to its star, is Panti herself.
As well as peppering the programme with personal reminiscences, Panti corrals guests with a waspy wit. Singer-songwriter Jack O’Rourke talks wistfully about going to secondary school in Cork city, having grown up in a small town in the Rebel county. He was now, O’Rourke says, “out in the big bad world”.
“Of Cork,” comes Panti’s droll reply. Even the Leesiders laugh.