Joe Duffy sounds wounded after Liveline’s transgender discussion. Selflessness or a self-inflicted injury?

Radio review: Intolerance and insight collide when RTÉ Radio 1′s phone-in show debates a bitterly contested issue

Joe Duffy: “I found it deeply disturbing after my 25 years of presenting here to be told that a debate on Liveline was ‘incredibly irresponsible’ in the context of increasing transphobic and homophobic attacks”

In his broadcasting persona, Joe Duffy may be many things—inquisitive, provocative, hammy, maudlin—but he’s rarely given to self-pity. So one of the many notable moments on Monday’s Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) comes when Duffy sounds a distinctly wounded note, as he discusses criticism of the discussions he has been hosting about transgender issues. “I found it deeply disturbing after my 25 years of presenting here to be told that a debate on Liveline was ‘incredibly irresponsible’ in the context of increasing transphobic and homophobic attacks,” the presenter says, referring to a statement from the Irish Council of Civil Liberties, before adding that the censuring was “insulting” to his programme staff and, indeed, his listeners.

Insulted he may be, but Duffy can hardly be surprised that the subject should provoke a strong reaction, culminating in Dublin Pride’s decision to sever its media partnership with RTÉ in protest at Liveline’s “unacceptable, triggering and extremely harmful” content. After all, transgender rights have become a bitterly contested frontline in the culture wars elsewhere, with Republican-controlled states in the US passing anti-trans laws and, closer to home, the author JK Rowling facing fierce online responses to her views. So delving into this matter takes a brave person, or at least someone unafraid of generating headline-grabbing controversy. Either way, Duffy is well qualified.

The discussion starts last week, on Thursday, June 9th, when Duffy speaks to delegates denied access to the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s agm, seemingly for being opposed to gender-neutral language in updated maternity-protection legislation. Duffy keeps the matter going on Friday into Monday, by which stage the conversation is really humming, and indeed unsettling.

Brian makes his points aggressively, although he is, by many standards, liberal in his attitudes: he’s happy that his teenage daughter is lesbian, as she can avoid dating misogynistic men

Brian, Duffy’s first caller, is angry at the idea of dropping the word “mother” in the legislation: “The only person who can be called a woman now is a male who wants to identify as a woman,” he says. Later, when Catriona, who identifies as nonbinary, says that they were “assigned female at birth”, Brian dismisses the term as “nonsensical”.

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Brian makes his points aggressively, although he is, by many standards, liberal in his attitudes: he’s happy that his teenage daughter is lesbian, as she can avoid dating misogynistic men. Equally, however, he fulminates at the mild-mannered Catriona about trans women in certain spaces: “Does my daughter have the right to undress in a changing room without having a biological male expose his penis to her?”

Catriona sounds intimidated by this vehemence, underlining their point about the vulnerability of trans people, both physically and socially. Brian responds that there have been “zero” killings of trans women in Ireland, adding: “You get the impression some people wish there were.” This crosses a line, and prompts an anguished rebuttal from Duffy. Otherwise, the host takes a light-touch approach to the conversation, beyond asking “what’s the harm?” in expanding trans rights: “Why does it bother other people?”

If Brian’s contributions are disturbing, they equally come across as self-defeatingly strident. By the same token, Laurean, the mother of a trans teenage boy, is a more sympathetic presence. Noting that she’s had to change her own language, she pleads for understanding: “Becoming more inclusive in language is not excluding anyone.” Catriona, meanwhile, suggests “there’s not enough education going both ways”.

This point is also made by another caller, Colette, albeit from the opposite perspective. She says there is “no evidence that gender identity exists” while conceding that “it feels very real for people”. But Colette, who is respectful and articulate, is uneasy that an “orthodoxy” around the issue shuts down conversation. “I respect people who do subscribe to gender-identity theory, but we must listen to people who have different perspectives,” says Colette.

Colette’s argument doesn’t convince Nico, but they exchange points respectfully. Tellingly, Nico notes this is the norm with most in-person encounters: “I’ve only met people with hateful dialogue online.” Such perceptive moments may bolster Duffy’s decision to move the trans issue from the toxic sphere of social media to the (slightly) more civil forum of a radio phone-in.

The kerfuffle ends in a stalemate that affords some solace to all sides: Dublin Pride’s disquiet is forcefully expressed, RTÉ can claim its editorial mandate remains uncompromised, and Duffy might feel his coverage advances the case for inclusivity

But while the host states that the “powers that be” in RTÉ haven’t told him to stop covering the subject, the next day sees him move on. This seems less like a cancel-culture-induced retreat than a recognition that the topic has run its course on the show: whatever about the initial impetus for tackling the matter, constantly returning to the issue is likely to invite more in the way of intolerance than insight.

As it is, the whole Liveline kerfuffle ends in a stalemate that affords some solace to all sides: Dublin Pride’s disquiet is forcefully expressed, RTÉ can claim its editorial mandate remains uncompromised, and Duffy might feel that, on balance, his coverage advances the case for inclusivity, even as he gives space to other opinions, however contentious. Of course, the wider debate of trans rights remains deeply divisive—and, for trans people, offensive too—though how much of this will be heard on the airwaves is another matter.

There are limits to what you can say in any arena, as made clear by the coverage on Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays) of President Michael D Higgins’s fiery speech on the housing crisis, or “disaster”, as he calls it. The programme’s presenters, Ciara Kelly and Shane Coleman, are wary of the President’s intervention, which Coleman describes as “playing to the gallery”.

This caution is shared by Senator Michael McDowell. Interviewed by Coleman, the former Progressive Democrats tánaiste shares the President’s glum assessment of the housing issue but says Higgins was wrong to use his office to say it, pointing to potential constitutional flashpoints. “If he said, for instance, something the trans community disagreed with, there’d be all hell to pay,” McDowell says, not without reason.

If host and guest agree the President overstepped constitutional limits, they trade entertaining jabs on how to improve the housing situation. As McDowell complains that neither city managers nor housing ministers are doing anything to build on vacant land, Coleman suggests this is overly simplistic: “I’m just putting the argument,” the presenter says. “No, you’re here to contradict me, apparently, and say I’m being unfair,” McDowell replies, bridling somewhat. It’s a spirited exchange on a crucial issue, and informative too. Some topics are easier to discuss than others.

Radio Moment of the Week

There’s an unlikely pairing on Tuesday when the US country-music superstar Garth Brooks is interviewed by the perennially irreverent Sean Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays). Far from mocking his guest, however, Moncrieff sounds uncharacteristically overawed by the affable Brooks, even mistakenly addressing his guest as “Chris”. The host ends the interview in more typical style, however, posing a suitably offbeat query. “Would you prefer to fight a man-sized duck or 10 duck-sized men?” he asks. “That’s tough,” the singer replies, chuckling, before plumping for the former option. Never let it be said Moncrieff ducks asking the tough questions.