For such a seasoned current-affairs broadcaster, Pat Kenny can occasionally come across as strangely naive about politics. Not that he’s easily hoodwinked by the politicians who appear on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays). Quite the contrary, as Wednesday’s robust encounter with the Sinn Féin TD Mairéad Farrell emphasises. But as Kenny grills the deputy about her party’s approach to Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe’s election expenses controversy, the host wonders if there’s a hidden agenda. Claiming such a big ministerial scalp, he ventures, might trigger a general election. “Is that the big picture that I’m perhaps missing?” Kenny asks indignantly, “You want them out?”
You can guess what follows. “Of course I want to see a Sinn Féin government,” Farrell says, slightly dumbfounded. One can understand her incredulity. For Kenny to muse conspiratorially whether an opposition party wishes a government to fall suggests he needs to needs to revisit his Politics 101: that’s pretty much the object of the game.
‘Tell me what the alternative is,’ Pat Kenny says to Ivana Bacik. ‘If you’ve no room, you’ve no room.’ Doubtless this is an unwitting echo of the slogan ‘Ireland is full,’ but it’s unfortunate nonetheless
In truth, Kenny is probably kicking himself. Until then, he’s subjected Farrell to a fierce grilling about Sinn Féin’s own expenses lapses. “When you’re in the glass house you can’t really throw stones,” Kenny says, as he piles on the aphorisms: “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” His later misfiring question doesn’t exactly allow his guest to duck the issue, but it does relieve the pressure by affording a rare opportunity for a straight answer.
To be fair, it’s testament to Kenny’s interrogatory zeal that his interview with Farrell is so gutsy. The Donohoe affair rarely catches fire on the airwaves: on show after show, Government and Opposition figures agree that the country has bigger problems on its plate. Kenny acknowledges that Donohoe’s election mess raises issues of oversight, but he really relishes getting stuck into Sinn Féin over its own thin ice on the matter, so much so that Farrell repeatedly complains that the host isn’t allowing her to speak.
Elsewhere, Kenny mixes characteristic command of detail with tabloidy talking points when he interviews the Labour Party’s leader, Ivana Bacik, about the lack of accommodation for newly arrived refugees. As Bacik decries the shortfall, Kenny sounds a more dubious note. “Tell me what the alternative is,” he says. “If you’ve no room, you’ve no room.” Doubtless this is an unwitting echo of the slogan “Ireland is full,” but it’s unfortunate nonetheless.
Overall, Kenny’s interview with Bacik is actually polite and considered in tone, suggesting his more contentious language is clumsily tone-deaf rather than anything else
Kenny also notes that while about 5 per cent of asylum seekers are turned back when they try to enter Ireland, the average figure across Europe is much higher. “We are more welcoming,” he says, not entirely laudatorily. “Is that appropriate, or are we just seen as a soft touch?” Kenny would be failing in his job if he didn’t rigorously quiz his guest or pose awkward questions. But it’s uncomfortable to hear such an experienced broadcaster frame his questions in loaded terms, especially when public anxiety about the crisis is being stoked by malignant actors.
[ Refugees intending to seek asylum in Ireland told to defer travel amid accommodation shortage ]
Not that Kenny has transformed himself into a Tucker Carlson-style culture warrior. Overall, his interview with Bacik is actually polite and considered in tone, suggesting his more contentious language is clumsily tone-deaf rather than anything else. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) In fact, Kenny sounds at ease for most of his show, whether conversing admiringly with the former Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson or chatting about nonalcoholic beer with the biochemist Luke O’Neill.
Even so, Kenny is at his most engaging when dealing with more contentious material, as with his item on whether Government childcare subsidies discriminate against parents who wish to mind their children at home. As the columnist David Quinn claims such policies aim to create more taxpayers (some hard-pressed parents may disagree), the host notes a strong listener reaction to the item. Far from being naive, Kenny knows what makes his audience tick.
Over on The Late Debate (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday-Thursday), its presenter, Colm Ó Mongáin, finds that not all political scandals are created equal, as the expenses omnishambles fails to deliver much drama. On Tuesday night the reaction of the Sinn Féin TD Mark Ward to Donohoe’s troubles is disappointingly reasonable: “We have to hear more information before we make a decision,” he says, sounding more like an accountant.
Since taking over as presenter of The Late Debate, at the end of last year, Ó Mongáin has been an unfussy interlocutor rather than a Torquemada-style inquisitor
The nearest thing to friction comes when the Fine Gael Senator Tim Lombard warns against a “kangaroo court” in the media, prompting Ó Mongain to remind him that “Donohoe himself put this in the public domain” by holding a high-profile press conference on the matter.
Not that the host seems bothered by the dearth of fireworks. Since taking over as presenter of the nocturnal political discussion show, late last year, Ó Mongáin has been an unfussy interlocutor rather than a Torquemada-style inquisitor, though he allows himself the odd dry observation. “Six-man-van-poster-polling-company-election-expenses-return-oh-yes-he-did-oh-no-she-didn’t-gate,” is his droll summation of the week’s supposedly big story. (It sounds better on air than it looks in print.) It’s an approach that facilitates more in-depth discussions than on daytime talkshows, as when Ó Mongáin explores the ethical ramifications of the Human Tissue Bill on organ donation.
That said, he doesn’t try to tamp down rancour when it arises. Wednesday’s discussion on the deal between the semi-State forestry body Coillte with the investment fund Gresham House turns out to be unexpectedly acrimonious, with the Independent TD Marian Harkin expressing alarm at the arrangement, while the Green Party TD Marc Ó Cathasaigh accuses opponent of “playing fast and loose with the truth”.
Ó Mongáin keeps a steady hand on proceedings, allowing lively debate while cautioning against emotive arguments: the phrase “British vulture fund” is a dog whistle, he says. It’s an admirably even-handed intervention, though it’s also notable that the charged atmosphere provides the show’s most compelling item. As Kenny knows, you sometimes have to stir the pot to keep things interesting.