Her on-air manner may be one of empathetic curiosity, but, as regular listeners will know, Andrea Gilligan is made of tough stuff. For all that her soft accent and effortless amiability put guests and audience at ease, the host of Lunchtime Live (Newstalk, weekdays) regularly tackles difficult issues, and in an unflinching fashion that her warm persona only partially belies. So it’s a rare moment when Gilligan admits to being unnerved by something.
On Wednesday’s show the presenter hosts a discussion about online harassment, prompted by a Emily Atack’s BBC television documentary about the proliferation of sexual images on social media. Abusive online behaviour is, of course, a depressingly familiar topic on radio talkshows, but in this instance Gilligan reveals her own experiences of such intrusions.
She recounts how a man regularly sent her topless selfies of himself on Instagram – unsolicited, naturally – and tells of receiving message from another man who had spotted her on a night out, detailing where he’d seen her. “While there might have been absolutely nothing to it,” she says, charitably, “it was only when I told colleagues that it hit me that I actually was a bit spooked by that.”
In addition, Gilligan describes comments about her on video platforms that are “just horrible, really nasty”. Not all upsetting online behaviour emanates from men, the host adds – the majority of “bitchy” private messages come from women, she thinks – but she’s surely on to something when she wonders whether her male colleagues receive such strong abuse.
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It’s a point underscored by the fact that her callers on the subject are all women. Gilligan’s contributors describe a spectrum of abuse from “dick pics” – “the sexually aggressive stuff comes from men,” notes one caller – to body-shaming comments on social media, often from women. Disturbingly, but not surprisingly, all the guests agree that the situation is getting worse. No wonder the usually unflappable host sounds shaken, albeit fleetingly.
[ Newstalk’s guests all agree (irony alert) that cancel culture has killed free speech ]
If Gilligan offers her own perspectives on digital transgressions, she slips into the role of quiet confidante during a discussion about miscarriages. The host hears her guest Jennifer recall the emotional and psychological toll of her four miscarriages (“You start to question yourself and think there’s something wrong with you”), breaking her silence with judicious questions about the broader understanding of such tragic loss. It’s a short but heartbreaking item.
Not all of Gilligan’s items are so freighted with trauma. The host also delves into reliably contentious issues in search of ready-made sparks. Tuesday’s segment on whether certain books should carry trigger warnings, a variation on the hoary “political correctness gone mad” theme, is followed by Wednesday’s St Brigid’s Day conversation on whether Ireland needs another religious public holiday.
The latter topic is such obvious clickbait that even partisan protagonists struggle to get excited. Karl says “it does and it doesn’t” bother him that there’s a holiday honouring a saint, while Joseph sounds lukewarm in his support: “Yeah, why not?” But the air of ennui soon gives way to the anticipated cultural skirmishing.
[ Michael Harding: My friend said a bank holiday in honour of some holy biddy who never existed was a farce ]
Joseph asserts that Catholics aren’t allowed to express their beliefs publicly, even while expressing his beliefs publicly, a view echoed by David, who bemoans the loss of tradition. That said, the counterargument that Ireland needs to “move away from the dogma of religion” has surely by now entered the catechism of cliche.
Though the argument occasionally gets heated enough for Gilligan to intervene, and there’s even the odd intriguing aside about faith in modern Ireland, the item breaks down on tediously inevitable lines. Ultimately, it’s hard to disagree with David’s verdict on Ireland’s newest public holiday: “It’s a day off. People are reading too much into it.” Certainly, Gilligan is better at drawing out stories than drawing battle lines.
Gilligan isn’t the only broadcaster unexpectedly affected by the topics they cover. On The Last Word (Today FM, weekdays) Matt Cooper shows his emotions when he examines the growing scandal surrounding nursing-home charges. Surveying how successive governments have contested compensation claims by medical-card holders for private home fees, the presenter relates how his mother received only limited public support when she was ill, compelling him to pay for proper care.
“It caused an awful lot of pain at the time, a lot of distress, a lot of upset,” Cooper remembers, the slightest quaver in his voice. Though hardly a meltdown, it’s an uncharacteristically personal admission by the habitually phlegmatic host. Sure enough, he quickly moves on: “Anyway, look, that’s my particular story.” But he’s audibly angry as he sums up the State’s legal strategy for recompense claims: “Deny, delay, discount.”
His conversation with the journalist Mick Clifford highlights the State’s systematic use of the courts to challenge cases where it has failed in its duty of care, in the name of protecting public money. “The State becomes adversarial against its own citizens,” says Cooper, pithily encapsulating why the controversy is potentially so damaging. If the host’s personal intervention grabs the attention, it’s the subsequent discussion that makes the bigger impact.
[ Matt Cooper rarely makes a slip, but this week he FX up ]
But while Cooper prefers to drill down into the facts rather than draw on his own life when tackling a story, he’s no stony-faced automaton. He engenders a convivial atmosphere when it helps tease out an issue, as during his zippy but revealing discussion of plans to stagger Leaving Cert exams over two years.
Meanwhile, when talking to the novelist Joseph O’Connor on the weekly Culture Club slot, the host is palpably buzzing off the music choices of his near-contemporary guest, sighing nostalgically at the memory of late punk singer Poly Styrene’s band X-Ray Spex. Cooper’s enjoyable encounter with O’Connor makes for a welcome change of tone: personal experiences don’t always need to be painful.