Breda O'Brien: Seán O’Rourke’s balance will be missed on the airwaves

Broadcaster showed rare understanding of centrality of religion in people’s lives

Listening during the week to Seán O'Rourke interviewing Archbishop Eamon Martin on his RTÉ One radio show, it became clear once again that the presenter who retired on Friday is going to be very hard to replace.

Everyone acknowledges O’Rourke’s professionalism and encyclopedic knowledge when it comes to politics, economics and the GAA. But he has another area of knowledge that is almost never mentioned.

Archbishop Martin was speaking about the return to communal worship as a slow, gradual and evolutionary process. The church would not be lobbying to speed that process up.

O’Rourke immediately interjected, asking why there should not be pushback and lobbying, given that the Archbishop represents people who care deeply about these matters.

There are few other broadcasters who would have phrased a response in that way. Archbishop Martin, who is a serene and competent communicator, made his case well. O’Rourke then spoke about enterprising priests in St Mark’s in Tallaght who were hearing confessions in the Dublin church’s car park. He wondered whether other priests were following suit. He continued with questions about two dioceses in the North where funerals were not allowed, exclaiming in near-horror about the idea of taking a body straight to a graveyard without any service, not even for 10 people.

In other studios, I sometimes felt like a barely tolerated pariah

Again, it is hard to imagine any other broadcaster outside of religious affairs specialists speaking in quite that fashion. Perhaps it is his Laois and Galway background, or his Connacht Tribune days, that makes it possible. But there are plenty of broadcasters and journalists with non-Dublin backgrounds.

A lot of journalists have internalised the narrative that the church is either the enemy of all progress or an irrelevant remnant of the past. Those who have not, rarely out themselves.

When it comes to the church, you feel that same sceptical wryness from O’Rourke that he employs with politicians. He is not buying any lines that church people are spinning but he recognises they have a role to play in society.

It is that similarity of approach to both politicians and church people that makes O’Rourke different. In the days when I appeared more on broadcast media, my heart hammered just as much heading into a studio with O’Rourke as it did with anyone else, sometimes perhaps even more. But I was also fairly certain that the other guests with more popular views felt the same.

In other studios, I sometimes felt like a barely tolerated pariah who was only there because of the annoying inconvenience of having to provide balanced broadcasting. In O’Rourke’s studio, when it came to contentious issues, no special treatment was given to anyone. That is much rarer than you might think.

O’Rourke does not ambush. He just hits you straight between the eyes with the difficult questions and if you make an honest attempt to answer them, he turns to the next panel member and does the same to them.

He also gives people the space to reveal themselves. There was a perfect example of this in an interview with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during the last major abortion debate. O'Rourke asked him whether he believed as a doctor that he had two patients when a woman is pregnant. The Taoiseach replied "the patient you are dealing with is the patient in front of you. That's the woman". In effect he was saying that it depended on whether the woman thought there were two patients or not. O'Rourke said softly, almost as if thinking aloud, "Is there nothing objective at all?".

Again, I cannot think of any other broadcaster of O’Rourke’s stature who would respond in that way.

During this pandemic, there has been a notable change of tone in RTÉ, which in many ways has been an excellent resource for the many people who are confined to their homes. A new tolerance and respect can be seen for people who express religious views, rather than presenters rushing past the awkwardness of someone being open about his or her faith.

But there are few in management in media who believe that journalists should have a body of knowledge about religion the same way journalists should know about political parties or economic theories – because they all have an influence on people’s lives.

For example, what journalist would query why churches are re-opening in the same phase as hairdressers? Marts can re-open from June 8th in the same phase as public libraries. Retail outlets with a street-level entrance can open from June 29th, as can cafes and restaurants. But it is not until July 20th that churches can re-open for worship.

Arguably, it is easier in churches to implement social distancing and cleaning than in many of the institutions that are opening before them. How can a church, where people can be seated relatively easily in pews two metres apart, be comparable to hairdressing?

There is a blindness among politicians and journalists to the fact that attending church does not have the status of a hobby for people. It is central to their lives.

O’Rourke gets that. It is not that he will treat a member of the clergy or layperson with deference as a result. Neither should he. If he did, he would not be the consummate professional that he is, and he would not be so difficult to replace.

May the road rise to meet you Seán.