Joe Duffy

by John Boland

“You don’t hear the hanging and flogging brigade on Liveline,” Joe Duffy told a newspaper interviewer  a few months ago, “you don’t hear racist stuff.”

That’s true. On this long-running interractive radio programme, which Duffy has now been hosting for more than ten years, there’s none of the rancid bigotry that you encounter on the late-night call-in shows  of commercial radio, and part of the reason surely is that those who “talk to Joe” know he’d give very short shrift to the airing of hateful views.

All the more a pity, then, that throughout the five days I chose to listen closely to Liveline, the only racist comment I heard came, if inadvertently, from Duffy himself. He was responding to Madge, who’d phoned in to tell of an incident that had shocked her in Sandycove on a recent sunny day. As Madge told it, “two black men” in their thirties had been sitting on a high wall, “just taking in the sun, minding their own business” when a group of teenagers rushed up from behind them and shoved them into the sea, from which they eventually emerged, drenched and totally humiliated as hundreds of people looked on.

It was a horrible story and Duffy wanted to know more, asking Madge if these youths had actually “pushed the two coloured boys into the sea.” When he repeated the epithet a couple of minutes later, Madge felt obliged to interject, informing him that she’d spent some years in South Africa and that one doesn’t call black people “coloured – they’d be annoyed.”

The presenter didn’t seem to quite get what she was saying, just as a few months ago Marian Finucane seemed unaware of any lapse when impresario  Harry Crosbie described Leonard Cohen, whose name he couldn’t remember, as “the little Jewish fella” – a remark that she let pass without any reproving comment.

Duffy’s own lapse was uncharacteristic, coming from a man who’s clearly proud of his sensitivity to nuance and who sees himself as primarily the attentive enabler and careful shaper of other people’s anecdotes and opinions. “Sorry, Joe,” Fintan said on interrupting him last week. “No, sorry, Fintan,” the host immediately insisted, “it’s your show, not mine.”

It’s both, of course, though the case against Liveline is that, in providing free and immediate public access to the airwaves, it not only fosters a culture of complaint, with every whinger in the country given free rein to moan and bitch, but that, at its most pernicious, it actually encourages subversion by the masses – a point of view seemingly held by finance minister Brian Lenihan in late 2008 when he complained to RTE director general Cathal Goan about a Liveline show in which a succession of callers expressed panic about the safety of their bank savings.

That was an indication of the show’s influential power and indeed a few days after that particular programme Lenihan introduced the bank guarantee scheme, causing one to wonder if Duffy was one of the most powerful people in Ireland. Certainly there’s no doubting the “water-cooler” impact of his show, with even those who profess to loathe it bringing up particular items that had been on it to their  friends and colleagues in offices, bars and cafes.

There have been many such items down through the years, though in the five days to which I gave it my undivided attention what was most striking was its variety, both in subject and mood. A discussion about garda heavy-handeness at public demos was followed by anecdotes concerning 19th-century bare-knuckle boxer Dan Donnelly. Toxic smells at Booterstown vied for airtime with tributes to the jockey who’d been burned to death in an arson attack. The slow response by gardai to 999 calls competed with tales about public littering. And terrifying stories about cruelty to animals were offset by an impromptu conversation about television awards with Fr Ted actor Frank Kelly sunbathing in his back garden.

In its open-endedness, it was like a radio version of the Late Late Show – or at least in the era before Ryan Tubridy insisted on telling us who in advance who’d be appearing on it, thus affording us ample reason not to  bother watching  – and though I’d been listening to it on and off for donkey’s years I hadn’t really registered before how its sheer quirkiness was as important to its popular appeal as its indulgence of griping from anyone who chooses to pick up a phone.

That last, of course, is what its detractors hate about it, leading columnist Kevin Myers to deem it “disgraceful”  in its encouragement of “mob-oratory” and “vengeful, idiot wrath” and Eilish O’Hanlon in a recent Sunday Independent piece to assert that “we live now in a Republic of Liveline, where phoney outrage against whatever happens to be offending us this week carries more weight than hard-won liberties.”

I can see what they mean, though even here what’s striking is that, for all the vocal complaining that’s heard on Liveline, the nation’s collective sense of grievance goes no further. In other countries, outrage at injustice would extend to mass protests and the topplings of governments, but in Ireland angry vocal expression appears to be all we’re capable of – our supposedly rebellious disposition being nothing more substantial than a pathetically defiant “There, I’ve said it.”

Liveline, in other words, can be viewed as the national safety valve, after which public fury becomes too satiated to be directed eleswhere. And so, rather than berate the programme, perhaps the Government should be thankful for its exhausting effect, stifling protest by the simple process of indulging it.

But the show’s quirkiness, and that of its presenter, remains unstifled – whether in the daft exchanges about Dan Donnelly’s mummified arm (“What does it look like?” the presenter asked current owner Josephine. “It’s just an arm,” Josephine replied), or in the repeated earnest questions about the putrefying smell coming from Booterstown (“Can you describe the smell, Isabel? Is it a smell that would turn your stomach? Would it make you put a hankie over your nose? Is it like when you walk past dirty toilets, Therese ?”– the last caller observing that “It’s got worse since we started talking, Joe, though I’m not blaming you”).

And then, out of nowhere, there was Michelle’s appalling story about the killing of her dog, an act so barbaric in its details that you couldn’t believe what you were hearing. “I’m just speechless,” caller Margaret said. But of course she wasn’t. Why else would she be calling Liveline, the one programme on which she knows she’ll get her say, unmediated by PR people and uncensored by producers and presenters seeking only celebrities to fill the airwaves? Loathe it or love it, that’s its true appeal, and also its power.

LIVELINE PANEL

Born in Mountjoy Square and raised in Ballyfermot, former student activist Joe Duffy, who’s now 54, first came to listeners’ attention as a reporter on Gay Byrne’s morning radio show. He took over Liveline in December 1999.

Married with three children, he lives in Clontarf, and earns over €400,000 a year. “I don’t flaunt any money I have,” he told a newspaper interviewer. “I’m not to be found in night clubs or in four or five-star hotels or restaurants. I live in a modest terraced house, not a trophy home.”

When he goes into the radio studio each day,  “the two words in my head are ‘entertainment’ and ‘libel’. We’ve a live programme of people who are not used to it. The minute it starts, you’re flying without wings.”

He is open to criticism, he says, “and some of it is justified. The programme can be too negative, it can be too complaining, but that’s the way of the world unfortunately.”

“I’m evangelical about education,” he told an interviewer. “I don’t open supermarkets but any request to go to a school I’ll do, because I know the difference.”

Last year, while he was removing books from the boot of his car, another car drove into him, injuring him seriously.

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