Budget news coverage: It will go down in history but presenters couldn’t live up to the sense of occasion

by John Boland

THREE hours before Brian Lenihan delivered his Budget, RTE radio’s Sean O’Rourke  had deemed it “possibly the most leaked document of all time”, an opinion shared on Newstalk by pundit Mark Mortell, who thought it “leaked to a phenomenal degree”, and a little later by RTE1 anchorman Bryan Dobson, who felt that perhaps it had been “leaked to soften us up”.

Whatever the reason, there was a distinct lack of anticipatory excitement about yesterday’s advance radio coverage. On Radio One, Ryan Tubridy promised a “one-hour oasis from the Budget”, choosing instead to “romp through the year that was” with a couple of commentators, while on Radio Two, Gerry Ryan opted to focus on the current plight of prostitutes in Copenhagen (don’t ask) and the continuing personal travails of Tiger Woods.

Oddly, Newstalk’s Tom Dunne was similarly concerned about both the Copenhagen prostitutes and the hapless American golfer, and so it was up to Radio One’s Pat Kenny (isn’t it always?) to address the Budget with the seriousness it merited, though even this master of the newsworthy moment failed to sound energised or even much exercised by the day that was in it.

It was left to panelist Peter McVerry to inject some passion into the proceedings, telling Kenny that he was “appalled” at the much-flagged prospect of social welfare cuts. It was “immoral to make the poor even poorer”, he said, pointing out that the minister who was about to do so earned €4,000 a week.

And though he condemned the social welfare frauds exposed on Monday night’s ‘Prime Time Investigates’, he wondered why tax evasion by the rich wasn’t a more meaningful subject for such media probing.

In general, though, the Kenny show panelists made heavy, and somewhat dreary, weather of their Budget ruminations, as did the panelists on Eamon Keane’s noonday Newstalk show, and it was left to the same station’s George Hook to breathe some life into what was in danger of becoming a premature corpse.

This he did by cheerily informing us that we were “all going to be martyrs” and by invoking the “toil and trouble” of ‘Macbeth’ — a Shakespearean motif continued on RTE1 by pundit Donall Gannon from KPMG, who started quoting from ‘King Lear’, though to what purpose remained unclear, beyond the fact that it was a tragedy.

Certainly no one was invoking ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, not even Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, who assured Bryan Dobson that there was “no easy way out of this” and who dismissed Fine Gael’s alternative proposals as “voodoo economics” — a phrase he liked so much that he repeated it a few minutes later, including Labour among the witch doctors.

Then Brian Lenihan got up and told the nation (much to its surprise) that the worst was over, that the Government strategy was working, and that we were on the road to economic recovery — rather than, as we had all assumed, the road to God knows where.

Yes, he conceded, the economic downturn had been frightful, but there were three reasons for this — none of them, incidentally, having anything to do with the Government or its indulgence of banks and property developers.

Afterwards in Kildare Street, St Vincent de Paul’s John Monaghan battled to be heard over police sirens and protesters with loudhailers to reluctantly concede that the Budget cuts were “not as bad as expected” — a generosity not shared back in the Dail chamber by Fine Gael finance spokesman Richard Bruton, who righteously fumed (like no one else can) about Brian Lenihan’s “draconian” and “short-sighted” approach to the economy.

As if to shame the minister, he summoned up memories of the “real leadership” that had been shown 50 years ago by Sean Lemass and Ken Whitaker, but Brian just sat there looking unmoved.

Nor did Dermot Ahern seem too put out back in the studio when Fine Gael’s Michael Noonan asserted that the office cleaner in Dermot’s office would be “taking the same pay cut as yourself”.

Indeed, the plight of Leinster House cleaners was a matter of particular concern to the Opposition; “the slaughter of the innocent” was how Labour finance spokeswoman Joan Burton described the fate of “the cleaner in the public sector”.

In fact, Joan’s impassioned Dail response was the highlight of the day, her usual high-pitched incredulity leavened by some droll asides.

Confiding that she’d been listening to Ryan Tubridy that morning as he discussed songs for Christmas, she predicted that the Government’s hit single would be ‘I Saw NAMA Killing Santa Claus’. And after telling Brian Lenihan she was “glad you came in with your tail between your legs after sending shoppers scurrying across the border”, she revealed her affinity with popular culture by deeming the minister’s pronouncements “a ‘Top Gear’ budget, a lad’s budget that Jeremy Clarkson would like, cutting the price of drink and cars”.

RTE should give Joan a stand-up show.

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