You’re the state broadcaster of a small country. You’ve secured the first European interview with two of the recently released Russian punk feminist activists Pussy Riot. Do you arrange an interview with one of your most experienced interviewers, a woman possibly, known herself for her championing of women’s rights in Ireland? Do you plan a wide ranging issue that will cover the context of these courageous young women’s stand, their subsequent incarceration and their points about the Russia they’ve grown up in? Do you draw sensitive comparisons with tensions in Irish society to produce a hard hitting interview that will be shown as a stand alone broadcast with quotes trailed across news coverage and circulated to other news outlets both in Ireland and abroad to generate as much coverage of what is undoubtedly an important and notable coup for the station?
Or do you instead put the interview on a light entertainment show on a Saturday night, giving the host the brief to approach his guests with all the sensitivity of the famous Lovely Girls episode of Father Ted? The state broadcaster is RTE. The country is Ireland. The interview takes place on the Saturday Night Show. It’s the car crash you would expect – and you don’t have to take my word for it. Here it is.
I mean, where do you start with that? Host Brendan O’Connor stays true to Father Ted by repeatedly referring to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina as “girls”. O’Connor, fresh from the previous week’s Iona-gate, or should that be Panti-gate, transcript here, feels the need to have an explanation of why he was caught kissing a bloke on the telly. He asks them whether they think Madonna is an activist like them. He tells Nadezhda and her husband Pytor Verzilov to stop having a “domestic” (although I would dearly love to know exactly what the two women were actually saying in Russian. I have a feeling Pytor was delivering some of the most tactful translation we’ve seen on Irish television in years. My respect for them all actually went up by a couple of notches when they lasted to the end of the interview, even if they made a pointed exit at the earliest opportunity.
I wish that this thing was a one off but sadly it’s not. The list of mind boggling clangers from the national broadcaster is far too long to go into here – those moments when you do a double take because you can’t believe you’ve just heard or seen what you have just heard or seen. The moments when you take to Facebook or Twitter because if you didn’t laugh you’d cry. The moments when you find yourself referencing Alan Partridge or Ricky Gervais, when you ruefully say “I hope this doesn’t go viral”. We’re used to it here. Ireland is a small country and sometimes the inevitable tinge of parochialism lends itself to rather jawdropping lapses of judgement.
The Irish tend to be a kind nation. You won’t get the character assassinations here that accompany a high profile slip elsewhere. It might be hard to believe in the cut and thrust of the social networks but there’s still a very strong sense of the old adage, if you can’t say something nice, say nothing. But this one humane characteristic can also be one of the most dangerous. It can mean that the bar isn’t raised high enough because the constructive criticism wasn’t there. It can mean that complacency flourishes and egos go unchecked. At it’s worst it can lead to a blind eye being turned on a golden child.
We cringe at the Pussy Riot interview, as we should, but that’s not enough. We should also be angry at a wasted opportunity. Pussy Riot protested against an oppressive, intertwined church and state. That’s something that should ring a few bells over here. We live in a country where the state broadcaster will buckle at the first hint of a threat from the Catholic right. We live in a country where there is no legislation governing fertility treatment, where we have abortion law for less than a month. We live in a country where men are routinely allowed to escape jail time for sex crimes if they have a large enough wallet – there’s even another one today. But we cringe and we let it go, until the next time. We vent on Twitter, maybe go on a march, but what ever really changes?
Nadezhda and Maria are obviously highly intelligent young women. I wouldn’t be surprised if they chose to accept an Irish pitch for their first European chat show interview because they were aware of at least some of the issues we have in Ireland. I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt a degree of kinship with feminists here. Perhaps they saw Ireland as a country that had come further than Russia but that knew how hard the road was to travel. What they found though was how little has changed. How few women have a voice on primetime broadcasts and how little the status quo has been rocked. The gaffs O’Connor made were those of a man who’s used to referring to his female friends and colleagues as “girls”, who would still make sexist jokes without really thinking about it, who hasn’t really put much thought into the whole sexual equality thing. To be fair, he may well think he’s a fully reconstructed new man who could easily navigate the interview. Someone really ought to tell him otherwise.
What is crushingly depressing about the Pussy Riot interview is the whole inevitability of it. It would have been more surprising to have seen them interviewed by someone like Miriam O’Callaghan in a serious, wide ranging interview that sat proudly in the Prime Time strand or out on its own. That’s what should have happened, but it was never going to. Over the years as a journalist I’ve worked with so many talented, intelligent women, many of whom have gone a long way. But when you step back and take a long look, it’s not enough. I was watching the last part of The Bridge last night and it struck me just how many strong female characters there were. But the really extraordinary thing was that this wasn’t a thing. It’s not a madly feminist series. These were just women. Some of them were cops, some of them were stay at home mothers, some were CEOs or scientists. It really wasn’t a thing. That’s equality. I don’t think we’re even ready to begin that discussion here yet.