Writer and Author

Tag: RTE

Lovely Girls, 20 Years On…

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.

RIP Gerry Ryan

I was sitting in court yesterday listening to the closing speeches in the trial of Sean Keogh and David Curran, which I’m covering for the Sunday Independent. The press bench was fairly full, it usually is as a trial comes to an end and the verdict approaches.

Shortly before 3 o’clock a ripple went through the gathered journalists.  Suddenly people weren’t taking down the particulars of the speeches but instead holding whispered conversations and poring over laptops and mobile phones with feverish intensity.  The barristers continued in full flow to the jury as one by one the journalists got up and left hurriedly.

The speed with which people left their posts was different from the more unhurried reaction when a verdict in another court has come through.  There was an urgency usually reserved for terrorist acts or the deaths of heads of state. Whatever was causing the mass exodus was something of national importance.

What had happened of course was that the news of Gerry Ryan’s death had started filtering through to newsrooms around the capital and those newsrooms were suddenly scrambling every available staff member.  The news first broke on Twitter, I’m not going into the pros and cons of whether those using the social networking site should have broken the news when RTE, Ryan’s employers were holding off to allow for all his family to be notified.  Twitter is the kind of place where it’s impossible to keep a secret, especially one this shocking.

If you’re not familiar with Irish broadcasting, Gerry Ryan was one the genuine stars.  His show on RTE’s 2FM had been one of the biggest shows on Irish radio for over 20 years.  I’d say there are very few people in this country who can honestly say they have never listened to his morning show, whether they tuned in regularly or not.  He was a broadcaster everyone had an opinion of, be it good or bad, but there is no denying the fact that he was well loved by his colleagues and his legion of fans.

Whether you liked his style or not if you’ve ever worked in Irish broadcasting he was one of the ever present big names.  News of his sudden death of a heart attack at the age of 53 was genuinely shocking, His passing leaves a sizeable hole in the 2FM schedule that will be extremely difficult to fill. 

I was lucky enough to go on his show just before my book Devil was released in 2008.  In one of the more bizarre twists of the trial, Gerry Ryan and his producer were both called by Sharon Collins’ defence team to be witnesses in the trial.

The day they were called there was excitement in court as we all arrived in to take our seats, passing by the familiar figure in a huddle with the barristers on the far side of the Round Hall.  His evidence, when it came, was brief and somewhat underwhelming.  It concerned one of the most salacious bits of evidence in the trial. An email found on Sharon Collins’ computer, addressed to the show, had detailed accusations of all kinds of sexual kinkiness from an unnamed partner.  The email was being used by the prosecution as proof of intent but the defence were saying it was just a writing exercise that had never been sent.  Gerry Ryan was called to back this up and confirm that he had never read the steamy contents of that email.

He took the stand and answered a few brief questions and the court sat in rapt attention before he and his producer disappeared to catch a plane to wherever they were due to do the show from the following day.  He gave the trial a little sparkle that day and yet another bizarre twist in one of the oddest trials to have passed through the court.

When Collins and her co accused Essam Eid were sentenced in November 2008, just days before the book was due out, I got a call from the Gerry Ryan Show asking me to come on and talk about the trial.  I was over the moon but it was by far the largest audience I’ve ever spoken to, even with a radio background.

I needn’t have worried. He was a brilliant interviewer. The time flew past and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much talking about a Central Criminal Court trial.  He was happy to talk about his own involvement and it was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done.

It’s not much of a connection, a brief 15 minutes or so of shared air time, but it’s what came into my head when I heard he’d died.  Irish broadcasting has lost one of it’s most larger than life characters and a consummate pro.  I can only send my condolences to his family and friends and the colleagues who will also feel his loss acutely.  RIP.

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