Duffy lands the punches while O’Leary plays Judy

The Ryanair boss hogs the air­waves but gets a deco­rous re­sponse from Seán O’Rourke

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS&BOOKS - Mick Heaney

Joe Duffy has done a great deal of good in his time, but if he ever ends up in line for canon­i­sa­tion, it will surely be due to Wed­nes­day’s Live­line (RTÉ Ra­dio 1, week­days), where he per­forms the un­like­li­est of mir­a­cles. Hard as it might be to be­lieve, Duffy makes you feel sorry for Michael O’Leary. Well, al­most.

The out­spo­ken Ryanair boss ap­pears on the phone-in show fol­low­ing days of com­plaints about the air­line’s seat-reser­va­tion charges, first high­lighted by Ir­ish Times Con­sumer Af­fairs Cor­re­spon­dent Conor Pope. A suc­ces­sion of call­ers tell of pay­ing what they see as un­ac­cept­ably high prices to sit to­gether on flights rather than ac­cept ran­domly al­lo­cated free seats. While the an­noy­ance may be jus­ti­fied, the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect makes the lis­tener as wearily in­dif­fer­ent as a min­i­mum-wage call-cen­tre op­er­a­tor.

In­deed, griev­ance fa­tigue would prob­a­bly have put an end to the mat­ter had O’Leary not de­cided to wade in. A man whose re­sponse to me­dia firestorms is to reach for a can of petrol, O’Leary has no in­ter­est in mol­li­fy­ing up­set cus­tomers. “You’re per­fectly free to com­plain,” he says, typ­i­cally bullish as he stands his ground against host and call­ers.

O’Leary coun­ters charges that al­go­rithms are fixed to scat­ter pas­sen­gers who don’t pay for seats and sounds be­mused when a caller sug­gests out­side ex­perts should ex­am­ine the air­line’s sys­tem. He main­tains pas­sen­gers get sep­a­rated fre­quently be­cause more peo­ple are buy­ing seats. Yet call­ers keep up­braid­ing him on air.

Even O’Leary, nor­mally so glee­ful in con­flict, sounds frus­trated as he yet again reels off his rote re­but­tals. It’s around this time that one feels some­thing sus­pi­ciously like sym­pa­thy for him. It’s a fleet­ing sen­sa­tion. Ever the provo­ca­teur, he de­cides to get un­der Duffy’s skin. Adopt­ing a pa­tro­n­is­ing tone, O’Leary asks, “Sorry, do you have a sen­si­ble ques­tion?” Duffy ex­plodes. “How dare you,” the pre­sen­ter splut­ters, sound­ing gen­uinely of­fended. He asks for an apol­ogy, which is not forth­com­ing. In­stead, O’Leary sug­gests the host is feign­ing of­fence, prompt­ing Duffy to dub his guest “the Ham­let of mock in­dig­na­tion”.

There is, of course, some­thing of a Punch and Judy show to the en­counter. Both men have a stake in keep­ing the pot boil­ing: Duffy for rat­ings, O’Leary for pub­lic­ity. But the mu­tual nee­dle is uned­i­fy­ing, es­pe­cially when stakes are so low. Duffy should re­serve his in­dig­na­tion for im­por­tant is­sues. He’s no saint, but he’s bet­ter than this.

O’Leary’s Live­line ap­pear­ance comes af­ter a fre­netic day on ra­dio, start­ing on To­day With Sean

O’Rourke (RTÉ Ra­dio 1, week­days), where he ag­i­tates for the con­struc­tion of a sec­ond run­way at Dublin Air­port.

O’Rourke treats his guest’s more out­ra­geous claims with dis­mis­sive amuse­ment, chuck­ling when O’Leary claims pas­sen­gers “want” to pay reser­va­tion fees. But O’Rourke presses him on sub­stan­tial is­sues, such as post-Brexit sce­nar­ios for air travel. It is a model on how to han­dle a self-pub­li­cist like O’Leary, though the lat­ter still achieves his aim by get­ting air­time. (And, yes, a big role in this col­umn.)

Later, O’Rourke is in a giddy mood as he joshes with sports cor­re­spon­dent Dar­ren Fre­hill about the earn­ings of English ex-foot­ballers em­ployed by the BBC. “What do you think Gary Lineker is worth?” O’Rourke asks. “We’re talk­ing broad­cast­ers’ salaries.” Fre­hill doesn’t spec­u­late, on grounds of it be­ing “dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory”.

Un­de­terred, O’Rourke dis­cusses the sub­ject with me­dia an­a­lyst Roy Greenslade. On the face of it, the pub­li­ca­tion of top BBC pre­sen­ters’ pay rates is a clas­sic silly sea­son item. Still, it’s no­table that O’Rourke alights on one par­tic­u­lar salary. As Greenslade talks about the sur­pris­ingly large wage packet earned by veteran news­caster John Humphrys, who presents BBC Ra­dio 4’s To­day pro­gramme, O’Rourke muses that the money may be de­served. “Humphrys has been knock­ing around for some time, so maybe they’re pay­ing for the ex­pe­ri­ence.” Given O’Rourke’s ex­pe­ri­ence and in­deed longevity – he in­forms Fre­hill he quit sports re­port­ing four decades ear­lier – is it pos­si­ble he was mak­ing a case for some­one else? Fol­low­ing news this week that RTÉ lost nearly ¤20 mil­lion last year, he couldn’t be blamed for do­ing so.

Ge­orge Hook also pores over the BBC earn­ings on High Noon (New­stalk, week­days). He de­cides the Beeb’s pre­sen­ters de­liver good value, then uses them as a stick with which to beat RTÉ, un­favourably com­par­ing the size of the au­di­ences de­liv­ered by the State broad­caster’s big names with those of their Bri­tish coun­ter­parts. It’s clas­sic Hook – the com­mer­cial broad­caster be­rates the pub­lic sec­tor and baits its snowflake lib­eral cheer­lead­ers. (Un­sur­pris­ingly, he has an ide­o­log­i­cal love-in when he in­ter­views the ubiq­ui­tous O’Leary.)

But then he takes an un­ex­pected turn and be­moans the gen­der pay gap high­lighted by the BBC fig­ures. He goes on to ap­plaud that some of RTÉ’s best-paid fig­ures are women. It’s a re­minder that Hook isn’t all about blus­ter and provo­ca­tion.

Later, even as he talks about his “ir­ra­tional fear of the left”, he has a sur­pris­ingly friendly de­bate about left-wing politics with So­cial Demo­crat coun­cil­lor Gary Gannon. At times, Hook even sounds rea­son­able. Now that re­ally is mirac­u­lous.

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