Duffy lands the punches while O’Leary plays Judy
The Ryanair boss hogs the airwaves but gets a decorous response from Seán O’Rourke
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.