Joe Duffy and Ray D’Arcy give vivid voice to the per­sonal hurt of women af­fected by the cer­vi­cal cancer con­tro­versy

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - AUDIO REVIEWS -

If the mea­sure of a scan­dal is the amount of air­time de­voted to it, then the Gov­ern­ment should start or­der­ing elec­tion posters now. The cer­vi­cal cancer screen­ing con­tro­versy has grown so fast that the week’s ra­dio has at times been like a raw news feed, each pro­gramme seem­ingly re­veal­ing more tragic or egre­gious de­vel­op­ments with dizzy­ing speed. As Joe Duffy rue­fully notes on Live­line (RTÉ Ra­dio 1, week­days), “I don’t know if any­one can keep up with it”.

But the im­pres­sion of po­si­tions and in­deed ad­min­is­tra­tions be­com­ing un­ten­able is hard to es­cape as the in­for­ma­tion slowly drips out on the air­waves. Duffy’s show, for one, gives ex­ten­sive cov­er­age to the sto­ries of women whose lives have been turned up­side down by fail­ures in the screen­ing pro­gramme, as well as by short­com­ings in the wider health sys­tem.

One caller, Gaynor, re­counts how her late sis­ter was told that her on­go­ing agony af­ter get­ting the all-clear from cer­vi­cal cancer was due to pe­riod pain, de­spite the fact she no longer had pe­ri­ods. Duffy also hears from David, whose late wife, Ni­cola, had her cancer missed by a smear test and was ad­vised by a doc­tor to at­tend a gym to al­le­vi­ate her pain. Such ac­counts, by turns heart­break­ing and shock­ing, give vivid voice to the per­sonal hurt be­hind the head­lines.

This abil­ity to let peo­ple tell their tale is of course Live­line’s great strength, es­pe­cially at times of in­sti­tu­tional fail­ure. But Duffy also high­lights the other is­sues that have com­pounded the tragedy of di­ag­noses be­ing with­held. He talks to so­lic­i­tor Caoimhe Haughey, who de­scribes the ap­proach of the State Claims Agency to mis­di­ag­nosed pa­tients as be­ing one of “deny, de­lay and de­fend”. Sim­i­larly, a well-mean­ing call from Dr Sean Ho­gan shows the gulf that can emerge be­tween med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als and the pub­lic.

Ho­gan says that “the fear this has put into the com­mu­nity is way out of pro­por­tion” to the num­ber of women af­fected. He may seek to re­as­sure rather than dis­miss con­cerns, but he strikes an off-note. “I’m one of these peo­ple and my fear isn’t out of pro­por­tion,” re­sponds Fiona, who has spent the morn­ing try­ing to get in­for­ma­tion from a helpline. She is po­lite in tone but her fury is ob­vi­ous. “This is 2018 – not giv­ing pa­tients in­for­ma­tion is not ac­cept­able,” she says, voic­ing the nub of the mat­ter for those af­fected.

There are telling con­tri­bu­tions from less ob­vi­ous quar­ters. On Mon­day’s edi­tion of the fre­quently flip­pant Ray D’Arcy Show (RTÉ Ra­dio 1, week­days), the host talks to Vicky Phe­lan, whose court set­tle­ment with a US lab­o­ra­tory trig­gered the scan­dal over nondis­clo­sure of smear test er­rors. It is, un­sur­pris­ingly, an emo­tional in­ter­view. Phe­lan, who is ter­mi­nally ill, is up­set at the news then emerg­ing that 17 women not in­formed of screen­ing mis­takes had died in the mean­time. “I could have been one of those women,” says Phe­lan. But her met­tle is ev­i­dent too. “By God am I go­ing to take these guys on,” she says. “It’s dis­grace­ful what they’ve done to the women of Ire­land.”

Startling in­ter­view

D’Arcy pro­vides a sym­pa­thetic ear, but is also alive to the air of anger sur­round­ing the is­sue. He re­plays the startling in­ter­view given on Morn­ing Ire­land (RTÉ Ra­dio 1, week­days) by Dr David Gib­bons, who in 2008 re­signed as chair of an over­sight group for the Na­tional Cer­vi­cal Screen­ing Pro­gramme af­ter his pre­scient con­cerns about the out­sourc­ing of lab test­ing to Amer­ica were dis­missed. If this doesn’t raise the hack­les enough, we hear that the head of the screen­ing pro­gramme at the time was Dr Tony O’Brien, now the em­bat­tled di­rec­tor-gen­eral of the HSE, the body at the cen­tre of the row. Phe­lan does well to con­tain her rage as D’Arcy asks her about the apol­ogy she re­ceived from O’Brien af­ter the court case. “That apol­ogy is null and void,” she says tersely.

Phe­lan cuts an im­pres­sive fig­ure, but is still taken aback by the scale of what has hap­pened. “Je­sus, I don’t think any­one could have imag­ined the mag­ni­tude of it,” she says. She also is­sues a stark re­minder of the grim per­sonal cir­cum­stances that brought her to this point. She is go­ing to con­cen­trate on her own treat­ment now, she tells D’Arcy: “I won’t have achieved any­thing with what I’ve done if I’m not alive.” With this state­ment, she cuts to the poignant heart of the mat­ter.

It’s an anom­aly of the broad­cast­ing world that de­spite this be­ing a gen­der-spe­cific is­sue of seis­mic pro­por­tions, it’s rare to hear women dis­cussing it on air. Per­haps that’s why Mary Wil­son sounds even more stu­diously de­ter­mined than usual when the topic arises on Driv­e­time (RTÉ Ra­dio 1, week­days). Speak­ing to Min­is­ter for So­cial Pro­tec­tion Regina Do­herty, the host point­edly re­marks that “I’ve been talk­ing to a lot of women” about the is­sue. For her part, Do­herty takes the cue to voice her own strong feel­ings about the fact “these women weren’t told in­for­ma­tion about their bod­ies when oth­ers knew”. Re­gard­ing HSE boss O’Brien’s state­ment that he is tak­ing the scan­dal per­son­ally, Do­herty says “damn right he should”, adding that let­ting him re­sign be­fore his sched­uled exit would be “too easy”.

It’s un­usu­ally blunt lan­guage, but the Min­is­ter’s tone grows no­tice­ably less stri­dent when the fo­cus shifts to pos­si­ble Gov­ern­ment cul­pa­bil­ity. When Wil­son sug­gests that there are also “big ques­tions” for Min­is­ter for Health Si­mon Har­ris, Do­herty lamely coun­ters that “you can only act on in­for­ma­tion given”, and dodges ac­cu­sa­tions of Gov­ern­ment foot-drag­ging by trot­ting out cliches about known un­knowns and mov­ing goal­posts.

What starts out as a can­did po­lit­i­cal in­ter­view ends up be­ing an ex­er­cise in buck-pass­ing. But as long as the scan­dal dom­i­nates the air­waves, the buck could stop any­where.

‘‘ One caller, Gaynor, re­counts how her late sis­ter was told that her on­go­ing agony af­ter get­ting the all-clear from cer­vi­cal cancer was due to pe­riod pain, de­spite the fact she no longer had pe­ri­ods


Vicky Phe­lan: “It’s dis­grace­ful what they’ve done to the women of Ire­land.”

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