Working in RTÉ has afforded me many experiences as a journalist I would not have gotten elsewhere. Seeing history unfold for myself in the Balkans or the Middle East; a variety of challenging investigative projects; translating personal passion for food and farming into prime time documentaries and more besides.
Sitting in the Liveline chair for the last month now goes high up in the short list of memorable moments.
“But you’re a journalist, Philip. What are you doing refereeing that chimpanzee’s tea party?”, asked a sniffy friend after my first day on the job. It’s taken me a month to come up with a coherent response (I’m slow like that) but it’s obvious really that Liveline is one of the most fundamental journalistic processes; Getting real people into a space where they can comfortbly relate personal experience that illuminates national debate.
Analysis of media organisation’s woes; the focus of journalism courses in a time of digital platform proliferation; debates about what journalism should be doing tend to overlook this one simple truism. Journalism is about telling people’s stories, and it’s at its most compelling when you find a platform that allows people to tell those stories themselves.
Much of our media is a starchy diet of comment, analysis (yes, like this piece) and political reaction. Media by wonks, on wonkish issues, to be consumed by wonks with a second course of the trivial hyperventilated over by the inane. So when you come across the person whose recent scrape or whole life story illustrates the bigger point they’re better than ten policy wonks or a month of Sunday morning panel shows.
Joe has created a space on a radio station that tends towards the cerebral where people are comfortable relating the most private details publicly. Yes, of course there are show offs and pub bores among the callers but the vast majority want to make a sincere contribution to the public discourse, and the national conversation is the better for it.
It is also for a presenter about as thrilling an hour and a quarter you’ll spend in front of a mic. When Joe Duffy shuffles off this mortal coil his adrenal gland needs to be donated to science. For it is either a tiny shrivelled pea having produced more adrenaline every lunchtime for the last 15 years than any other broadcaster has in a lifetime. Or he is a freak of nature with superhuman capacity to absorb the hormonal rush Liveline sends coursing through your veins.
There is no other programme I know where you will routinely walk into studio knowing you only have about twenty minutes worth of calls. You place your faith in those people to be sufficiently interesting to generate more calls. You place your faith in the call takers to make a quick assessment and turn around of what’s come in. You place your faith in the producers to have a Plan B … and a Plan C and D just in case. Because if they don’t you will literally be whistling Dixie to 400,000 people, and that is a lot of faith for an atheist and professional sceptic to be placing in anything.
And as the conversation unfolds there is another piece of mental gymnastics at which Joe proves himself particularly supple day after day. Working off a two or three line written brief about the caller you have to give them your complete, whole and undivided attention. It’s not a real conversation if you’re doing anything less. Except you’re also reading the briefs on the other callers, talking with the producer, watching the clock and counting your ad breaks, while dredging up facts from the murkiest recesses of your brain on topics you never expected to be talking about that or any other day. Syringomyelia in Cavalier King Charles show dogs anyone?
I’ve a new found respect for what Joe does and what he and the team have built Liveline into. His choice in ties is dubious at best and he walks around the office painfully slowly causing traffic jams wherever he goes. But the programme is the best kind of journalism in its class and it has been a privilege to babysit it for the summer.