Monday 24 October 2016

Radio review: No plots are needed when all think alike

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 12/09/2016 | 02:30

Newstalk's Sean Moncrieff
Newstalk's Sean Moncrieff

After a discussion about the upcoming US election on Monday's Moncrieff, one listener texted in to complain that there was "no balance" in such discussions and that the media was overwhelmingly "leftist".

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"You're right," the Newstalk host replied, "it's a massive plot. We have a meeting once a month... (and) talk about how to overthrow the Government and keep the 'rightist' masses oppressed."

But of course that wasn't what the listener had said at all. He hadn't alleged any grand conspiracy, merely that there was "no balance" when it came to discussion of certain topics. Sean's sarcasm aside, surely the caller was right?

The media tends to attract people who think alike on certain matters, to a point where they don't even notice their own partiality. Take the regular chats on Moncrieff with security analyst Tom Clonan. Wednesday's was the last before the new Newstalk schedule begins next week, and was dominated by the migrant crisis in Calais and the war in Syria.

Clonan spoke at length about the "neo conservative project writ large", and the need to "invest in the solutions to the conflict in Aleppo and elsewhere" because "somebody has to grow up and take control". But he wasn't challenged very hard on how any of this was to be done. Not because there is a "plot" to exclude conflicting views, but simply because the entire discussion was framed by certain shared assumptions. That's how it works.

Here's another example. In the course of explaining her love for the work of Samuel Beckett on BBC Radio Four's My Muse last Monday, Irish actress Lisa Dwan suddenly declared: "These days as a woman, you're expected to say less, be less, move less, think less, express less."

Now I don't think any part of that statement is remotely true, but it's the sort of background murmur that passes without comment in the media because it ticks certain boxes, rings certain bells.

Take too the fall by most Irish universities in the latest World University Rankings. This was reported on Morning Ireland as a story about a lack of funding for third-level education. That then set the tone for the entire day's coverage, from Today With Sean O'Rourke through to Today FM's Last Word and Newstalk's Right Hook. Funding obviously matters, but was that really the only thing to be said about the subject? This is what "no balance" means. It needs no conspiracy. Everyone just needs to think alike.

Finally, Big Country, a new comedy series from BBC Radio Ulster, centres on a Northern Irish border farming family. The humour is broad, with one scene involving a man mistaking a bull's semen sample for milk, but the bigger problem was how old-fashioned it felt, the laboured, obvious jokes about the Catholic church in particular. Conleth Hill was terrific in the central role, but it's hard to believe it would ever have been commissioned if anyone but Patrick Kielty had written it.

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