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Radio: Free speech in short supply on talk radio

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Sean O'Rourke

Sean O'Rourke

Sean O'Rourke

First there's a recorded report. Then a studio interview. Sometimes, another guest will be added to the discussion. Whatever the issue, this is the usual template on Today With Sean O'Rourke.

The question is: how is that any different from News At One? The answer being: it isn't. Yet RTE's mid-morning slot is listed - alongside Sunday With Miriam and Marian Finucane - under the heading of "talk" show rather than "news" on the station's website. So why doesn't it make an effort to sound a bit more, well, spontaneous? The suspicion must be that it can't, because relaxed improvisation simply isn't one of O'Rourke's strengths as a broadcaster.

Metaphorically, he's playing a Bach sonata in a medium that demands more of a jazz sensibility. That's not his fault, but increasingly it's hard not to decide, as a listener, just to switch off and wait for Newstalk's Lunchtime instead.

In terms of the attention it receives, Savage Sunday on Today FM is still playing Cinderella to similar round-table media discussion programmes on rival stations; but at its best, it's an engaging, insightful show. Last week's edition was a case in point, with Kate Shanahan, head of journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology, being one of the few commentators to resist the temptation to hide behind smug cynicism about Lucinda Creighton's new party.

"It's an exciting thing for someone to do," as she put it, "because we've looked for this new leadership and, now that someone's suggesting it, we're immediately saying that's not going to work." Spot on.

That so many were eager to write off Creighton is probably part of the "dearth of thought about serious issues" which contributor John McGuirk, appearing on Newstalk's Marc Coleman Show last Sunday, so lamented in Irish politics.

Reaction to the shootings in Paris confirmed that depressing analysis, with many broadcasters immediately deciding that the main concern should be how to stop "right wing" parties benefiting from public anger about terrorism, rather than how to tackle the problem of radical Islam.

"I presume all Muslims will condemn this," was Joe Duffy's instant response on Wednesday's Liveline. It sounded more like an attempt to shape the conversation than an open invitation to a robust debate.

For that, one had to go to BBC Radio 4's Today which, on Thursday, carried a diverse range of dissenting voices, including Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, political scientist Asiem El Difraoui, Islamic Studies professor Tariq Ramadan, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, and so on. Morning Ireland relied on official representatives instead, such as the French ambassador, which made for much duller journalism.

Finally, to Today FM's Last Word, where Matt Cooper wound up another unproductive debate on the upcoming gay marriage referendum with the words: "I think we'll be discussing this again between now and May." Consider that one an early contender for Understatement of the Year.

Sunday Independent