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Radio review: On RTÉ’s News at One, dissent on State’s Covid response is better late than never

RTÉ is finally asking questions about the State’s Covid response, and about time too


Nose for questions: Bryan Dobson. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Nose for questions: Bryan Dobson. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Nose for questions: Bryan Dobson. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Tánaiste Micheál Martin expects “a State evaluation into Covid-19 to begin later this year”. Well, better late than never.

The man who steered the ship of State during most of that period was on News at One (Radio 1, Mon-Fri) and made the comment at the end of an interview mostly about this week’s Brexit protocol deal. The nose for Bryan Dobson’s Covid questions were the incendiary comments by former Nphet member Prof Martin Cormican — in the news following his interview with Danielle Barron in last weekend’s Review — about how the State’s approach “excessively limited freedoms” and “depended too much on fear”.

Apart from declaring “we need to learn lessons”, promising an inquiry “certainly by the end of the year” and making the usual facile comparison to “how well we did” vis-à-vis other countries (So what? This isn’t a competition), Martin didn’t have a lot to say about this particular matter.

Labour health spokesman Duncan Smith had more to say. He served on something called the Special Committee on Covid Response, which appears to be have been defunct since 2020.

“We need a public inquiry,” he told the show, to “inform our response to any future pandemic”. The “key questions”, he went on, include “What did we get right and wrong? We should look at system responses in education, work, vulnerable groups, our health service. We shut down non-Covid health for many months.”

He didn’t really address the issue, prompted by the host, of school closures and the damaging effects on children. Smith spoke about it for a good while, but for me, didn’t really address it

Dobson also asked about “political consensus in support of Nphet. Would we have been better served by a more questioning Dáil? More dissent?” This wasn’t really addressed either.

So, not quite a case of “more heat than light” — there was some light — but still, not nearly enough has yet been shed on this baleful time in Irish life. Ironically, RTÉ itself was partly responsible for that. Some broadcasters, Dobson included, maintained at least a degree of neutrality and objectivity during Covid. As an organisation, though, RTÉ too often veered too close to being unquestioning spokespeople for Government and the rest of officialdom.

They weren’t the only ones, and again, it wasn’t across the board. But in my opinion, independents such as Newstalk (and the newspapers) did a better job in holding power to account, asking questions and questioning answers — being that necessary voice of dissent.

That said, Dobson remains a fine political journalist, with a knack for whittling a complex story to its core points, as shown in the interview with Martin — wearing his current hat of Foreign Affairs minister — about that Brexit deal.

Obviously the finer details of things like this are incomprehensible to any normal person, but one moment that did catch my attention was the possibility of a “new chapter” in EU-UK relations.

“This is very important for Ireland and Europe,” Martin commented. He added: “This is an opportunity to reset the British-Irish relationship… that the UK is seen as a partner and friend [to the EU], not a source of ongoing friction.” Again, better late than never.

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