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Sunday 21 October 2018

If Tubridy wanted to get personal, he should have asked questions like a man

The new host of 'the Late Late Show' was anything but brave as he 'mugged' the Taoiseach on Friday night, and he still has an awful lot to learn before he earns the right to ask the leader of this country the hard questions, writes Jody Corcoran

Brian Cowen wasn't interviewed by Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show. He was mugged. More than that, to my mind, he was mugged in a two-faced, creeping Jesus sort of way by a host who was, as I see it, too cowardly to stand up like a man and ask the hard question on his own. This is what he said: "The Sunday Independent talked about you drinking too much..." The Sunday Independent did no such thing. I asked the hard question. The Taoiseach answered it. Like a man. Ryan Tubridy makes my skin crawl.

I went to RTE on Friday to witness first hand the great event. We were told to arrive at 8.45pm, 50 minutes before Tubridy was to go on air. They shoved us into an overheated, rectangular room with a single television set and they put bottles of wine in front of us -- the assembled press pack.

The "talent", we were told, might come in to see us afterwards. The "talent", apparently, is how the Late Late Show describe their guests. But the talent -- the real talent -- would not include the Taoiseach.

When his 15 minutes were up, I managed to slip upstairs to see Brian Cowen. He looked rattled. But he was phlegmatic, as always. He just shrugged when I asked him about the mugging. "What's done is done," he said, "I'll just move on."

He searched for something more suitable to describe how he felt. "It was like a junior hurling match in Offaly," he said. "The pulling was hard from the throw-in. All I could do was to stay in close and wait my chance."

He sipped a mineral water as he talked. He removed the make-up on his face himself, with a moist wipe provided by somebody. There were no RTE big-wigs to be seen. He stood alone. Calls and texts were coming in, fast and furious. "Don't worry about it," he was saying to people at the end of the phone. "Don't worry about it," he repeated four times.

"If I had known it was going to be like this," I said, "I might never have asked you a few of those questions in Tullamore."

I interviewed the Taoiseach three weeks ago. It was almost a carbon copy of Tubridy's interview -- the questions and the answers. Almost, but not quite.

I opened a door in that interview, then, foolishly, thought I had closed it behind me. Since then, several creeping Jesus journalists have tried to slither in underneath, Tubridy included.

"Don't worry about it," the Taoiseach said to me, then paused, and added, "at least you gave me a chance to answer".

The "talent" would include Ryan Tubridy himself, we were told. Yes, he would be available for a few questions after the show. You know the type of thing: 'what was it like to have your mother in the audience?'

So when he entered the overheated, rectangular room, in open neck shirt, seemingly trying hard to play down his euphoria, I asked him a few questions of my own, including the hard question, about how he had used -- and abused -- my interview with the Taoiseach to hide behind

his own cowardice. He refused to answer.

A kind of myth seems to have developed around my interview with Brian Cowen, particularly in relation to the difficult stuff I had asked of him: his health, his drinking, the question in relation to depression.

The Taoiseach and I have known each other for 25 years. In that time, we have discussed just about everything -- politics, sport and life itself. We have talked about health before, for example -- his and mine; we have talked about drinking before -- his and mine; and we have talked about depression before, too -- mine.

We got personal, again, when we sat on the back of a lorry in Tullamore on a Friday night three weeks ago. "I've been giving you a hard time," I said, and reported this at the time, as you may recall.

I did not report then what the Taoiseach said to that -- his view on my giving him a hard time, a view I don't entirely agree with, by the way. "You had fallen out of love with life again," he said, referring to my depression. "I could see it in your writing. I said I'd leave you alone for a while . . ."

It was against this deeply personal background that Brian Cowen offered me that interview, a no-holds barred conversation, which I gratefully accepted. There was none of the usual PR bullshit surrounding it, as some people have been implying; no other motivation, no agenda: it was exactly as I have said it was -- two people who have known each other for a long time sitting together at a table.

Cowen knew the hard questions were coming, both political and personal. He did not blink when I asked them. When it was over, he said: "I enjoyed that." Even the personal stuff, I asked? "Yeah, even that, no problem."

To my mind -- and to Cowen's -- you have to walk the road before you get to ask the hard question.

As far I know, Ryan Tubridy has never walked the road. He has never even worn the boots.

But he got stuck into the Taoiseach from the off on Friday night. Brian Cowen seemed taken aback.

Many of the questions were legitimate. But the Taoiseach was not given proper time to respond.

An RTE big-wig conceded as much to me on Friday night.

Some of the questions, it seemed to me, were designed to elicit a round of applause from the studio audience. If that is so, it worked, for a while, but only for a while.

The final three rounds of applause went to the Taoiseach. As the man said, he got in close and waited for his chance.

Cowen could have played it differently -- and to his benefit, if not to his credit. When Tubridy asked him about an unnamed former government minister's overspending, for example, he could easily have turned the tables.

He could have referred to Tubridy's own huge salary, courtesy of the taxpayer -- a salary which is twice that of the Taoiseach's, maybe more; he could have raised Tubridy's initial great reluctance to take a pay cut earlier this year; he could have asked about his stated "personal" reason for initially refusing to take that pay cut.

But he didn't, perhaps because the host's mother was in the audience, and he didn't want to rain on her son's parade; he didn't because, as he said to Tubridy, "it's your show"; he didn't, because, innately, he is a decent man.

Then Tubridy turned to the personal stuff, the stuff I had asked three weeks ago, and he posed the question that so incensed me -- not that he asked it, but how he asked it.

For the record, this is verbatim what I had asked the Taoiseach three weeks ago: "Brian, we've talked about this before, you and me, and I know the editor of The Star sort of asked you about it recently, the way Nob Nation lampoon you in RTE. But I want to ask you anyway, if you don't mind. It's to do with this drinking thing. You know -- what is drinking too much? Do I drink too much? Maybe I do. I have to monitor it all the time now. Do you drink too much? Do we all drink too much? I don't know for sure. What do you think -- you know what some people are saying, you must know -- do you drink too much?"

Now here is how Tubridy began his question: "The Sunday Independent talked about you drinking too much..." before he went on, mealy-mouthed, to talk of his disdain at the asking of such personal questions.

So there we had it: the host of a light entertainment programme, who says he does not like to ask personal questions, grossly misrepresenting my interview, to sneakily ask if the Taoiseach drank too much, a clip which was subsequently played, and replayed by RTE News.

Tubridy did this, to my mind, because he was too cowardly to stand up like a man to ask his own hard question and then stand over that question and take the flak, as I have had to do. When I put this to Tubridy after the show, and asked him if he had anything to say in response, he simply said "No", and looked away.

The fact is, the Sunday Independent has never "talked" about whether the Taoiseach drinks too much. The Sunday Independent sat down with the Taoiseach and, in an honest, open and frank exchange, asked the question precisely as I have quoted above.

It was the Daily Mail, and other tabloids, and several broadsheets, who subsequently slithered under the door to "talk" about whether Brian Cowen drinks too much.

Of course, Tubridy, the self-proclaimed objector to personal questions, later went on to ask the singer, Brian McFadden, deeply personal questions about his ex-wife -- which is fine -- but also about his children, stating at one stage that he would give up his job as host of the Late Late Show if his daughters were living on the other side of the world. (cue applause)

This from the man who, point blank, refused to elaborate on his stated "personal" reasons for refusing to take a relatively small cut to his massive salary when the pressure was on in RTE a few months ago.

As I say, he makes my skin crawl. But, hey, I probably shouldn't take it so personally. Because, as Gaybo, that true genius of the medium might say -- that's showbiz, folks.

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