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John-Paul McCarthy: Yates banished all of Browne's tropes and gambits

During the Falklands War, the British cultural critic Raymond Williams said that television was about creating what he called a 'culture of distance'.

It's supposed to enlighten and entertain by forcing viewers to process jarring and unexpected contrasts. Ivan Yates's riveting stint last week at the helm of TV3's Tonight with Vincent Browne certainly gave us that. Just by his very presence, Yates invited viewers to compare him to Browne, thereby generating a special kind of television electricity.

Browne acts as if there are only two kinds of panellist in this life, the guilty and the very guilty. And while he gets moist and tender when discussing Haughey's Northern Ireland policy or Brian Walsh's Supreme Court rulings, he usually just demoralises his guests with interruptions, operatic sighs and in-jokes. (Remember the mystifying one he made about Shane Ross not understanding the Taoiseach's Irish asides in the Dail?)

Yates banished every one of Browne's tropes and gambits. He behaved more like the chairman of a cabinet committee than a choleric High Court judge from the Rumpole era. Every panellist got to develop their thoughts for as long as they needed to on Yates's watch. But make no mistake about it. Yates's old-school mannerliness operates in tandem with a no-nonsense intellect and a refreshing absence of public piety.

Watching him demolish the Labour Senator John Whelan on the matter of the sufficiency of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) investigation, you see why John Bruton made Yates one of the youngest Cabinet ministers in Irish history in 1994. Having reached the Cabinet at 35, Yates interrogates as if there isn't a moment to waste on piety.

Viewers won't get any John Bowman-style rhetoric in Yates's studio about RTE's progressive social credentials. Fianna Fail TD Sean Fleming was satisfyingly brusque in dealing with RTE, reminding us that RTE management initially defended the use of the Frontline tweet during its formal submission to the BAI.

But Yates cut to core of the matter when he called the failure to promptly correct the tweet record "reprehensible".

He also gave Noel Whelan plenty of room to amplify and refine Leo Varadkar's arguments about RTE's intellectual D4 bias.

Bias here refers to that semi-conscious mixture of prejudice and snobbery that afflicts all monopolies in small societies. In RTE's case, this manifests itself as a weakness for audiences that get more animated by legal brown envelopes than illegal bombs, as seen during Frontline's climactic presidential confrontation between Martin McGuinness and Sean Gallagher.

Yates took this argument about Irish provincialism to the next level during another programme on lobbying where he didn't flinch from reminding viewers that some former civil servants did just as well out of the private sector consultancy business as their former ministers.

His emphasis on the need to ask the hard questions about the senior civil service resonated far more deeply than Labour TD Alex White's monologues about his championing of public ethics legislation since 1991.

Panellists can preen, or they can put their shoulder to the wheel the way Fianna Fail TD Niall Collins did when discussing his party's modest, if practical, proposal to establish a lobbyists' register.

Yates seemed to circumvent one of his show's major practical problems, namely the unwieldy size of the panel which, by and large, is more suitable for a groggery brawl than a Socratic dialogue.

When chaired by Vincent Browne, a large panel usually disintegrates into a noisy bedlam or a consensual dialogue between the host and his regulars, Fionnan Sheahan, Michael Clifford, Dearbhail McDonald, Sarah McInerney or Harry Browne.

But here again, Yates's respectful demeanour brought all the pieces of his fresher studio orchestra into more fruitful alignment.

Browne returned on Wednesday night to chair a discussion of the EU fiscal stability treaty, further amplifying the yawning chasm between Yates and himself. Alternating between boredom and low-grade hostility towards the trapped academics and TDs, Browne lost me after 10 minutes.

His insistence on "fairness" when discussing Commissioner Rehn's intervention did remind me though of something I hadn't thought about for years. This was Browne's truly superb radio interview in

1998 with the late doctor Patrick Leahy, a hardened inner-city Dublin GP who absorbed and parried more clerical bullying than any Irishman since Hubert Butler. For once, Browne just let the good doctor talk for the radio hour. And talk the man did about everything from the legitimacy of physician-assisted suicide in terminal cases to the enormous problem of incest in working-class areas of Dublin where large families made do in small houses.

The Leahy interview even surpassed Browne's other landmark show on St Ita's psychiatric unit at Portrane. Why? Simply because Browne played the facilitator there, not the barrister.

Those kinds of interviews are long gone now, having been disdained, it seems, in favour of attacks on IRA informer Sean O'Callaghan, former Taoiseach Jack Lynch's pluralist policy on Northern Ireland and any citizen who dared to look for the roots of our economic collapse in our own selfish culture.

Not everything that glitters in the commercial television undergrowth may be gold. Browne's populism shows that.

But Yates emerged for me last week as a one-man argument against the RTE monopoly's licence fee.

Not a bad week for a stand-in presenter!

Sunday Independent