Friday 18 October 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'There are far bigger things wrong with RTE than 'Room to Improve''

There are better targets for the ire of former RTE staffers than shows about well-off couples doing up their homes, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

‘One courtyard too many’: ‘Room to Improve’ presenter Dermot Bannon. Photo: Gerry Mooney
‘One courtyard too many’: ‘Room to Improve’ presenter Dermot Bannon. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eilis O'Hanlon

Damien Tiernan probably didn't expect to wake up last Monday and find he was on the news. The Waterford Local Radio presenter was just sitting at home last Sunday, watching RTE, as some poor souls without Netflix are allegedly still doing, when Room to Improve came on.

The former RTE south-east correspondent immediately took to Twitter to complain about the long-running show, in which "Ireland's favourite architect" Dermot Bannon helps people with spare cash and a weird desire to appear on TV to do up their homes.

Tiernan didn't like this latest episode, which featured a nice couple from Ashford, Co Wicklow, with €450,000 to spend on an extension. That's almost twice the average price for a three-bedroom, semi-detached house outside Dublin.

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Once triggered, he didn't hold back.

"That Room to Improve is a disgusting programme," Tiernan told his 13,000 followers. "At no time does Bannon question the morality of what he is promoting. It's a complete cod of a programme that plays on people's greed, opulence and avarice. And RTE promotes it as entertainment? Pathetic. They should be ashamed."

Like excited pupils flocking to a fight in the playground, reporters immediately rushed to get a better view of the scrap.

To be fair to Tiernan, who left RTE back in January to take up his new on-air role in local radio, a lot of messages on the social media site regularly consist of people finding the pleasures or opinions of others objectionable and telling them they should be ashamed of themselves.

He was simply sounding off. It's therapeutic. He also tweets a lot about Brexit and football, two other subjects known to raise passions. If he'd known it was going to cause ructions, he'd probably have toned it down a bit.

Damien Tiernan
Damien Tiernan

Indeed, when some people took to Twitter to tell him he was being silly, he even good-naturedly retweeted their messages, letting his detractors have their say.

READ MORE: 'There's always room to improve show' - Dermot hits back

That he was on a hiding to nothing was confirmed next day, though, when only one of the callers on Liveline actually agreed with him as he doubled down by decrying such "opulence" at a time when homeless people are living in hotels and hundreds of thousands of families are struggling to pay rising rents. The others just thought programmes such as Room to Improve were a harmless way to relax.

Their attitude to Nigel and Frances, the couple with half a million to splash on an extension, was to say fair play to them. It was good to be reminded that not everyone is infected with begrudgery.

It's not as if the couple in last Sunday's episode were doing anything wrong. They had a modest enough bungalow, built from a handbook 20 years ago, and now the family had outgrown it. They had five children ranging in age from nine to 26, plus a dog. They just wanted to stay where they were, but in something bigger. So they used their savings on renovation rather than moving, which a quick glance at property websites would soon confirm is a financially sensible decision. It would have cost them far more to move to a bigger house.

Thankfully, most viewers aren't so morally upright and politically fastidious as to take exception to the sight of people being happy. They just want to escape life's stresses for a while in the evening.

Daniel and Majella O’Donnell received a home makeover from Dermot Bannon (centre)
Daniel and Majella O’Donnell received a home makeover from Dermot Bannon (centre)

Ireland was equally mad for Dallas in the 1980s, when the country had more than its fair share of economic privations too. Did that mean we were shallow and uncaring, or that we just liked watching rich people behaving badly in luxurious surroundings as an alternative to dreary reality?

As it happens, looking back, Southfork doesn't look anywhere near as sumptuous as it once did. Some of those rooms on the ranch are decidedly boring. The Ewings should have got Dermot Bannon in to spruce them up. As for the Earl and Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, they have an even grander house these days. Are we upholding an iniquitous class system by watching that too?

READ MORE: 'Room to Improve is a disgusting programme' - former RTE reporter Damien Tiernan

People can't spend every evening watching earnest documentaries on social inequality. They'd be depressed. Genuinely. It's not psychologically healthy to immerse oneself in misery. It's hardly as if having no money to build or extend houses during the recession was much fun for the country either.

For those who enjoy so-called property porn, practicality doesn't come into it. It's fantasy, and when these shows try to be more realistic in terms of budget there's no denying they lose some appeal.

Who wants to watch people living in houses that look exactly like your own?

It's certainly no cause for shame. Shame is rarely a beneficial emotion. There used to be quite a lot of it knocking about in Ireland in days gone by, and we were no better for it as a nation. It's a strange thing to want other people to feel real shame, knowing how toxic it can be as an emotion.

What was more striking was the language in which Damien Tiernan chose to express his distaste for Room to Improve. There was something almost priestly about this need to chide the congregation for straying from the path of righteousness.

Tiernan's language belonged in the pulpit. It was all about disgust, greed, avarice, shame. On Liveline, it was touched with an added dash of snobbishness as he decried the programme as "vulgar, insensitive, full of bling, pure exhibitionism". It's just that now this joyless haughtiness is justified by coating it in a patina of social concern.

As soon as the aura of shame was removed from sex outside marriage or homosexuality, it immediately seems to have shifted onto other activities, whether it's flying, or drinking from plastic bottles, or not being welcoming enough to immigrants, or even just watching people who fancy some gold-plated taps.

The concept of sin hasn't been abolished. The terms and conditions have merely changed. The need to shame other people seems to be an atavistic urge which is bound to find expression somewhere.

It could even be that shaming others is a way of avoiding feelings of personal guilt. Because while spending thousands of euros on a bath at a time when many people don't have a roof over their heads can easily be made to seem sinful, it's only a matter of degrees. By the same reckoning, going on a foreign holiday when people are hungry must be a sin that cries to heaven too, but we still do it. That some people spend more money than you does not expiate smaller lapses from virtue.

While there was definitely something holier-than-thou about Damien Tiernan's response to Room to Improve, at least he had the courage of his convictions by getting out of RTE when he had the chance to take voluntary redundancy and start a new career on local radio on the south coast.

Afterwards, free to finally speak truth to power earlier this year, he delivered a blistering parting shot by criticising RTE for the paucity of its regional coverage and for being full of "box-tickers".

Whether the national broadcaster would be any better following his advice seems doubtful after last week's dust-up, but it's a start. It's astonishing how few people in RTE have been prepared to stick their heads above the parapet in the same way, even after they've left. When he was finally free of the BBC, Peter Sissons, the British newsreader who died last week at the age of 77, wrote a memoir in which he spoke out about how left-wing bias was "in its very DNA". John Humphrys, who left BBC Radio 4's Today programme last month, has been making similar claims about anti-Brexit bias.

The agonising wait for an equally high-profile whistleblower ready to expose the rot at the heart of Ireland's own national broadcaster goes on. There are far more onerous things going on in RTE than property makeovers.

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