A Phoney Phone-In



From top: Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, Finance Minister Michael Noonan and RTÉ Director General Noel Curran yesterday; in the studio with Sean O’Rourke and a tweet from RTÉ asking people to phone in.

You may have heard Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin fielding questions from the public during the traditional post-Budget ‘phone-in’ on RTÉ Radio One’s Today With Seán O’Rourke show yesterday.

Ellen Coyne, of the Ireland edition of the The Times, went behind the scenes.

Ms Coyne writes:

Having been guided into a room full of the national broadcaster’s staff and Department of Finance officials, I perched myself on an available sofa. I didn’t know this area was off-limits for hacks and I didn’t know I wasn’t meant to be there. The Department of Finance staff must have thought I was with RTÉ. RTÉ must have thought I was with the Department of Finance. Nobody asked me to leave and so I stayed.

Then all hell broke loose. One of Mr Noonan’s advisors appeared and bore down on one of the producers of the Today programme with all the charm of an autocrat, he explained that neither the finance minister or the public expenditure minister would so much as breathe on a microphone unless all phone-in questions were made available beforehand.

RTE hesitated diplomatically but were shut down by the official’s insistence.

No. We’re going to very clear on this, the ministers will not go on air before seeing them first,” he demanded.

A producer relented and handed over the the questions. Pages were passed between departmental staff and frantic calls were made while political responses were hastily crafted.

One civil servant paced the floor, iPhone to his ear, beseeching whoever was listening for the most appropriate response to a homeless mother forced to live in a Dublin hotel for nearly six months with her nine-year-old daughter.

[Later, having been asked to leave the studio]

I was just in time to hear Erica , the homeless woman who had caused so much consternation.

“A fiver on children’s allowance, whoop de doo, what am I supposed to do with that?” she said. How is that supposed to help the situation? We are homeless. That’s €5 I already had, that you took off me a couple of years ago,” she said.

“I understand you were in receipt of lone parents allowance…” Mr Howlin said, presumably referring to his carefully crafted notes.

“No, I work! I work part-time! I don’t get long parents, so stop saying that,” Erica said, deviating outrageously from the script.

…A spokeswoman for RTÉ said [later] nothing untoward had taken place…

RTÉ says ‘yes, minister’ as politicians run the show (Ellen Coyne, Ireland Edition Of The Times)



Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan yesterday morning

A transcript Minister Howlin’s chat with Erica (pay close attention to Mr O’Rourke’s role in the drama).

Sean O’Rourke: “Erica, good morning to you.”

Erica: “Hiya.”

O’Rourke: “Now what is your query to the ministers?”

Erica: “The query is what are they going to do to help the homeless people now, today, the 1,500 children that are in emergency accommodation. What are they going to do for them, today?”

Brendan Howlin: “Morning, Erica.”

Erica: “Not five years, today?”

Howlin: “Well you can’t…”

O’Rourke: “Just, just before, what is your own situation, Erica?”

Erica: “I’m currently homeless, since June. And I’m staying in a particular hotel in Dublin with my nine-year-old daughter. I work part-time and the cuts that Joan [Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton] brought in, in July, dropped my money €60 a week, so we’re currently in a hotel.”

Howlin: “Two issues, first of all, in relation to the whole homelessness issue, I believe that that’s the most significant social issue that we have to face and I made it the feature point of last year’s Budget. You can’t magic up houses immediately and the only solution to homelessness is to have adequate houses for everybody and that’s why, last year, we allocated €2.2billion and the social housing strategy says that we will build 3,100 housing units and that we’ve allocated €3.8billion to do that. We need to get those up and running and, in the meanwhile, to use every means we have, for example, the vacant units that are not, the voids that are not in use, bring those back and we’ll have 1,500 of those this year. To give…”

Erica: “Can I just cut across you there for one second, please. I want to ask you about, do you think that the modular homes is, you know, is an efficient way to go?”

Howlin: “We look at everything in an emergency now, have a look at them, I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see them but they’re actually…”

Erica: “Yes I did see them myself, they’re a very, they’re a short-term solution. Personally, personally…”

Howlin: “That’s all they are.”

Erica: “Well, that’s what you say, but you see with the Government at the moment, you say one thing and you kind of do another…”

Howlin: “No we don’t..”

Erica: “…so therefore, yeah, you kind of are..”

Howlin: “No we don’t, now I mean, we want to solve your problem. With a modular home, would you be happy with that until we build a house in the next two years? Would you live in a modular home?”

Erica: “Why would you waste the money on a modular home when you can just put the money into building an actual home?”

Howlin: “We’ve allocated half a billion euros this year to build houses but it takes 18 months to do that. Meanwhile, you need to have accommodation and the modular homes is an emergency option for us. And I think, is it one that you’re, I mean, it’s better than being in a hotel.”

Erica: “The reason I sent the email into Seán this morning was actually regarding vacant properties or void properties in my local area which I have written to the Taoiseach, Dublin City Council and [Environment] Minister [Alan] Kelly himself. I have emailed on numerous occasions asking could they please just take down the boards and I will personally look after everything to do with that property. I’ll put everything in. I just want them to take down the boards.”

Howlin: “That’s a number one priority for us…”

Erica: “But, but, hang on, the answer I’m getting is ‘no, you’re not homeless long enough’. So how long do I have to be homeless? How long does my nine-year-old have to be put through this situation before Dublin City Council or anybody, so long as they decide, ‘ok, now they are homeless long enough.’ How long is it?”

O’Rourke: “Erica, can I ask you just, what is it like for your nine-year-old daughter, in particular, living in a hotel situation?”

Erica: “At the moment, at the moment, my daughter is extremely embarrassed and that’s the word I’d like to use to describe the situation for her. Because she’s nine and she’s of the age where, you know, she doesn’t want anybody knowing. And I’ll give you an example of the little things that the children are thinking about. We had to do a collection of nature stuff for the nature table in school right? And we went down to a particular park in Dublin and we went down to the park and we got loads of stuff and when we got back, my daughter said, ‘Ma have you got a plastic bag, for me to bring them into the school?’. I said, ‘No, sure use one of them bags there, you know, the cotton bags.’ She said to me, ‘Ah no, I just want a plastic bag, there’s one in the wardrobe, will you give us it out?’ So I gave it out to her and she said, ‘Ah I’m not using that.’ I says, ‘Why?’. She says to me, ‘Because everybody will know I’m homeless.’ I says, ‘Why will they know you’re homeless?’ She said, ‘On the side it says, such-and such hotel, laundry bag.’ Now that will tell ya. I would never have thought of that, but my child thought of that.”

O’Rourke: “Right, and back to the Budget, Erica, has it not done anything for you at all? Is that your view?”

Erica: “A fiver, a fiver in children’s allowance, whoop de doo, what am I supposed to do with that fiver?”

Howlin: “You’re on, you’re on lone parents’ allowance I understand”

Erica: “No, I work part-time and I’m not on lone parents’ allowance. I get the back-to-school or the back-to-work dividend now of €29.

Howlin: “Your job seekers’ transitional payment?’

Erica: “No I’m not getting job seekers’ transitional, I get my FIS (family income supplement), so I work part-time, six hours a day, that’s topped up with the FIS…”

Howlin: “How much is the FIS you’re getting?”

Erica: “€90.”

Howlin: “€90 yeah.”

Erica: “Yeah and then the €29.80 for two years that Joan gave us, and then the extra €5 that you are now saying that that’s supposed to do, so what am I supposed to do with that extra fiver? What is that supposed to get me?”

Howlin: “Well the idea…”

Erica: “How is that supposed to help the situation?”

Howlin: “You’re working…”

Erica: “We’re homeless..”

O’Rourke: “Ok, just let the minister answer, let’s hear from Minister Howlin.”

Howlin: “I understood from the call that I saw, that you were in receipt of lone parent’s allowance but you’re actually in receipt of job seekers’ allowance.”

Erica: “No, I’m at work, I work, part-time, I don’t get lone parent’s, the lone parent payment is gone, so stop saying lone parent, that’s gone.”

Howlin: “There is a lone, I mean you can work, if you’re working more than 19 hours, you’re getting FIS on top of that, the income disregard we increased yesterday. Obviously, you’re going to get the child benefit increase..”

Erica: “Of five euro that €5 I already had that you took off me a couple of years ago.”

Howlin: “And disregard for FIS had been increased yesterday aswell.”

O’Rourke: “OK, we’re going to move on. Thank you, Erica for that call and that contribution. We want to hear from a pensioner now…”

*kicks wireless*

Listen back to the ‘phone-in’ here (go to 10.25)

UPDATE: RTÉ Responds

52 thoughts on “A Phoney Phone-In

  1. diddy

    Its not unreasonable to know the questions in advance. The caller can then challenge the anwers, but the minister needs to refer to the specific budget measures related to the question

      1. All the good ones fly south for winter

        I was wearing a blueshirt when I read this. So I took it off in order to be authentic in my reply. I got fired. THANKS LABOUR!

    1. Clampers Outside!

      Let me correct that….

      It is a shame that in a democracy it has become acceptable that… its not unreasonable to know the questions in advance… which results in no meaningful questions ever being asked and allows politicians to paint a picture of themselves that they approve rather than facing the reality of the situation they are in.

    2. Mark Dowling

      “Its not unreasonable to know the questions in advance.” Correct.

      It is not, however, reasonable to present the event as live when it is not.
      It is not reasonable to not disclose the responder has seen the questions in advance.
      It is not reasonable to solicit call-ins where there is no chance of them having their question answered because they were not pre-vetted and researched.
      It is not reasonable to say it never happens, the story is rubbish and then to say that it only happens because it has happened in the past

  2. nellyb

    ““I understand you were in receipt of lone parents allowance…” – thanks for clarifying Mr.Howlin.

  3. ahjayzis

    Er – wouldn’t RTE now be liable to refund everyone who called that number after that tweet? It’s only 30ish cent, but it was a pointless waste of time and money.

    If they had half a backbone they’d have said “Fine, don’t appear. But we’ll be making your reasons for cancelling known to our listenership in news bulletins throughout the day – Ministers afraid to talk directly to public” – that’d scotch their good news budget totally.

    Spinelessness really is endemic in RTE.

    1. ivan

      that’s it, in one. We’ve had this out before. When the Fennelly report came out, at half five of an evening, RTE let Enda onto six one where a barely prepared Dobbo did his best, but couldn’t really do sod all. At the time, RTE should have said to Enda ‘you’ll wait till nine or you’ll fupp off’. They should have called his bluff, in other words. Enda banked on RTE wanting to have the first interview rather than the best one, and he was right. It was a joke.

      Same here. The government ministers *want* to get on Sean O’Rourke’s show because it’s the one with the listenership. Govt ministers, largely, won’t go elsewhere if they want to get their message out.

      1. ahjayzis

        RTE continually hold all the cards, and their position is always defensible, but they just seem pre-programmed to cower when anyone raises their voice.

        RTE have FAR more influence over government in the run-up to the general election than vice versa, it’;s their duty to use that for the public good. I’m really starting to the buy the idea that they’re a completely busted flush.

        Whether it’s nude portraits of Taoisigh, running a mile from Dennis O’Brien, throwing money at religious zealots, acting like ministers are doing them a favour by taking part in an hour of free, un-interrupted budget electioneering, RTE is a waste of space.

        1. Dog Gone. IT

          sometimes the light is shining on me
          other times I can barely see
          lately it occurs to me
          what a long, strange trip it’s been

          RTE + Political Subculture = Two Cheeks Of the Same Arse

    2. Joe cool

      There’s very little in the way of proper journalists at rte. Can you imagine what would happen if they came up in front of say Jeremy Paxman in this situation? He’d eat them alive

  4. perricrisptayto

    Imagine going into an exam and refusing to take part unless you were provided with answers to all the questions first.

    Now,has it ever been any different with politicians and our sdtate broadcaster?

    These two chancers could’nt lie straight in bed if they tried.

    The worst part is that people can’t see them for what they really are,liars and cheats.

    1. ahjayzis

      The worst part is people *can* see them for what they are, but the “they’re OUR liars and cheats” attitude prevails. I hear it from older relatives all the time. They’re corrupt, they’re liars, but sure aren’t they better than that other crowd.

      1. Dog Gone. IT

        Exactly, more and more I can see why anyone with a brain like yourself has left this kip well behind

  5. Quint

    It’s normal to want to see the questions beforehand. No politician would risk sounding uncertain and disorganised live on air, it could destroy them.

    1. ahjayzis

      It’s billed as a live budget phone-in though, the whole thing is designed to look like people are picking up the phone and being put straight through to the ministers to ask a question. That’s the deception.

      1. ivan

        ….nyeeessss although in fairness the tweet from SOR went out at five past eight telling folks the lines were open.

        however, you’re right – if you just switched on at ten past ten yesterday morning you’d have thought ‘Christ, those ministers are on top of their, um, briefs…’

        Anyway – yeah – scripted radio masquerading as the real phone-in live deal? I’d say Joe Duffy will want O’Rourke off of his turf pretty darned lively…

    2. ollie

      No Quint, it’s no normal to see the questions first, It’s become the norm in our corrupt political system.
      It’s also an undermining of democracy, but then again that’s the norm in Ireland.

  6. AlisonT

    The idea that we should only have politicians who can answer questions well off the cuff is why we ended up with a spoofer like Bertie being so popular. It is better to have leaders who can reflect on things and make proper decisions than one who is able to fire our answers on a radio show.

    1. Dόn Pídgéόní

      Labour are trying that in the UK. Not so sure the public like it despite their hatred of spin and sound bites a la Teflon Tony Blair.

      1. J

        Don, you are confusing Corbyn’s rambling incoherence and lazy ideology with authenticity and ability. Let’s not spin the facts. It is pretty obvious to me why he was never promoted from the backbenches.

    2. ollie

      Seriously Alison? You would rather have a ploitician who gets his quesitons in advance and uses his scripted answers to belittle a caller, accusing a working woman of claiming single parents allowance, no mistake but an attempt to portray someone as a sponger?

  7. Dog Gone. IT

    The broadcasting arm of it needs to be decommissioned and all the homeless placed on the set of Fair City while prefabs are erected to house those in strategic default of their mortgages – or at least any who can’t be sentenced to death by stoning.

  8. mickmick

    If Ministers are to be given the questions in advance, the presenter should announce at the start of the programme that this is the case.

  9. 15 cents

    RTE shouldve went along with it as agreed, but then in the middle of the show, sound off loads of alarms and sirens and have O’Rourke announce ‘woa! well we all know what that sound means… surprise questions! quickfire round!’ and then unload a raft of difficult questions, and sound duck noises and blooper noises when they fumble and stutter over the answers.

  10. Mr. T.

    A phone in can’t be scripted to be a genuine phone in but we all know that plants are put in all the time, especially on Joe Duffy’s joke of a show.

    The Irish Governments over the years have undermined the impartiality of RTE. They made RTE very political and it needs to be stopped.

    The Public Service Broadcasting Charter is supposed to ensure freedom of opinion throughout RTE programming. This should be examined against the fiasco of this programme and all other RTE news and current affairs programming.

    And by the way, the Government doesn’t pay a subsidy to RTE. The CITIZENS pay it through the TV License.

    1. Anomanomanom

      It’s sickening that we have still have to pay a tv licence. Rte should be leveled to the ground and built from scratch.

      1. Mr. T.

        They were supposed to moved from their Donnybrook site years ago so it could be sold. The plan was to move them lock, stock and barrel to a greenfield site outside the M50 but all the snobs objected.

  11. Truth in the News

    RTE do this all the time, and all you have to do is use the off switch
    Just look at thier manuplilation of Pesidential debate, there needs to
    be a clearout of those involved in this, next water tax protest needs to
    be taken to RTE’s front door.

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