Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Questions & Answerzzzzzzz

The last ever episode of Questions and Answers was broadcast last night on RTÉ 1 at ten-thirty or so. An Spailpín Fánach didn’t see it; I was tucked up in the cot, as befits those who must rise with the lark. But I doubt if I missed very much.

The tributes that have been paid to Questions and Answers are an unusual instance of people getting nostalgic after something before it’s actually gone. It’s a strange post-hoc imagining of a reality that never was. Because Questions and Answers was never essential viewing. It was anything but, and the problem with that lies with the presenter.

Questions and Answers was never about searing debate on the great issues in Irish public life. Insofar as that existed anywhere, it was on the Late Late Show. Questions and Answers was all about pieties and platitudes, trotted out, nodded at, entered into the record and consigned to history with a big shrug of so what.

Questions and Answers was on the air for over twenty years – can you think of five incendiary episodes? A strike rate of one good show every four seasons isn’t exactly riveting. A typical panel would consist of Mary Hanafin, Phil Hogan, Senator Joe O’Toole, Kathy Sheridan and Brigid Laffan. Be still, my heart!

Part of the fault for this lies with John Bowman. Bowman has many fine qualities as a broadcaster – he is a marvellous psephologist during elections, his archival programs early on Sunday morning on Radio 1 are always fascinating – but as a chairman of a panel debate he was extremely limited. In his insistence in going through a checklist debate never existed and the show became a procession of platitudes and empty rhetoric.

Bowman was also noticeably touchy about a discussion veering into territory that he himself did not favour, and would quickly pull the discussion back to where he felt it belonged. A chairman has to do this sometimes in order to maintain order, but too heavy a hand stifles rather than stimulates discussion.

The most interesting episodes of Questions and Answers happened when Bowman was replaced in the chair by Vincent Browne some years ago. Browne is another flawed broadcaster in many ways but as an agent provocateur he is without equal. Browne had the ringcraft that Bowman lacked to always have a discussion on the edge of boiling over. When Bowman sensed a row he reigned back; Browne drove the horses to the ledge.

Questions and Answers played its part in Irish political history when Brian Lenihan was ambushed on the program during the 1990 Presidential campaign, but that does not make it an institution in Irish political broadcasting. Seán Doherty’s interview with Shay Healy on Nighthawks was also a landmark, but I don’t think any of our universities will be setting up Schools of Tania Studies as a result.

Questions and Answers was significant because it was there in the first place, as opposed to what it was. And that is what damns it. Because relevant current affairs journalism should be about more than tokenism and going through the motions.

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