PB October/November 2023 October/November 2023 53
The top 25 most frequently
used contributors
themselves make up
almost a full third of
rofessionals over weekend
brunch… formulaic and
incestuous” was the
unsparing verdict of Village
in 2014 when contributor
Rónán Lynch cast an analytical eye over the RTÉ
agship weekend radio Marian Finucane show,
focusing on the Sunday programme’s newspaper
review slot.
Lynch’s review of guest contributors on that
mainstay of Sunday radio was a straightforward
but apt piece of media analysis, not just because
of its fi ndings but because of the clarifying power
of the slot itself as the basis for critical analysis
of the underlying logics that inform the selection
of on-air contributors for public service broadcast
The hour-long and typically four-to-fi ve-person
panel, after all, is a format not comparable to
other journalist-led ‘hard’ news or current a airs
programming where strong professional and
genre conventions limit the pool of potential
voices heard and faces seen to those endowed
with formal authority, suitably accredited
expertise or an individual proximity to
developments covered in the news. The buttoned-
down atmosphere of the newspaper review
panel, less beholden to the dictates of balance,
is an unusual one in broadcasting terms in being
in theory at least open to anyone capable of
perusing a newspaper and selecting a story or
two as a jumping-o point for discussion on
contemporary developments.
Lynch’s analysis of the composition of
programme panels over the course of a full year
revealed how this broad discretion enjoyed by the
programme producers was, in practice, wielded
strikingly narrowly. He highlighted in particular
the overwhelming preponderance in its 250-odd
guest appearances of contributors drawn from
the ranks of the upper professional classes in
general and in particular the favouring of other
journalists and “professionally articulate agents
of monied interests” of various hues, including
public relations. The on-air results, he concluded,
were conversations about the news that, shorn
of due representation from wider strata of society,
often exuded an insider-ish, cosy and
unchallenging feel.
With a generational changing of the guard at
the show since host Marian Finucane’s death in
early 2020, Village thought it opportune to once
again measure this barometer of R’s appetite
for representational range.
By conventional metrics of success, the
programme itself has gone from strength to
strength since the appointment of new host,
Sunday Independent columnist Brendan
O’Connor, who has maintained the outsized
audience share built up by Finucane and kept
both weekend editions of the programme close
to the very top of national radio programme
popularity rankings. And though opinions will
vary on the personal appeal of O’Connor as a
commentator in his own right, the organisation
will no doubt feel that his proven ability to attract
The Brendan O’Connor Show:
revisiting analysis of RTÉs
Newspaper Panel
Professional classes over weekend brunch… safe
and a bit incestuous, with little diversity, but with
equal numbers of women unlike with Marian
By Mark Cullinane
large audiences, combined with his assured
broadcasting style and savvy navigation of the
vagaries of broadcasting speech regulations
make him a safe pair of hands well worth the
hefty quarter of a million a year investment.
The show has maintained its pre-eminence in
a radio market that has proved surprisingly
resilient amid a welter of disruption and audience
fragmentation in the media industries, yet the
changed cultural environment in which broadcast
journalism also now operates has posed
increasing challenges of its own which are every
bit as tricky to weather as changing media-
consumption habits. As a more sceptical and
media-savvy population increasingly concerns
itself with a host of vexed questions of mediated
representation, like to whom is the national
megaphone passed, on what criteria of inclusion
and in the service of what conception of balance,
media incumbents generally (and in particular
national public service broadcasters with
universalist obligations) have been forced to take
diversity more seriously.
Over the last fi ve years, such pressures have
seen at RTÉ the elevation of diversity and
inclusion to the formal status of major
organisational objective. Its fi rst dedicated
action plan on the topic in 2018 articulates, in the
worthy if grandiose style of such things, a series
of commitments and associated
Brend nd Brendn
54 October/November 2023 October/November 2023 55
cross-organisational actions to transform RTÉ
into no less than a ‘leader in diversity and
inclusion, both on and o air, with a view to
“ensuring our audiences recognise themselves
in us, and us in them”.
Five years into RTÉ’s diversity drive – a plan
whose implementation would be aided in part by
more systematic internal monitoring of
programme output – it was perhaps surprising to
learn that Village would once again have to spin
up its own spreadsheet software for this fresh
analysis of programme panellists; the production
team citing a lack of time and resources to share
a list of contributors used.
Our own list, then, covers a period
encompassing the entire three-and-a-half-year
Brendan O’Connor era of the programme, and
comprises a total of 819 separate appearances
by newspaper-review contributors across all 183
Sunday editions of the programme. It, and
accompanying methodological notes are
available on request to all readers who may wish
to browse, scrutinise or remix the data in ways
that we haven’t the space to explore here.
It is in the area of gender balance that the most
significant and obvious improvement in
contributor diversity since Village last ran the rule
over the numbers is apparent, with a considerably
more even 54% (male) to 46% (female) split
across the period as a whole when compared to
the 65% (male) to 35% (female) result found in
2014. Much of the headway appears to have been
recent: discount the first year’s worth of
contributors in 2020 and the result from
subsequent years is very close to the sought-for
goal of parity of gender representation.
Welcome signs of progress then, but gender
balance is the area where Irish media have made
the most progress generally – if still typically on
a voluntar y basis. Other “diversity characteristics”
earmarked for substantive remedial responses
by RTÉ and elsewhere in the media industries,
such as race and ethnicity, disability and sexual
orientation, remain for various reasons much
further down the pecking order. Though not the
focus of this analysis, a cursory look at the
hundreds of names in the contributor spreadsheet
shows that anything approaching the promised
fair and authentic representation” of such
demographics remains a distant prospect, if this
programme is any indication of wider practices.
That the dimensions of class background and
socio-economic status, surely among the most
crucial and urgent considerations for media
diversity, are euphemised in RTÉs diversity
strategy as the more nebulous criterion of “social
experience’” suggests that these particular
nettles have yet to be seriously grasped either.
And indeed it is in this area that old habits (as
well as old formats) seem to die hard on the
programme: with participants on the newspaper
review panel again found to be overwhelmingly
drawn from the upper echelons of the Irish
professional classes, albeit with some changes
in the relative prominence of their various
A tweaked categorisation methodology makes
direct comparisons with the earlier analysis less
straightforward; for example, some contributors
who were introduced by the programme with
more than one occupational or organisational
aliation were counted accordingly.
Yet of the 931 total roles ascribed to the 819
contributor appearances, there is no mistaking
the continued pre-eminence of other journalists
and broadcasters as the slots anchor tenants,
who with a total of one in three of all appearances,
remain every bit as prolific as a decade ago.
Journalists from over 35 identified media
organisations were given a look in, though
appearances with stated affiliations were
comfortably concentrated among a smaller
cohort of outlets, led by the Irish Times (38), Irish
Examiner (36), Irish Independent/Mediahuis (33)
and in a firm nod to the Irish digital news
ecosystem, TheJournal.ie (27). Other journalists
drawn from elsewhere at RTÉ itself (9) were, it
must be said, infrequently sourced by
Academia and education provided the next
largest source of regular panellists, contributing
as many as 17% (156) of the appearances. This is
a category dominated by the (often professorial)
ranks of a rather concentrated range of disciplines
– notably medical and health sciences (partly
prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic), legal
studies, and economics, though in truth this
understates the wider emphasis in particular on
medical and economic experts, whose numbers
are significantly bolstered both by their
representation in other categories. In particular,
medical professionals outside education and
training settings (often practising consultants)
comprised nearly 9% (82) of all appearances just
by themselves. Non-academic economic and
financial experts contribute another 5% (49).
Economists, often sourced from research
bodies or think-tanks outside of academia like
the ESRI or IIEA, are also further amply
represented in the populous NGO category (9%
or 88 appearances), a heterogeneous grouping
of charitable organisations, social service
providers, and the occasional campaigning
As before, only a small smattering of voices
from organised labour are heard, but private
business interests are far better represented.
Contributors from businesses (with those from
hospitality industries notably prominent) and
professional services (often management and
strategy consultants) together comprise a
significant chunk of appearances (8% with 78
appearances). The related category of public-
relations professionals, so prolific in the 2014
analysis, is less prominent here as a distinct
group and adds another 2% to the total (21
appearances). Legal professionals (2% with 17
appearances) and political figures (6% with 59
appearances) are two other notably diminished
categories this time. A breakdown of the latter
category reveals that it is former Fine Gael
politicians (18 appearances) who are by far the
most frequently sourced political contributor.
This is largely due to the particular prominence
of one such former TD, pharmacist Kate O’Connell
(14 appearances) who enjoys a nearly unmatched
degree of individual regularity that is illustrative
of another aspect of the newspaper review slot:
that its total of 831 guest appearances belies a
considerable reliance in practice on a much
smaller circle of tried-and-trusted participants.
Of the 326 total individual contributors who make
up that total, around half are one-o guests;
while the top 25 most frequently used
contributors themselves make up almost a full
third of appearances.
Alongside O’Connell, the upper part of the
table of most frequently used panellists
comprises a tier of guests on semi-regular
rotation: think columnists Alison O’Connor and
Brenda Power, sociology and political science
academics Niamh Hourigan and Gary Murphy
respectively, economist Dan O’Brien and security
analyst Declan Power, to name a few.
Perusing the names and aliations of this
privileged set of eectively tenured voices
reveals not only a dominance of the upper
professional classes but also the preponderance
of eminently known quantities with considerable
(sometimes bordering on ubiquitous) access to
national media platforms and who in some cases
stand in for whole disciplines and fields all by
For programme-makers who are, in the end, in
the business not just of managing a national
public platform for discussion and debate but of
producing regularly deliverable product under
deadlines, the predictability and consistency
oered by a stable of reliable, experienced
standbys has obvious appeal. It all but
guarantees panel discussions that are decorous,
amiable, and duly respectful of the mechanics
Kate O’Connell, Alison O’Connor, Brenda Power,
Niamh Hourigan, Gary Murphy, Dan O’Brien
and Declan Power —. the affiliations of these
privileged tenured voices reveals dominance
of the upper professional classes but also the
preponderance of known quantities