By Jude Collins (for Daily Ireland) www.judecollins.net
When a TV programme is watched by one in four of the viewing population and puts the wind up politicians, it’s worth having a look at. So Monday found me switched on to the final episode of RTE’s Rip-off Ireland.
It was surprisingly dull. If you were to believe the reviewers, this was colourful, compulsive viewing. In fact it was more Open University lecture than ground-breaking format. Presenter Eddie Hobbs stood in front of a camera and a live audience for 45 minutes and gave a predictable talk on the ills of consumer Ireland.
From time to time he jizzed things up with film clips showing Eddie out and about in Dublin or Cork, buttonholing members of the public to ask them how much they figured they’d need to save to have a decent pension, or getting a laugh by asking other people to walk his dog and then offering them Euro5 (£3.38) an hour for the next year to keep on walking it.
As a presenter, Eddie is confident, has a strong Cork accent, and knows how to throw in the odd punchy line (‘You lucky suckers!’) to get his audience chuckling. But he’s no spell-binder, there are no ‘I-have-a-consumer-dream’ flourishes. In fact in his pin-stripe suit and glasses, he looks a bit like your slightly old-fashioned SDLP uncle.
So how is it that Eddie Hobbs’s name has catapulted into the headlines, how come people in their hundreds of thousands have watched him for the past four weeks, how is it (we’re told) he has Bertie Ahern and the Dublin government worried?
Well, certainly not because he came up with anything new in his talk on Monday night.
There can’t have been many people in the studio audience or at home who didn’t know that organising a private pension in the South is scandalously costly, or that employers exploit their employees when they can get away with it, or that the 26 counties’ health service stinks.
My guess is that Hobbs confirms what people know and resent. Sometimes people need to hear a public figure articulate what they feel in their gut.
If someone comes on television - especially someone with expertise - and says what people in general have been saying in pubs and cafes and across the garden fence for months and years, there’s a thrill of recognition, a sense of exhilaration. Look, there’s your man, Eddie Hobbs, a financial adviser, saying out loud on TV that credit card companies rip people off, that governments use hidden taxes to suck money out of our pockets, that if you’re going to get sick you’d better be rich. Isn’t it smashing? Don’t you want to cheer and shout: ‘Fair play to you, Eddie! You tell them!’
Which is a pity, really. At quarter past ten on Monday, Eddie said the programme series was now ending, that he was Eddie Hobbs, and now and it was over to the audience, the population, to do something about the rip off republic.
The audience liked that - it was a kind of subdued call to arms - but the truth is, it was an unfocused call that made no sense.
In an earlier programme, Eddie urged people to protest about something or other by sending nappies to the minister for health.
A lot of people took his advice and around 2,000, or was it 20,000 nappies landed at the ministerial offices. But did it change anything? Don’t be so silly.
It probably made the people who sent them feel as if they’d got their own back on the authorities, but it changed nothing.
You get politicians doing the same kind of thing as Eddie. “Stand firm against water charges!” they’ll tell people, or “Support the Rossport Five!” You’ll search long and hard for a politician or consumer champion who accompanies his or her public call with a specific recommendation, a list of one or two or five particular things people can do as part of a campaign that will effect real and lasting change.
Of course listening to someone give out is great fun, especially if they’re informed and reasonably articulate like Eddie.
The live audience at the show on Monday night clearly loved him and so too probably did most of the million people watching him at home. But then the show ends and it’s a bit like after an Ireland football game when you’ve been cheering your guts out for 90 minutes and mistaking it for patriotism.
The game ends and the cheering dies and your country’s in the same screwed-up state it was when the game started.
Eddie Hobbs is so popular now, there are bookies who’ll offer odds - admittedly fairly long ones - on his chances of succeeding Mary McAleese as president of Ireland. He’s hailed as a champion of the people, a man concerned with the everyday realities of life, someone who knows how to hold the politicians’ feet to the fire.
Unfortunately he’s nothing of the sort. Hobbs’s vision of Ireland is the mirror image, the southern version of Newsline 6.30’s map of the North: after the border, nothing exists. You think Eddie would have done an item about the rip off that is owning a mobile phone on the Border, with competing signals costing phone-owners a fortune? Or a report on the partitionist economics that have destroyed the livelihood of so many northern service station owners? Or the need for hospital provision to be planned on a cross-Border basis? Don’t be daft. That’d be getting into real politics, to the place where economics and political arrangements on this island meet and intermingle, a place Eddie and RTE have simply no stomach for visiting.
Which is why, up at the Fianna Fail thinkathon in Cavan last weekend (note the location), Bertie Ahern was brushing aside with a smile references to Eddie Hobbs, while making sure to remind reporters that he, Bertie Ahern, is now and has always been an Irish republican.
What a Taoiseach! Such sensitivity to the political wind! Aren’t the southern electorate the lucky suckers to have him?