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Joe Duffy: The most powerful man in Irish banking

I wonder if Joe Duffy, when he was going to school, ever thought he would some day become the most powerful man in Irish banking? That he would hold the future of the financial services sector in his hands, for just one day in 2008?

That's what happened, last week, when callers to his Liveline programme, in overwhelming numbers, urged each other to get their money out of the banks and into something safe, like the Post Office.

Normally, the public affairs department of each bank would issue a firm statement magisterially squelching such a story with reassurances that all was well. Except that corporate Ireland regards having anything to do with Liveline, in statement or in person, as equivalent to leaping into a freshly-dug grave. In addition, Joe himself had pointed to the problems implicit in such a statement.

"If they come out with their hands on the Bible and say 'we're not in trouble', why should we believe them?" he asked, on air. "Look at London, look at Enron, go back further and look at Rusnak and AIB. The issue is trust."

Trust

That last sentence was the double-edged sword. Listeners trust Joe Duffy. They love to hear him setting up some scam artist and peeling the skin off him in slow strips. They shake their head in wonder when he disassembles someone like the bestselling author who claimed to have been abused in a nun's institution, when the nuns involved have no records of her and her own family says her grasp of truth is a bit loose.

So when Joe Duffy portrays the big guys in the banks as untrustworthy when they claim deposits are safe, listeners sit up and take notice. In this case, they sat up and took action. Around €50m shifted from banks to the Post Office, and while Liveline couldn't claim credit (pardon the expression) for the entire shift, their programme probably contributed.

Now, you might think that the Government would be 'delira' to get a boost of incoming cash into a State-owned financial institution. Not so. The Minister for Finance telephoned Joe Duffy's ultimate boss, Cathal Goan, to express his concern about uninformed comment on the show and its effects on the financial system. Liveline, thereafter, went silent on the story of deposit security. Faintly, in the distance, came the sound of a stable-door locking.

The surprising thing is that nobody in Government seems to have seen it coming. Senior civil servants and politicians knew, going back at least three weeks, that wealthy people in the know were texting each other saying: "If you have anything in Bank X, get it to hell out of there, fast. They're way too exposed to the property problem. Could collapse."

Liveline's people would have picked up what was going on, so it was inevitable that the programme would do an "end of the world is nigh" job on the credit crunch. It was predictable, too, that Joe would voice mistrust of the big and rich on behalf of the small and poor. Which, because of his popularity, was going to give confidence -- the raison d'etre of the entire banking system -- a severe kick in its vulnerabilities. Someone in authority should have made a pre-emptive call to the RTE Director General.

Panic

"Cathal, me oul flower," they should have said. "We don't want to impinge on free speech, but this is an issue of the public good and of possible panic on a broad scale. Give Joe Duffy a few days in a spa, would you? We hear they're offering great packages right now."

Instead, they waited until Joe's listeners frightened themselves about the fragility of financial services, egged each other into the Post Office -- and taught the nation something about the dangerous complexity of free speech.