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Sunday 18 October 2009

Beeb never stood a chance against the 'saintly' O'Leary

Ryanair boss's straight-talking put the rest of this dull Panorama expose to shame, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

I HAD been thinking about both the BBC and Michael O'Leary on my travels in the US before I heard about the row -- the BBC because I miss it so much, and O'Leary because I was cross with him.

In Washington, my little radio could not pick up one programme worth listening to and television wasn't much better. Remembering unkind things I'd recently said about BBC complacency and megalomania, I rebuked myself.

O'Leary came to mind on the plane to Indianapolis. Already furious at having had to pay $25 to check my bag in, I squirmed in the uncomfortable seat, struggled to understand what the surly, overweight trolley dolly was saying and thought, 'Blimey, this is as horrid as Ryanair.' Which led me to dark thoughts about the man I once called a national treasure but with whom I fell out of love over his infamy in doing a U-turn on Lisbon because he wants favours from the Brussels bureaucrats he despises.

And then the internet told me that O'Leary was at war with the BBC over a Panorama investigation into Ryanair that he alleged would be a hatchet job. O'Leary had refused to give an interview unless he had editorial control, said Panorama. No, said O'Leary. What he had demanded was that his interview be run in full, so the editors couldn't cut it to suit their agenda. So Panorama had a cunning plan and sent their reporter Vivian White to doorstep O'Leary. Bad decision.

O'Leary already had a good idea of what would be in the programme -- hidden charges, ruthless cost cutting and so on -- and he proceeded to belabour the unfortunate hack with vigour and wit and skewer the BBC for anti-business bias and its misuse of licence payers' money. Watching the hilarious interview in darkest Indiana, I fell in love again: it was like watching a particularly agile Robin Hood having a sword fight with a leaden-footed Sheriff of Nottingham.

One might say that it was to the credit of the BBC that they put the uncut nine-minute rout of Sheriff White on their website, but they had no choice unless they wanted O'Leary's allegations of censorship to stick. So at a time when the BBC bosses are under scrutiny for their huge salaries and general extravagance, they had to endure O'Leary's perfectly-aimed taunts.

He pointed out that the Panorama team had flown to Dublin on another airline. "If you are investigating Ryanair, the least you can do is bloody fly on us to interview me. This is why the BBC finances are in such a mess. They prefer to have their fries and sausages with the two other people flying on the route with British Midland."

And it all got worse.

I couldn't see Panorama, because the BBC website restricted it to UK viewers, but I read the comments of several columnists and hundreds of bloggers afterwards, whose assessments reflected the findings of a Times poll -- 80 per cent of whose respondents thought the programme unfair or pointless.

Panorama had been unable to criticise either the safety or punctuality record of Ryanair, which are crucial to its reputation, and fell back on the old familiar accusations. That they loftily criticised O'Leary for driving hard bargains with his suppliers made his case that they were anti-business. "So he no longer gives aircrew free water?" said one blogger on the BBC site. "Wow! And he's rude to people he does business with. Wow! O'Leary drove a hard bargain with Airbus and Boeing to get his planes at the best possible price. Amazing!"

Ryanair enables the poor to fly, was a common view, so accept it as a flying bus service and stop complaining. "Typical middle-class BBC snobs," said one blogger. "They hate success and love the loser."

"A bunch of smug tossers boasting about paying four times as much as they need to and denigrating the hoi-polloi who want to save money," said another.

"O'Leary should be put in charge of the BBC, and sack all those useless loafers who get paid loads and do little," was typical. His few critics -- "ignorant pig", "bog-Irish shyster" -- will just have made him laugh

For fun, O'Leary pretended to be upset by the 'blatant lies', but eventually could not restrain his joy: 'We'd like to thank BBC Panorama for giving us this heaven-sent publicity opportunity during one of the shittiest times of the year."

He then kept the storm going by offering 1.1 million free flights -- 100,000 for each Panorama "lie". He cavilled only at the suggestion that he was a bully.

"This clearly is false when the whole world knows O'Leary is a kind and gentle, caring and thoughtful, sensitive and saintly human being," said a Ryanair press release.

I forgive you Lisbon, Michael. The BBC had it coming.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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