The price fixer

Eddie Hobbs knew RTÉ’s Rip Off Republic would court controversy. He just wasn’t prepared for how much, he tells Harry McGee.

A MONTH ago, the first two paragraphs of this piece would have been a reporter's photo-fit piecing together a picture of the prime suspect.

Forty-two. Glasses. Slick-straight brown hair. Sounds like a guy speaking through a traffic cone. Worse. Speaks with a Cork accent. Sometimes goes under the alias of the People's Champion.

Now, a month later, all that can be broken down to just two words: Eddie. Hobbs.

Yep, the power of television. Even in that all-consuming medium, few programmes have made the impact of Rip Off Republic. Half a million people tuned in to watch the first programme. By the time the third programme went out last Monday, it had risen to a staggering 750,000, the highest viewership for a factual programme all year. By the time the series ends tonight, RTÉ will have the unexpected hit of the year on its hands. And the presenter is more than a household name, he's become a political player.

Already the Eddie Hobbs phenomenon is being talked up as a factor in the next election. Nearly all the political stories of the past fortnight have featured his name. Even Bertie Ahern has not been immune. In his first post-summer interview on Today FM yesterday, Mr Ahern was forced to try to rebut Eddie Hobbs's arguments.

Forcing yourself into the ring with the big hitters means that you have to be able to defend yourself. Originally his strategy was say nothing until it was all over and then have his spake.

But that proved impossible. The sledging against the programme and against Hobbs has ratcheted up in the past week. There were the criticisms of his presentation; allegations of bias and of cheap shots; briefings against him for the fees he charges. There were other layers too dark mutterings about his own political affiliations, his agenda; and his past (especially his involvement in the mid-'90s with the company run by convicted fraudster Tony Taylor).

And so this weekend, Hobbs has broken his silence, agreeing to a few media outings, including this interview.

"There is bullying going on," he says. "It was spotted by the media as well. Let me put you in the picture. I was away on holidays. When I came back people knew that I was back. The pressure was ramping up. I said I would stay schtum until the end of the series. But, quickly, that became unsustainable."

He is quick to point out that the series was a polemic, where Eddie Hobbs shares with his audience the Eddie Hobbs view on how, and why, Irish people are being ripped off.

The very nature of the series, he says, made it inevitable that it would be criticised and attacked. And his reaction to it is sanguine, almost a 'c'est la vie' shrug of the shoulders.

"I knew before it went out that there would be attempts to demonise me and to ridicule what I was saying. I always knew that I was going to take a certain amount of flak and I was going to take some damage. I am not an idiot or a saint.

"The risk and the reward were worth it as far as I am concerned. You do not expose yourself to forces like that without preparing for it. I knew that it was going to have a significant effect. But I must admit it was several points up the Richter scale from what I expected."

If it was, it was because the popularity of the programme went right off the scale. Was he surprised by this? "I'm not surprised it got a good audience. But what was unexpected has been the depth of opinion that it triggered in the media and among politicians.

"If you look at it, I said nothing new in the programme. There are journalists who have been drumming on about this for years. But what happened is we took all the bits of the jigsaw scattered out there and put it together.

"We took research from Government agencies [like the Competition Authority and Consumer Strategy Group] and put it all together. The reaction showed that this was having an effect on ordinary people. That got them very excited. That is what caused some of the annoyance in political circles."

But Hobbs at the same time is keen to dampen down the debate, to put the programme in its proper perspective.

Hobbs's series has certainly tapped into a zeitgeist and taken an issue that was off agenda into the centre of things.

"This was a wake-up call," he agrees. "Something that triggered a debate. The series meant that they had an event. It was a polemic. It was not seeking solutions."

But as for the polemic aspect, one of the main points critics made was that it lacked balance, that it was too one-sided.

"Telling a television story, you have to cut corners. You have to use the medium. On the question of balance, there are technical issues in relation to balance for RTÉ. I am not an expert on that. I cannot talk for RTÉ at all. They will move to address that. But to ask a national broadcaster to ignore a mood would have been wrong in my view. They felt it was an issue that was close to the public and I think that they have been [proved right]."

The other gripe is the one made by the likes of Tim O'Malley that the programme-makers borrowed the title and theme of a Fine Gael political campaign.

The subliminal charge is that Hobbs has aligned himself with one political party in a partisan way.

He refutes this strongly.

"I am not a member of any political party. I do not hold a doctrine of any political party dear. I actually wanted to call the series, Priceless. They came back with Rip Off

Ireland. But that was the name that everybody was using. Everybody uses the phrase. A more descriptive title was needed so we opted for Rip Off Republic. It was as simple as that."

Expanding on the reaction, he says that he anticipated a few reactions ranging from acceptance to denial to shoot the messenger.

"How will RTÉ react when your cage is being rattled. I'm not saying that because I know it, because I do not know. But the 'shoot the messenger' thing is happening against me in an anecdotal way."

However, though a third series of Show me the Money is kicking off, he thinks it's unlikely that Rip Off Republic will return. It was a once-off.

But he firmly believes there's a gap there that will allow RTÉ to become a bit of more outspoken.

"PrimeTime Investigates does wonderful work. You always feel that there are legal issues in the background that constrain them sometimes. More is needed. I am not saying it has to be in the style of Rip Off Republic. But more of that hard style of analysis or perhaps more in the manner of Jeremy Paxman."

The analysis is key for Hobbs. He argues that he wasn't ranting off the top of his head, that every fact was researched and verified.

In relation to those who criticised him, he says: "I notice that they did not come up with any specific point that contradicted what I said. That's because all the facts came from Government agencies and Government-sponsored bodies."

In the first programme he asked viewers to send nappies to the Department of Enterprise to register their disapproval of the Groceries Order. With a cross-party Oireachtas Committee lining up to defend the retention of the order, he argues that if they accuse him of coming at it from one point of view, they can also be accused of the same.

"The submissions they received came entirely from industry and from IBEC. There was not one submission from the consumer," he says.

Tonight is the last in the series and its look at wages and income will certainly be another sabre-rattler for the Government.

The way Hobbs puts it, this will be the end of the line. After tonight he will be stepping back from the limelight. He dismisses suggestions that he will now become involved in politics, stressing his own independent and maverick tendencies.

"I would be incapable of taking a whip from any party," he says.

But if he's departing temporarily, it will be with typical Hobbs' stridency.

"I am going out on a strong line and a call to action. I will hand it over to the audience. I will say: My job is done. Now it's over to you.

"I do not want to be seen as a political leader or a campaign spearhead in the run-up to the next general election."

Rip Off Republic is on RTE 1 tonight at 9.30pm.

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