In this issue
Still eager to probe
|Vincent Browne has been one of Ireland's most prolific journalists and publishers. Controversy has befriended him down the years but writing about equality in society is what stirs him most. He spoke with Michael Cullen|
Were you surprised when RTE dropped your late night radio show and decided against renewing your contract?
I wasn't surprised but I was disappointed. The reason I wasn't surprised was that in the summer of 2006 the report of the Abbeylara Tribunal was published. It had been my view all along and remains my view that RTE's conduct during the course of the siege, as it was called, which resulted in the killing of John Carthy, was widely irresponsible.
It fitted into their agenda of hyping anything to do with crime or security. This story was essentially about a poor man, suffering from a mental illness, undergoing some personal trauma, in a house on his own, no threat to anybody, down in Abbeylara.
The media should have left him alone and the Garda should have largely left him alone, there should have been a light Garda presence. But RTE led their news bulletins about this so-called siege and continued on that throughout that evening and the following day.
What RTE did stimulated other media, local radio in particular. It's certainly true that John Carthy listened to other media and it's not believeable that that didn't put further pressure on him. In any event, when the Abbeylara report was published, I revived this point which I'd raised several times on radio, with RTE management.
I put questions to them. Meanwhile, I'd published a strong critique of RTE in Village and in the next issue I referred to their replies to my criticisms. Arising from the criticisms,
I was told I was in breach of my contract. In the last two years of my contract, I never once received a tittle of feedback from any RTE official, even though I sought feedback.
How did the TV3 Nightly News With Vincent Browne come about?
What happened was that I knew the writing was on the wall with RTE well in advance of my contract expiring - it was perfectly obvious. So I put out feelers to a number of places. TV3 came back to me quickly and we did a deal. That was it.
Are you happy you're allowed stamp your personality on the programme?
I hope that's not what it's about. There are logistical but no editorial problems when you are starting up a programme like this. I'd done TV before with RTE but had done it badly. But this time I got excellent training from TV3, Andrew Hanlon (head of news) in particular.
(He smiles at the mention of the show drawing an older audience to TV3). Yes and TV3 allowed me to do the Ireland AM programme for a week and it lost loads of listeners!
In the seat of TV3's Nightly News With Vincent Browne
Has too much editorialising crept into Irish journalism?
Well, there's two things there. Of course there's editorialising in opinion columns, that's the point of them. But there isn't a range of opinions out there. Primarily, opinions here are right wing, though the perception is they are too liberal and left of centre. With regards to reporting generally, it's not fair to say there's too much opinion in Irish media.
Do you still have a five per cent stake in The Sunday Tribune?
I don't know! I have some shareholding because I get the annual report and get invited to the agm and promise myself to go to it on some occasions.
Do you regret what's happened to the Sunday Tribune over recent years?
I regret the Indo got control of it and the complete mess they made of it commercially.
I find it amusing that the Sunday Independent, which is the mouthpiece of those who want to attack the critics of O'Reilly, goes on about monies. The Tribune was making money when I was chief executive and it was the only time.
From the moment the Indo got control of it and got involved, the thing has been a disaster. They lost €8 million in 18 months, which is some doing, it's €100,000 a week over a period of time and I'm told that's an underestimate.
Has the paper been used by IN&M as a buffer against the threat of UK imports?
I assume that was the rationale but it hasn't worked as a buffer. The Sunday Times has done well and it has a much higher circulation and readership than the Sunday Tribune.
Noirin Hegarty has done well as Tribune editor and the paper has done well with the likes of Justine McCarthy, Michael Clifford and Shane Coleman.
Do you dislike Independent Newspapers?
No. The Irish Independent has been a good newspaper for a long time. When Vinnie Doyle was editor he did a fine job and while it's unpopular to say so, Gerry O'Regan has been a good editor. The Sunday Independent is an appalling newspaper and in many ways a journalistic disgrace, but that's a side issue. The London Independent is a fine paper. I've been critical of O'Reilly because with his dominance in the Irish market he uses his newspapers to advance his other corporate interests.
You had a piece in Village recently where you slammed Eamon Dunphy's article in The Irish Times where he sided with Tony O'Reilly against Denis O'Brien...
I thought it was a job application for Dunphy to return to the Indo. Dunphy... he's not really worth talking about (gestures with his hand in a dismissive manner).
Was the Dublin Tribune a mistake in that it was too ambitious for its time, too much of a quality paper to be given away free?
I don't think so. I was editor of the Sunday Tribune at the time and chief executive of the company. We had brought the Sunday Tribune to profitability at the end of the eighties -the only time incidentally that the paper has ever been profitable. It's been a total commercial disaster since the Independent took it over and made its appointments.
But I was conscious at the time the Sunday Tribune was vulnerable to downturns in advertising because of the high cost base of a standalone operation and the kind of editorial it had, including sports material. I was keen that we become part of a larger group and I tried very hard for The Irish Times to take us over.
Or, for the Crosbie (Examiner) group to take us over. I spoke with Ralph Ingersoll, who was involved in the Irish Press group at the time. But that didn't happen. I'd seen the success of free newspapers abroad, like Ingersoll's involvement in St Louis and other places in America. I thought a quality free newspaper would work here if done properly.
The reason was there was a fragmented print market here at the time. Of course, it's even more fragmented now. TV was becoming fragmented with stations coming in from abroad, TV3 wasn't then in existence. The radio market was becoming fragmented.
Advertisers were finding it hard to get through to this new fragmented market. I thought the Dublin ABC1 was a prime audience for advertisers to attempt to access and the idea was the Dublin Tribune would provide that market, easily and relatively cheaply.
Looking back on it, a number of mistakes were made. First of all, we were unlucky.
Within a few months of the paper starting in June of 1990, there was a recession arising from Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. But we didn't have the capital to keep it going at times of difficulties. Nor did we have the management manpower to make it work, without doing damage to the Sunday Tribune.
To some extent, we were betting the company on it which was a mistake, my mistake. The idea of the Dublin Tribune was essentially good but we didn't have the resources to do it and we shouldn't have done it because of that.
What do you think of Metro and Herald AM?
They're not targeted in the way I intended the Dublin Tribune to be targeted and which was going to be localised with news and ABC1. They're not as good.
Are you a workaholic?
(Laughs) I waste a lot of time and have diverse interests. Sport (rugby especially) and all the stuff. I don't play golf. You can't have a life and play golf.
Sail in the summer?
I don't, unfortunately. I pretended to learn to sail once for a radio programme on RTE.
Are you at ease with technology - the internet, social sites etc. Or are you a Luddite?
I use the internet a lot. It's changed journalism significantly, in ways that haven't been properly appreciated. Because of the difficulties there used to be in getting access to information, there had be investigative journalism, which relied mainly on getting information from people rather than from documents.
Now, the vast amount of documents that are available through official government sites is just enormous. It's a question of making sense of those and knowing where to find them and what to find. The documents are far more reliable than people. I'm not saying people necessarily tell lies but naturally that memories and perceptions can be faulty.
The challenge of journalism now is making sense of this vast amount of information available on the internet. That, to a large extent, is what journalism has turned into. Of course, you still get tip offs from people on matters of importance.
You were once a member of Fine Gael?
I joined Fine Gael in the early Sixties and the reason I did was because it wasn't Fianna Fail. There was no Labour party in UCD then. Declan Costello's Just Society appealed to me. But almost from the start, I was out of sympathy with Fine Gael.
Wasn't your family in Limerick Fine Gael?
My mother's family was Fianna Fail. My father's family was split between FF and FG.
You've long been a target of the Phoenix...
Yes, they regarded me as a rival from day one, which I was. I started Magill in October 1977, a short time after the Phoenix. For pretended journalistic reasons but really for commercial reasons, they have attacked me from the outset.
Is Denis O'Brien good for Irish media?
Denis gave me my first break in radio. He asked me would I do a programme on 98FM back in 1996 and I agreed to do so, arising from which I went on to do a programme for RTE for 11 years. So I'd be biased in his favour on that account, if not other accounts. I've known him since 1983 when he was personal assistant to Tony Ryan, who was involved with me in re-launching the Sunday Tribune that year.
I met Denis O'Brien recently and he referred to a programme I did at 98FM at which I "ranted", as he said, about government issuing only one mobile phone licence at the time that his company got it. My view was that awarding one licence was setting someone up and they should have engaged in proper competition and awarded several licences.
Let them all have a go at it and that would have been better. Also, I was of the view that the state should get a hefty royalty fee which didn't happen. Denis never objected at the time, which is fairly impressive given that here I was advocating a line that was entirely contrary to his commercial interests. You'd never see that in Independent Newspapers.
Does the standard of Irish media compare well with overseas?
I think it does. The Irish Times, Irish Independent are good newspapers. The Irish Mail and the Star do some good stuff. The Sunday Tribune and Sunday Business Post are good. On the broadcast front, RTE is very strong with Morning Ireland as the agenda setter. Tubridy's show has improved and is more focused. Pat Kenny is a superb broadcaster... he talks less and answers and his own questions less.
Sean O'Rourke on the One O'Clock News and Marian Finucane are first-class. Newstalk is trying hard but it's got problems obviously competing against such a dominant player in the market. RTE has been around a long time.
Is politics a noble profession?
It shouldn't be a profession at all, either noble or ignoble. Politics itself should be about people deciding what kind of society we're going to have, how resources in society should be distributed, what restrictions and liberties there should be...
But if I might challenge the question. There's such a thing as the political class and that's wrong. We've a political elite to which we sub-contract political decisions. That's not what democracy should be about at all. The citizens should be sovereign.
We've only a fake representation of democracy. Every five years the citizens can vote for one crowd offering one pot pourri of policies or another pot pourri of personalities offering something else. They should be real self-governors rather than sub-contractors.
People are said to have given their lives for the vote. It's pointless, other than stemming outright corruption, This isn't democracy at all. It's not surprising young people are apathetic. They've nothing to be turned on about. They need to be involved in decisions.
Is that because all the parties have moved to the centre, or further right?
They are all right of centre. There's no difference. Fianna Fail, Fine Gael... Brian Cowen or Bertie Ahern. This crowd of ministers, or the last crowd.
One of Ahern's achievements was making Fianna Fail the party of coalition government, It'll be difficult to form a government in the future without Fianna Fail being part of it.
Would you encourage young people to enter politics?
I wouldn't encourage anyone to get involved in politics, it's a complete waste of time.
What people should be doing is encouraging direct democracy.
Are our politicians paid enough?
They get massively paid, it's ridiculous. The average wage in society is €34,000. Our politicians are paid four times on average. How could they be representative of the average citizen? Everyone who's paid above the average and multiples of the average are paid far too much, including myself and yourself. We have a hugely unequal society.
Do you regret not standing for Fine Gael?
I'll tell you what happened. In 1994, after I'd been removed from the Sunday Tribune, John Bruton contacted me and asked me would I stand for the party as an MEP. I'd known John Bruton from my university days and I was surprised at the suggestion.
I said I'd think about. Within a few hours, I'd decided it was daft. I told him no. He was concerned that it would become known that he'd made an offer, that I'd said no and this would reflect badly on him as there was a heave against him in Fine Gael at the time.
Nothing came out about this but it was leaked that I'd been offered this. In November 1994, when it looked as though there might be a general election when Albert Reynolds's government was falling apart, we again discussed the possibility of me standing as a Fine Gael candidate. I made it clear to him that it wouldn't be on due to policy differences.
Aren't you a big fan of Fine Gael?
I think I voted for Fine Gael twice in my life. Once was in the Eighties and I was living in Dublin South constituency. I had a row with John Kelly (former FG deputy and attorney general) and we made it up and I said I'd vote for him in the next election and I did.
The other time was and similarly I had a row with Sean Barrett (FG deputy) in Dun Laoghaire and I'd moved there at this stage. I said the same thing to him and I kept my promise. I never voted Fine Gael again, except on those two occasions. I voted once for Fianna Fail, in 1977 and since then for Richard Boyd-Barrett or some left winger first.
Would you regard yourself as a socialist?
I would, yes.
A true socialist or a Bertie Ahern-style socialist?
I hope not (laughing).
Is Ireland a better country since the economic upturn - the Celtic Tiger?
The Celtic Tiger was hugely beneficial to the country in so many respects. The employment growth and the transformation of Dublin, the city's so much better now.
There's been spin-offs in other areas.
But we have left behind people massively and we don't care. It doesn't feature at all in any political agenda. One of the consequences of this, which is really quite devastating and nobody pays any attention to this, is that the mortality rate of the people in the lower socio-economic groups is far, far higher in respect of all the major diseases.
Ruth Barrington, the former head of the Health Research Bureau, estimated that because of the inequality in this society about 5,300 die prematurely every year. This is 14 times the number of people who die on our roads and 16 times the number who commit suicide.
While writing about the DCC-Fyffes insider trader case in your column in The Irish Times, you claimed that there's one form of justice for high-powered business executives and another for ‘ordinary' citizens. Do you really believe that?
It's perfectly obvious. In the case of DCC, there was a fraud of €80 million. Simple fraud, which is a crime. A woman went to jail recently for not paying €318 for a Sky dish.
Does the inequality in society help Sinn Fein?
Sinn Fein has gone walkabout. What do Sinn Fein stand for now that they don't stand for a bit of violence any more? The united Ireland stuff is out the window and they've accepted that. The may as well join the PDs, or the PDs join them.
Have the Progressive Democrats served a purpose?
They certainly did, in targeting every vulnerable group in society and getting at them and making life more miserable for them. They've been a cancer in Irish society. There are lots of fine things about Des O'Malley. I like Mary Harney, personally. But the PDs targeted single mothers in 1997, then Travellers, refugees, asylum seekers, the poor.
Are they now a spent force?
I hope so, they're a pernicious force.
Who do admire in Irish politics?
(Long pause) Joe Higgins, obviously... Michael D (Higgins). I admire a lot of people like Eamon Ryan, John Gormley, Trevor Sargent... I like Enda Kenny.
You successfully sued the State for tapping your phone?
I got £94,000 for my phone being tapped for eight years. The tapping was first instigated by Patrick Cooney, Minister for Justice in the Liam Cosgrave government in 1975. The deal was they would pay me the money and there was no suggestion that I was involved in any criminality or paramilitarism. The State regarded it as legitimate to tap my phone because I was in touch with paramilitaries at the time. When I saw the transcripts in 1980, I discovered that security was not the reason for tapping my phone - it might have been initially - but it expired pretty quickly - it was for political reasons.
Either Charlie Haughey wanted to know what I planned to write about him or - and in my view this is more likely - his opponents in Fianna Fail would know what was due to come out as they prepared to launch a coup against him.
Is there less of an audience for investigative reportage now and more competition for other newspapers with supplements etc ?
When we published Magill back in the Seventies and Eighties we had sales of around 30,000 and the same after I revived it in 1997 it gain had a circulation of 30,000. I presumed it would apply to Village. We've had a rough time and lost a lot of money.
My only backer, Michael Smith, lost about €260,000 and I lost in the region of €1.2 million. Village is going to be a marginal exercise but we can make money on contract publishing and we should make significant money on the website.
You changed Village from a newspaper to a magazine format. Why/
We started off with a tabloid format. That proved a mistake as we were put on the floor of newsagents and other publications were then put on top of Village. We were invisible and so we changed to a magazine format. Advertisers prefer a glossy magazine.
Is society happier to see contentious issues hidden, to keep a lid on controversy?
The truth is I don't know. Most people haven't a clue. Journalists are the worst offenders.
Do you see advertising as worthy or is it merely a necessary evil in media generally?
Oh God no! Advertising is letting people know what's available and giving them choices.
There was only one occasion when I felt pressure from an advertiser. Back in 1997, we had done a contract publishing venture for AIB and I hoped to do it again the next year.
I went out to AIB Bankcentre to have lunch with some people. At the time I was working on a story on how the Revenue had ignored a file showing that AIB defrauded on DIRT. I was admiring the gardens and my host offered me a tour. I told her about the story. She was outraged. I missed out on the garden tour. But we did business with AIB again.
Why did you eulogise Charles Haughey when he died after all your condemnation of him when he was alive?
I didn't eulogise him. I wrote affectionately about him.
Was that not revisionism on your part?
No, not at all. I was surprised by what the Sunday Times wrote. People in power should be challenged when they are in power and I challenged Charlie Haughey, unlike others in Irish journalism.
Maverick is a word often used to describe you, how would you define yourself.
Maverick sounds fine.
When will you retire and spend more time tending your roses?
The Roses of Tralee?!