Friday 24 March 2017

'Thanks a million, I will forever be a voice for the people of Ireland'

Kevin Bakhurst left RTE this weekend after four years as head of news and deputy director-general. Here, he tells of his love for his adopted home and how he feels it has changed in that time

Heading home: Kevin Bakhurst with his wife Barbara at his leaving do on Thursday night. 'One of the benefits of my job is the range of truly impressive people I have met across Irish life - so many of them living their lives with humility' Photo: Tony Gavin
Heading home: Kevin Bakhurst with his wife Barbara at his leaving do on Thursday night. 'One of the benefits of my job is the range of truly impressive people I have met across Irish life - so many of them living their lives with humility' Photo: Tony Gavin

Kevin Bakhurst

There were dark skies over Dublin as I arrived in September 2012, dropped off outside my new rented apartment, accompanied only by my innate optimism and a large red suitcase.

Things were bleak. The country was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy; thousands of people had left their homeland seeking work overseas; others faced losing their jobs or their homes. So many people were angry and seemingly without hope.

RTE's former director-general Noel Curran 'a great journalist' Photo: Tom Burke
RTE's former director-general Noel Curran 'a great journalist' Photo: Tom Burke

I had spent months preparing for the job - reading; watching; listening and meeting as many people as I could so I wasn't unprepared for all of this, but the country was certainly in a dark place.

Against that background, my first weekend was spent in Cork - the real capital as one or two were quick to remark.

At a journalism conference, the challenges facing RTE were spelt out by numerous speakers and guests: the organisation was running out of money; commercial income had plummeted; hundreds of experienced people were leaving. And we faced the biggest editorial crisis in our history, following the Mission to Prey disaster and the controversial Presidential debate.

Investigative journalism had been holed below the waterline and confidence and morale across news and current affairs were at rock bottom. Apart from that it was all going well. At least Cork was lovely.

Close friend sports presenter Marty Morrissey Photo: Steve Humphreys
Close friend sports presenter Marty Morrissey Photo: Steve Humphreys

Arriving at RTE on the Monday morning, it dawned on me that I knew virtually no-one. I wasn't even sure where my office was. The director general, Noel Curran, and I had discussed the job ahead: take my time to assess the strengths and weaknesses; steady the ship; meet and assess the key people I would rely on; rebuild confidence; re-establish investigative journalism; implement new journalism guidelines and standards; modernise our newsroom and output; and there were a few key people who had expressed an interest in leaving - ideally try to persuade them to stay.

Top of that list were some of the organisation's best-known journalists. I met a number of them, knowing that some in news and current affairs had simply reached the limit of their sadness and frustration in seeing the reputation of RTE damaged so badly. I did my best to persuade them to stay - the best day's work I've ever done - and several gave me the benefit of the doubt and agreed to remain and see how things went. Journalism in Ireland would be much the poorer without them.

I was lucky with the team that I found at RTE News and Current Affairs - people brimming with talent and integrity and a deep desire to do their very best for the Irish public. I knew quickly it was a very good place to work - despite the ever lengthening list of challenges.

As the weeks went by, I had the good fortune to travel the country widely - meeting many wonderful people and discovering beauty and music beyond my imagination. As I visited the villages and towns across Ireland, I became more convinced than ever that one of the core purposes of the national broadcaster should be to reflect those communities, their lives, the challenges and the way people live their lives around this country.

It still haunts me that - when I arrived - one of the main proposals to save the substantial amount of money we needed to save in 2012 was to close a number of RTE's regional offices. For me that would have ripped the heart out of our news coverage and fatally undermined RTE's close connection with people across Ireland. We quickly set about creating a plan to keep the regional offices open - at much lower cost - creating innovative partnerships with institutes of technology.

I almost shudder to think of the consequences had we not gone down that path. We secured the future of our regional offices and staff. As a footnote, I should add that it still didn't stop one of our senior regional correspondents confronting me a few months later, in front of his colleagues, for not implementing the plan quite fast enough. It was one of the more bizarre moments.

The friendships I have struck up represent the highlights of my time here - and have also helped me to deepen my understanding and profound affection for the country and its people.

I suppose it's quite well-known that one of my closest friends is Marty Morrissey, and we shared some memorable times together. Marty has taken me down to Clare on many occasions, often staying with his wonderful mother Peggy. Trying to get from one end of Milltown Malbay to the other late at night during Willie Clancy week with Marty is quite a challenge, as we stop every few yards for another selfie with Marty. I have become quite a photographer. Marty's Clare friends have taken me out on a fishing boat; walked the cliffs of Kilkee and Moher; sang to me and even danced with me (somewhat embarrassingly). I have seen and been part of Irish life in Clare - a wonderful county full of the kindest and warmest people in the world.

And of course Marty introduced me to the world of GAA. Before I arrived in Ireland, the BBC's Fergal Keane advised me never to under-estimate the importance and the value of the GAA in Ireland. Wise words. I have sat with Marty as he commentated on GAA finals at Croke Park and I have learnt the unbelievable skill and courage of hurling and football. I have witnessed the devotion of the fans as they roar on their amateur heroes and I have seen how the GAA across the country is such an integral part of community life. I leave a converted fan - unable to call Premier League games football, correcting myself to "soccer".

One of the benefits of my job is the range of impressive people I have met across Irish life - so many of them living their lives with humility. A number of senior politicians across the parties who have fought a range of adversity to stand up for their beliefs - though I know it is unfashionable to say so. The wonderful Louise O'Keeffe in Cork who has become a role model for survivors of abuse; Emily Logan who fought so hard for children's rights and now human rights; Monsignor Eoin Thynne (now a close friend) who represents all that is best about the Church, now working with some real challenges in Mulhuddart; Philomena Lee - a remarkable woman of immense dignity and kindness despite everything. There are so many good and impressive people that the list could go on for weeks.

Of course there have been challenging times and individuals along the way. The use of the legal system by some of the powerful and rich to try to silence journalists has been an experience - and one that I am pleased that RTE has fought whether in high profile court cases or when pushing ahead with some of our investigative reports. The political pressure applied at times has been wearing - whether angry phone calls; hand-scrawled letters left on my desk; or organised abuse on social media. Not unexpected - just wearing. However, I should make it clear that in my time at RTE, the organisation has never been silenced or cowed by this kind of behaviour. If anything it was counter-productive and predictable and the journalists I was lucky enough to work with got on and did their jobs - focused on telling the stories accurately and fairly without favour. There's no doubt that the peak of the anger and pressures from all sides came during the water protests. Some, on both sides, felt we were unfair on them - and tried all sorts of techniques to pressurise us. Late on in the dispute, I commissioned some research about our coverage and found that the voices for and against had been 51pc-49pc over six months which wasn't too bad. One key for me was that the Director General of RTE, Noel Curran, was himself a great journalist and was always robust and resolute in defence of our journalism.

On a recent visit to Kerry, I was lucky enough to stay with a very good friend, Beirní, and visit her family farm. Beirní's brother, Sean took me up the local mountain with Billy the donkey and taught me how to cut turf (I'm afraid I still have a lot to learn). Amidst the overwhelming beauty of Kerry, I sat in the farmhouse afterwards talking to Beirní's mum Peig as we drank tea and ate homemade bread. Peig told me a little about her life: her time in London as a young woman just after the war working at a pub in Victoria; how she met her dear husband and how they brought up and fed their 10 children. I heard how Irish speakers in the local school had been looked down on by some of their English-speaking classmates and how poor so many families had been. As she sat beside her fireplace, Peig told me how life had changed for her and for women in Ireland - and overall how much better it was now. A beautiful, positive voice reflecting on the changes one life had seen.

Just outside Dingle, there is a Famine graveyard. It's thought that thousands of people are buried there in a simple field. There are still ruined stone houses dotted around West Kerry, abandoned by the families who died or were forced to flee overseas by starvation. I have read a great deal about the Famine since coming to Ireland: the terrible suffering and the unspeakable behaviour of the British government of the times. Memories of the Famine are just part of the weight that British visitors - and residents - bear in Ireland as descendants of a colonial power. As a keen student of history, it's something I have carried with me throughout. It's why I also felt a particular honour - and humility - to be invited to O'Connell Street for the 1916 State Commemorations and why it was uniquely special for me to be involved in planning and delivering RTE's coverage of the year of commemoration. It has been very moving to witness the considered reflection of that difficult period of history while at the same time to witness the continued warmth and closeness today of the relationship between Ireland and the UK. I sincerely hope that the recent Brexit vote will not undermine those hard-won close ties and friendship.

And so to death. When asked the biggest cultural difference between Ireland and the UK - this is it. In the UK, it can take two or three weeks to arrange a funeral. Most people are cremated, not buried. A big funeral would be 200 people. And if you turn up at a funeral - and didn't know the deceased - people would ask what on earth you were doing there. And you could easily go through life without ever seeing a dead person. So they do death differently there. My British friends were amazed to hear on occasion that I had spent a whole day attending a funeral or a removal here - simply because I knew the family. But I'd say death is done better in Ireland - it's real, it's respectful and it's truly part of life.

As I leave Dublin, the heavy traffic is back. Property is expensive again. Grafton Street is buzzing. Restaurants and hotels are booked out. The economic storm clouds have lifted and although challenges lie ahead, the country feels a different and a better place.

So, thank you Ireland for an incredible four years. I hope I've made a contribution. I leave looking forward to my new job in London but with a heavy heart. I leave knowing that I won't hear "thanks a million" for a while or "you're grand". But I leave knowing that I will forever be a voice for - and a friend of - the people of Ireland.

Go raibh mile maith agat agus adh mor.

Sunday Independent

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