Monday 21 August 2017

Fights, camera, action: Vincent Browne calls it a day

Vincent Browne started his TV3 show a decade ago to ­lukewarm reviews. Bringing righteous ­indignation to a new pitch, his ­abrasive style won him many ­admirers and no shortage of ­adversaries - and now he is ­stepping down.

In the chair: Vincent Browne is quitting his TV3 show with a year left on his contract
In the chair: Vincent Browne is quitting his TV3 show with a year left on his contract
Vincent Browne during his newspaper days
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

It is hard to believe that it is almost a decade since Vincent Browne first got his teeth into politicians on his TV3 show. He has hardly loosened his grip since, but now he is finally bowing out at a time of his own choosing.

Who would have thought that a politics show in a graveyard slot on a station which was mostly known for soaps, reality shows about Bondi beach babes and soft-focus breakfast banter would last so long?

If Vincent had not arrived at TV3, many in the chattering classes might never have discovered the channel at all.

Browne went on air in January 2008, with a style of presentation that would be familiar to anyone who has watched the show since then.

Vincent Browne during his newspaper days
Vincent Browne during his newspaper days

A hapless Fine Gael senator Eugene Regan was on the panel to debate the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's finances.

But as soon as the conversation started, Regan himself became the target of the Browne hairdryer treatment, and was blasted with an unexpected volley of questions about why he himself had spent €45,000 on a local election campaign.

Regan was flummoxed as Browne kicked on: "Whatever else the Taoiseach is accused of, he never bought an election, unlike you!"

There may have been fireworks, but some of the early reviews of the show, then known as Nightly News with Vincent Browne were decidedly lukewarm.

Although he praised Browne's forensic skills, Eoghan Harris of The Sunday Independent complained of a set that "looks like a bordello". And Liam Fay in the Sunday Times suggested the show was "high on righteous indignation", and like "Prime Time on a particularly bad night".

The "gnawing on a leg" style of interviewing has continued ever since that first show.

As one embattled guest put it, the ideal scenario on the show is that panellists have a row with each other.

If that does not materialise, one of the guests becomes the designated fall guy or fall girl, and Vincent pursues them relentlessly, before harrumphing as he gives up, complaining that they have not answered the question.

Perfect timing

The beginning back in 2008 may have been inauspicious, and many might have expected the presenter to hop off to another media project within a few months.

After all, Eamon Dunphy's Friday night chatshow on the same channel had only lasted for three months in 2003 before it was axed.

But Browne's timing was perfect. He started his stint just as the economic clouds were darkening at the end of the Celtic Tiger era.

Within months, Bertie had gone, the economy had crashed, banks went bust and the national debt spiralled out of control.

The viewing public were in a mood to see politicians kicked around, and bankers savaged, as a scary form of late-night entertainment.

If things seemed bad, and the country seemed down in the dumps, Vincent and assorted dystopian, stony-faced economists offered reassurance that they could only get a lot worse.

After watching one show in 2010, with the usual jeremiads from pundits, I was so frightened that I went down to an ATM and took out €100. I was convinced that the banks would be closed in the morning.

In the early years, you could still see ministers being grilled on the show to the delectation of viewers. And several times they lost their temper.

Fianna Fáil minister Conor Lenihan was beside himself with fury at a suggestion that he might be motivated by self-interest. "It's easy for you to be cynical about people who go into public life, and I really do resent the sneering insinuation that you're trying to put to me," he stormed.

Browne snapped back: "Conor, you're not going to shout me down and you can take me full-on on this if you like!"

An air of unpredictability

Joan Burton accused him of haranguing her in one panel discussion in 2011. She said afterwards she had been interrupted 52 times, and accused him of "bullying and hectoring" and "verging on sexism". Browne said he was surprised by the accusation.

Without the restraints imposed on RTÉ broadcasters, Browne's show had an air of unpredictability that made it compelling viewing for a time.

It popularised such hitherto alien concepts as "burning the bondholders".

In its heyday, viewing figures were over 160,000, a healthy number for a late-night slot.

Paul Moran, who monitors viewing figures for the ad placement company Mediaworks, says the ratings have fallen back in recent years to between 40,000 and 70,000.

Moran says the show was at its peak of popularity during the recession when Browne was in his element.

"It was ideal territory for him because he was shooting from the hip. He was regularly the voice of the angry public.

"On other channels, presenters had to walk a more cautious line."

Browne has suggested in the past that his show has had no effect on politics, but it did exert some electoral influence along the leafier lanes of South Dublin.

The late banking analyst Peter Mathews made his name appearing as a pundit on the show, and was elected for Fine Gael in South Dublin in 2011.

It is hard to countenance now, but Browne was once a leading young activist in Fine Gael. He was chairman of Young Fine Gael in 1968, and worked on the party's education policy.

Browne was drawn to the "Just Society" liberal wing of the party at the time.

But an article in Hibernia magazine noted at the time that because of his occasional denouncements of Fine Gael policy, "his relations with the party are not always cordial".

Browne became a household name through his journalism and publishing ventures such as Magill and The Sunday Tribune. But as late as 1994, there were still reports that he might run in Dáil or European elections for Fine Gael, but ultimately he never pursued a political career.

One of his friends and former colleagues says: "Normally it happens the other way round, but Vincent has become more left wing as he has got older - and more anti-establishment."

A hard taskmaster

He appears to be a man rife with contradictions. Although he is a genuine champion of the working class, he could be a remarkably hard taskmaster, who his own workers and junior colleagues have not found easy to work with.

On the other hand, many of his past colleagues are full of admiration.

A friend of his says: "He is difficult to work with. He can be vicious, but I have seen a side of him that seldom gets any attention.

"He can be kind-hearted and does a lot of work for charitable organisations, and spends his free time trying to help people."

Admirers who worked for him say he has always been volatile, but also a great motivator who demanded high standards.

He has paid tribute to TV3 for giving him an extraordinary amount of leeway.

He said recently of the station: "There's no interference here. They don't have a hand-wringing committee to discuss which insult to the ­establishment has been perpetrated the night before."

There is no doubt that he brought attention to issues that were not aired elsewhere, such as the effect of austerity on marginalised groups.

And he never lost his knack for theatrical histrionics, which received a global airing when he seized the microphone and ambushed Klaus Masuch, a top official at the European Central Bank, at a press conference in 2012.

But over time, senior politicians got wise to him and avoided appearing on the show. Why drive out to Ballymount to be eviscerated by Vincent at an ungodly hour, when you could deliver your message without hindrance to a much larger audience on RTÉ's Prime Time?

Fine Gael does not put up heavyweights on the show any more, but relies on stolid junior figures, skilled at talking down the clock

As one commentator put it: "Combative makes for great TV, but when you row with everyone, or just wearily dismiss them out of hand, you start to run out of guests."

Over time, the show garnered less attention, and the ratings fell, but Paul Moran says this may have been down to his regular absence through illness.

The presenter has struggled with health problems for three years, suffering from bronchitis and a bout of pneumonia.

He has decided to give up the show with a year still to run on his contract after he was advised by doctors to avoid undue stress.

He thanked TV3 this week for "rescuing me from a financial crisis - all of my own making".

Browne lost up to €1.8m on his last publishing venture, The Village, and as a result had to sell his home overlooking the sea in Dalkey for €2.6m. He now lives not far away in Dún Laoghaire with his wife Jean. The couple have two grown-up daughters.

While his rage is public property, he has said that anger has never been a factor in his life outside work.

"I have never been angry with my daughters, for example." Occasionally, he said, he had to pretend to be angry with them for parenting purposes.

The latest accounts for his company show that he can finally look forward to his retirement with a measure of financial stability. He is back in the black and made an annual profit of €237,000.

His adversaries, including politicians, may also look forward to his retirement and wish him well, if only because they will no longer have to feel the lacerating sharpness of his tongue... for now, at any rate.

@KimBielenberg

Browne’s bust-ups

BEADES BOG STANDARD

Browne clashed with Jerry Beades of the New Land League on the show, telling him repeatedly to “shut up” after Mr Beades described solicitor Brian O’Donnell’s lavish Gorse Hill home in Killiney as “bog standard”.

Browne later asked Mr Beades to “just leave if you’re not going to stop talking”.

SOCKING IT TO THE ECB

Browne took on Klaus Masuch, a top official in the European Central Bank in 2012. Masuch had made a somewhat patronising comment about how a taxi driver on the way from the airport was well-­informed about financial matters.

Browne responded by asking if he knew  Irish people were bewildered about having to pay unguaranteed bondholders billions of euro.

He then said: “You’ve nothing to say. There’s no answer, is that right? Is that it? No answer?”

HARANGUING JOAN BURTON IN 2011

Vincent: “You people come on and say things when you know it isn’t true.”

Joan: “Are you going to talk for the whole programme? Or am I, as an invited guest, going to be allowed to answer questions?”

FIONNÁN SHEAHAN AND THE ANGLO TAPES

Fionnán Sheahan, who was then political editor of the Irish Independent, was on to discuss the paper’s exclusive stories about the Anglo Tapes. But Vincent started with an adversarial line of questioning, querying how long the paper had held on to the tapes. “Vincent, you spend so much time showing your bias towards Independent Newspapers, it’s getting sickening… Can you not just acknowledge it’s a good story and move on? Is that too much for you? Is it?”

SQUARING UP TO CONOR LENIHAN

The Fianna Fáil minister exploded  at a suggestion that he might be motivated by self-interest. “It’s easy for you to be cynical,” he said.

Browne snapped back: “Conor, you’re not going to shout me down and you can take me full-on on this if you like!”

HIT THE ROAD JACK

Siptu general president Jack O’Connor (above) walked off the show in 2015 after the discussion became heated, citing the lack of union recognition at the broadcaster.

As he walked off set, Browne called after him: “Okay, good luck Jack. Quite a stunt isn’t it. Well done Jack. It’s impressive, isn’t it?”

The show was later brought to a close to the sound of the Ray Charles song, ‘Hit the Road Jack’.

PHIL HOGAN AND THE F-BOMB

In a discussion about Irish Water last year, Browne referred to Phil Hogan: “And the fella who made the real cock up is given promotion to the European Commission. It’s f***ing ama... sorry, it’s amazing.”

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