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Saturday 25 February 2017

Bird's-eye view reveals the stories behind the headlines

LARA BRADLEY LOOKING over his shoulder day and night, searching the bushes near his home and checking strange cars in the street, Charlie Bird was not being paranoid - he really was being followed.

But those in pursuit were not any of the numerous criminals or shadowy political figures that have been exposed by his reporting over the years - Mr Bird was being hunted by photographers desperate to snatch a picture of him with an alleged lover.

Two years after discovering the now defunct Ireland on Sunday (IoS) had placed him under surveillance, Mr Bird has finally broken his silence on his horror at becoming the subject of a media story rather than the conduit for it.

And after 25 years of bringing the news to the nation, RTE's chief news reporter has given a fascinating glimpse into his personal life and revealed the stories behind the headlines in his autobiography, This Is Charlie Bird, to be released this week.

In an extract, published exclusively today in the Sunday Independent's magazine, LIFE, Mr Bird admits "the irony" that he had a hidden camera strapped to his chest and was about to secretly film an illegal gaming arcade when he first heard that IoS photographers were sneaking around his home hoping to snatch a picture of the RTE man romancing a lover.

He said: "I spent the following couple of days in a blind panic. In the morning I would look out the windows to see if anyone was hiding in the bushes. I would repeat the exercise at night-time, even walking down the cul-de-sac where I lived to check if any strange cars were around. I asked the staff at my local pub if anyone had called in asking questions about me."

Mr Bird and his wife, Mary O'Connor, had split in 1998 after a 24-year marriage.

He said: "We had many happy years together as a couple and as a family. While I had always admitted that my marriage had ended, I had never discussed the details publicly. I have long been wary of that section of themedia which profits fromsalacious gossip., Mr Bird admits he later had a relationship with Carole Coleman that "lasted for several years, even after Carole moved to the US as RTE's Washington correspondent". But the affair was long over and Mr Bird was single when he discovered he was being tailed by photographers.

It turned out the British-owned tabloid paper believed Mr Bird was "close to a Government press officer" and, while this was totally untrue, they ran the story anyway.

Mr Bird contacted the newspaper's editor, Paul Drury, to demand a clarification and to ask that the photographers be called off, but was stunned to be told there was no guarantee that he wouldn't be followed again, because far from being just the ordinary journalist he believed himself to be, Mr Drury told Mr Bird: "Charlie, you're a personality and who you are going out with is news."

One of the scoops that catapulted Mr Bird from regular newsman to 'personality' was his interview with Jim Monaghan of the Colombia Three after the trio's controversial return to Ireland.

Envious journalists wondered how Mr Bird had landed such an exclusive. The answer lies in a note sent four years earlier by Niall Connolly from his prison cell in Bogota, bizarrely, on September 11, 2001.

It said: "Dear Charlie, Sorry we won't be able to do an interview as the time is not right. If you get a chance could you send in three jumpers, as it's very cold, and phone cards. Thanks. Slan, Niall Connolly."

Mr Bird did as he was asked, even throwing in his own new fleece for good measure, and four years later "the IRA said thanks" by bundling him blindfolded into a van and granting him a 12-minute interview with Mr Monaghan.

One of the best-known faces on RTE, Mr Bird recalls his front-line coverage of major domestic and world events and provides a few behind-the-scenes laughs. Once referred to as Charlie Haughey's favourite reporter, he tells how a family of ducks passing during an interview resulted in a most unusual gift from the former Taoiseach.

"'Have you ever eaten duck, Mr Bird,' he asked. I said I had not. 'Well, I have some ducks in Kinsealy. I'll send you one,' he responded. I thought no more of the remark as we recorded the interview.

"A week later, however, one of Haughey's staff approached me in Leinster House. 'I've something for you,' the Fianna Fail press officer said. I was handed a bag with a dead duck inside. Haughey had been as good as his word."

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