City struggles to repair damage of DJ's inflight antics
Neil Prendeville's bizarre behaviour was a disaster for his native Cork, writes Ralph Riegel
Published 14/11/2010 | 05:00
THE whistle-stop trip to London was supposed to be all about celebrating the new-found tourism fame of Ireland's second city.
Included on Lonely Planet's list of 'top 10 cities', Cork wanted its achievement recognised internationally -- and what better way to do it than by bringing some of the city's highest-profile politicians, tourism officials and journalists to one of London's most famous eateries, Richard Corrigan's Bentleys.
Unfortunately, the trip made headlines for all the wrong reasons and, thanks to 96FM broadcaster Neil Prendeville's astonishing in-flight indiscretion, now ranks as one of the most notorious Irish junkets ever mounted.
Having exposed himself and then masturbated under an in-flight magazine, the €150,000-a-year broadcaster is now battling to save both his career with the UTV-owned Cork station and his reputation. The 49-year old father of two boasts an audience of 100,000-plus for his morning chat show and, over the past 21 years, has established himself as one of the dominant broadcasters outside Dublin.
He has a weekly column with a Cork freesheet, hosts his own political show on cable TV and has a 50pc stake in a Cork restaurant, the Boardwalk Grill. His profile is further enhanced by the fact that his wife, Paula Lenihan, is the editorial director of Ireland's hugely successful social magazine RSVP.
Within the next fortnight, Mr Prendeville will be asked to attend Togher Garda Station to be questioned following receipt of a complaint from air stewardesses about his behaviour on that October 19 Heathrow-Cork flight.
His sex act dominated Irish newspapers for eight successive days and was the focus of lengthy interviews in Cork's Evening Echo newspaper last Monday and Tuesday as the star attempted to rally his fans and ensure a return to the airwaves.
His lewd act sparked a flood of conspiracy theories about why Aer Lingus didn't have the broadcaster arrested on arrival at Cork Airport and what could possibly have led him to engage in such bizarre behaviour.
Last weekend, the banner headlines proclaimed: "I never took drugs" as the broadcaster desperately attempted to nip in the bud the rumours that were swirling around internet chat-rooms about the real reason for his bizarre actions.
Ryanair -- never found wanting when it comes to putting the boot in on a rival -- placed advertisements in national newspapers, gleefully highlighting Aer Lingus's high fares and the nature of some of its customers.
The controversy undoubtedly reached a nadir for Cork's most talked-about talk show host when Joe Duffy and RTE's Liveline had a phone-in about the Ryanair advert and the incident.
Rewind back to 4pm on October 19 and the delegation leaving Cork Airport bound for London blissfully had no inkling of the maelstrom that was to come.
The trip was organised by the Cork Convention Bureau (CCB) and was led by CCB director and hotelier, Seamas Heaney. It was supported by Tourism Ireland and involved the Cork delegation rushing from Heathrow to Bentley's Restaurant in Piccadilly Circus, where 50 key British travel agents and writers were being regaled about the merits of Leeside.
At Bentley's, chef Richard Corrigan's Irish connections were being lauded by Cork's Lord Mayor Michael O'Connell, and the Mayor of Co Cork Jim Daly.
The CCB delegation, led by Mr Heaney, also featured Mr Prendeville and Irish Examiner business journalist Niamh Hennessy.
Mr Prendeville last week revealed that en route to Bentley's from Cork Airport, he had consumed a quantity of alcohol and some painkillers.
"We were at the airport early in Cork and I had three pints of Guinness. I then had two small bottles of wine on the plane and three bottle of Stella (Artois lager) in the restaurant, along with more wine," he said.
"I had not eaten all day. I don't eat carbs and I have had a rapid weight loss. The food was only coming out as we were leaving the restaurant," he said.
The broadcaster had taken the painkillers before he left Cork for a persistent neck problem.
Mr Prendeville said he had no recollection of travelling back to Heathrow or of boarding the flight. He similarly has no memory of events on the flight itself.
However, he acknowledged that he had since been informed by other individuals on the trip that he then had another drink at Heathrow while waiting for the Cork departure, which had been delayed by about 30 minutes.
"I do not remember anything about the bar in the airport," he said.
Mr Prendeville also has no recollection of how he later got from Cork Airport back to his Douglas home.
He said he felt it was unfair to blame the painkiller he consumed -- Nurofen Plus -- for the apparent blackout and that he had never intended for the name of the painkiller to be publicly released.
In a subsequent telephone voice message left for the female passenger who sat beside him on the flight, he named Nurofen as he apologised for any offence that he may have caused.
The following day, October 20, Mr Prendeville was on air with 96 FM and hailed the trip, stressing that it was a great to see Cork and local tourism being promoted. There was no reference to any whiff of controversy.
The following week, he and his family jetted off to Morocco for a mid-term sunshine break. However, "the pretty good life" that the presenter acknowledged he enjoyed was slowly starting to unravel as word began to seep out about his in-flight actions.
Initially, many who heard the story dismissed it as too incredible to be true.
On Thursday, October 28, several newspapers and media outlets -- including the Sunday Independent -- began checking rumours about the story. Aer Lingus denied any knowledge.
"We have no report of such an incident," a spokesperson for the airline said.
However, word of the media inquiries soon filtered out to Morocco and the broadcaster was shocked at the nature of the story that was now being pursued.
By Tuesday, November 2 -- two weeks after the original incident -- the Irish Examiner contacted Mr Prendeville to say it was going to run the story, having learned that Aer Lingus security had completed its investigation into the matter and would be forwarding a complaint to gardai.
The story exploded onto a shocked city and nation the following day, November 3, and at 9am 96 FM opened its morning news bulletin with a deeply emotional recording from the station's star broadcaster. He said: "I wish to confirm that I did travel on the flight in question. I was asked to go to London to give a speech at a convention and I had taken three pain-killing tablets before I left Cork.
"I remember being in the restaurant. I remember giving the speech. I remember being outside the restaurant and talking to some other people," Mr Prendeville explained.
"I know that I arrived there by train and by taxi and I do not recall how I got back to the airport. But I did get back to the airport and I did travel on the flight in question.
"Because of a persistent neck injury, I did take those painkillers again prior to boarding the plane, along with alcohol while at the restaurant. As a result, I remember absolutely nothing about the flight itself or even coming through the airport or how I got home.
"If the reports are true -- and I cannot deny that they are not, because I just don't recall -- then I would like to take this opportunity to offer my deepest apologies to the passengers on the plane, to the flight personnel, to my family, to my employers and my work colleagues and to all the people of Cork. I apologise unreservedly to all concerned."
Within 24 hours and amid a media furore, the broadcaster fled his Douglas home along with his wife and children and took refuge at the Wicklow home of his friend and solicitor Gerald Kean.
The next eight days were an orgy of news stories, commentary pieces, radio updates and hard-hitting profiles.
On November 6, Mr Prendeville gave his first interviews about the controversy for the Sunday newspapers. He attempted to strike a contrite, apologetic and humble tone. He even said that he had contemplated suicide.
His subsequent interview on Monday was, if anything, even harder-hitting -- directly and emphatically addressing the rumours about his drug use and confirming that he had undertaken a toxicology test to prove his case.
The test -- the results could be available this week -- can show up any traces of specific substances in the human system dating back over the previous three months.
"It is all very upsetting because it is not true -- I have never taken cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, nothing," he said.
"I yearn for things to be the way they were. The children have been very good. I hope that they will be okay and I hope that people will be kind to them," he said.
"It was a pretty good life and it is pretty sad to have messed all that up," he said.
In Cork, they look on it as a kind of disaster for the city and region. After all, this was a high-profile showcasing event by the great and good. The whole idea was to have people talking about all that was best from their city.
Their merchants and their politicians had all put a lot of work into making sure that they put their best face forward. Mr Prendeville and his wife are an integral part of Cork high society.
As a well-known restaurateur and successful broadcaster, Mr Prendeville was just the kind of charismatic and articulate voice that Corkonians wanted to be heard outside the southern capital.
Instead, they are now moaning into their pink gins in the yacht clubs and asking themselves how it all went so horribly wrong, how one inexplicable moment of madness by one of their brightest lights sent them back to the drawing board -- and desperately wondering how they can erase an indelible image.