Dissenting Village voice says Browne has failed
One of Ireland's most prominent journalists faces stinging criticism from a former backer, says Daniel McConnell
Veteran TV3 broadcaster Vincent Browne has throughout his long career demonstrated an ability to convince leading businessmen to part with significant sums of money to fund his journalistic enterprises.
The stubborn, short-tempered, and sometime irrational Browne (all words he used to describe himself) has somehow managed to wrangle millions from businessmen like Tony Ryan to prop up his various struggling publications along the way.
This weekend, one of those businessmen has launched a scathing attack on TV3's most recognisable news anchor, and the manner in which he has run his troubled Village magazine, casting real doubt over its very existence.
Environmentalist and businessman Michael Smith, said to have lost over €250,000 through his involvement in Village, has in his new blog launched this weekend, delivered a bruising sideswipe to Browne, now aged 63, his former friend and colleague.
In his cutting online article, Smith, who was originally named as a director of Village Communications Ltd along with Browne and his wife Jean, said: "Vincent is a charming guy, but sadly the magazine is badly edited, suffocatingly Gramsciite and has been the failure everyone I ever asked always smirkingly said it would be.
"It hasn't really broken a single notable story in its three and a half years -- Vincent gets very annoyed if you say this! Often, there's no carry-through on what the headline suggests lies below and too much leading material is dyspeptic rehashings of old material, usually about the big male beasts in our society such as Tony O'Reilly or Michael McDowell."
Smith continued: "Sometimes too -- as with Charlie and Bertie -- Vincent tellingly feels he has to publish endless nonsense about what nice fellas they are underneath it, as if that mattered in determining corruption in public life. The only reason you could forgive all this is that he did once introduce Frank Dunlop to his radio audience with the phrase: 'You're some little bollix, aren't you?' "
Smith also said he was left with no option but to resign from the company. He concluded his piece about his departure from the magazine by claiming he is not bitter about the whole thing.
"I'd intended to write more for the magazine and to be centrally involved in editorial decisions and management. But that was as unrealistic as anyone out-spleening (Vincent Browne) on his radio show! And so I'll leave Village to Vincent and get on with something else myself that encourages people to break news: wiser, not bitter and with a sense of summer-morning birdsong after gentle rain."
Village has had a rocky road since its launch in 2004, when Browne and Smith both invested heavily in the new project. Smith's share was 25 per cent with Browne controlling the majority share.
It began its life as a weekly commentary and boasted a healthy flock of writers including former Irish Times editor and now Garda Ombudsman commissioner Conor Brady, and John Waters. However, problems quickly arose amid talk of low sales. Waters left after a row with Browne over getting paid. The package was reduced in size to deal with mounting losses. It posted a loss of almost a €1m in its first year of operation. In September 2006, Irish Independent reporter Justine McCarthy joined Village as a investigative specialist but left very soon after to join the Sunday Tribune.
Then came the clearest sign of problems. In January 2007, Village announced that it was ceasing publication as a weekly and moving to a less costly monthly publishing schedule. The magazine was reduced to a skeleton staff.
Further woe was to beset Village when, in September last year, several key directors including Smith, managing editor Sara Burke, and Barbara Nugent, resigned.
They were replaced by Emma Browne, Vincent's daughter, who became secretary of the company.
Alarmingly, the consultants who conducted the annual audits on Village magazine's accounts resigned on October 22, with immediate effect. To date, according to Companies Registration Office records, no replacement auditors have yet been appointed.
Village Communications Ltd has yet to produce annual returns for last year, despite being legally obliged to do so. It was due to file accounts on July 22, 2007 but nothing has been filed to date. Currently facing almost €800 in late penalties, striking off proceedings will commence if the accounts are not produced to the Companies Registration Office by this July.
In his blog this weekend, Smith called into question Browne's management style and said he had to resign from the company after Browne refused to furnish accounts to him. "The management of the magazine owes little to the business manuals: it is an unorthodox, if beguiling, mixture of turmoil, spit and whirlwind.
"There has never been a strategy so, of course, the point of the magazine has never been clear; and it has lost a lot of money -- mostly Vincent's, but also I regret to say, roughly in proportion to my 25 per cent stake (and Neanderthal stupidity), mine.
"I don't know how much money it has now lost as I've long since stopped funding it, and Vincent has refused to furnish accounts despite a dozen letters, some of a legal nature."
Smith then accused Browne of giving contradictory reports about the accounts and said, if he does not furnish them soon, he will seek to wind up the company.
"If he does not furnish the accounts soon I will seek the winding up of the company and the real story of Village will be told. Perhaps it could be made into a short movie."
Smith's stinging criticisms of Browne's management style would be a small matter if they were the first of their kind during the veteran's long but mixed career. Sadly for Browne, the multiple crises facing Village have dogged him at almost every stage of his publishing career.
Browne responded to Smith's criticisms in a statement issued yesterday to the Sunday Independent.
"I agree with a lot of what Michael says about Village and disagree with some," he wrote. "I am hardly objective in assessing what he says about me, but my instinctive response is that he is probably too kind.
"Re: the Village accounts, yes, we have had problems with our accounts. When an experienced and capable person, who had been dealing with our accounts, left the company in July 2006, we (rather I) made a number of successive mistakes in appointing replacements.
"Happily, the position is now resolved and we will be sending our audited accounts for 2006 and 2007 to the companies office in the next two weeks. This will show substantial loses for 2006 and a significant turnaround for 2007. We expect to make profits in 2008.
"In recognition of my deficiencies in management and my difficulties in giving sufficient time to management because of my other commitments, we recently have appointed a new managing director, Tom Vavasour."
In 1982, Browne and Ryanair founder Tony Ryan got together to discuss the issue of relaunching the Sunday Tribune. Ryan was willing to fund the loss-making enterprise for a while, but quickly tired of Browne's antics and pulled the plug in 1984.
When Ryan died, Browne wrote about the turbulence that defined their working relationship: "Tony Ryan and I fought almost right from the beginning. It didn't quite come to fisticuffs, aside from one occasion when a blow was struck."
At the beginning of the Sunday Tribune mark two, Browne was assuming the combined roles of editor, managing director and financial controller, but was struggling to cope.
One journalist at the time recalled Browne's running of the newspaper: "The Sunday Tribune is like Dallas, except that Browne's editorial style is like JR, and his business acumen is closer to that of Cliff Barnes."
In all, Ryan lost about £600,000 during his association with the Tribune, and Browne never reimbursed him.
Deciding to cut his losses, Ryan decided to sign his half-a-million-pound (essentially worthless) share to Browne, who convinced his friend and USIT travel company head Gordon Colleary to subsidise the paper until Independent Newspapers bought a minority share.
Another benefactor Martin Naughton of Glen Dimplex is known to have also sunk in excess of £1m into the Sunday Tribune, which he never recouped. The paper continued to run at a loss, as it still does today, with INM covering the shortfalls.
One businessman, who had dealings with Browne, said: "Vincent Browne is like a patient with bulimia -- he gorges everything you have to give him and then he vomits it all over you."
Browne eventually lost his job as editor of the Sunday Tribune in 1994, after the debacle of the Dublin Tribune, which almost dragged the Sunday Tribune down with it. Contrary to advice that the Dublin newspaper wouldn't survive, Browne ploughed on and fell on his sword amid much mud-slinging and bitterness.
In 1997, he relaunched the famous Magill magazine, first launched 20 years previously, and which had ultimately failed. He later sold the struggling new Magill and continued with his column in The Irish Times and his RTE radio programme.
Facing into another financial abyss yet again, the dark shadow of closure hangs over another Vincent Browne publication.