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Tuesday 16 September 2014

Eoghan Harris: Poor Marian was perilously close to a Pee Flynn moment

Published 08/08/2010 | 05:00

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Timothy with his twin brother Nicky who died in the 1979 atrocity, on Classiebawn Beach, Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, in 1973

MANY years ago I gave Marian Finucane her first broadcasting break. In sundry interviews over the years she generously acknowledged this without amendment. Last week, however, at the start of a major interview with Kathy Sheridan of The Irish Times, she suddenly recalled that she had retrospective issues with me.

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The context was Finucane's admission that in her early days she had had more positive experiences with male executives than female ones. Sheridan prompted her to amplify this: "And wasn't it a man, Eoghan Harris (now a senator) who facilitated her break into television?"

Finucane suddenly had second thoughts: "It was," she says, although recalling it with less warmth than one might expect. "Because then he annoyed me for years. He used to imply that I was a fellow traveller of the IRA, which used to drive me insane. Absolutely unbelievable stuff."

Absolutely unbelievable stuff is right. For two reasons. Because while I was perfectly capable of annoying broadcasters I felt were soft on Sinn Fein during the dark days of the armed struggle, I can categorically say that I never put Finucane into this category. Furthermore, if I had given her a hard time I am certain she would have mentioned it in earlier interviews, including those with The Irish Times.

Finucane is no fool. And very media savvy. Facing an interview with the The Irish Times, there was a strong likelihood she would be asked about her controversial salary of €570,000 a year for four hours work a week. She would also be aware that there is no love lost between myself and Kathy Sheridan of The Irish Times -- a fine journalist but one with whom I have crossed swords in this column.

Sheridan is a player in what I call Team Irish Times, a small group of staffers on that paper who for the past few years have been sniping at the Sunday Independent. This would only make sense if we were commercial rivals. But as The Irish Times is a daily and the Sunday Independent is a weekly, there is no commercial basis for a sniping campaign.

Accordingly I can only conclude that Team Irish Times think it is conducting some kind of culture war. It is true that from time to time I take Fintan O'Toole to task, as I do now by deploring his including the closing down of Frank Connolly's Centre for Public Inquiry in the long list of political crimes he laid at the door of Michael McDowell last week.

But even if there were a bit of coat-trailing on Sheridan's part, why did Finucane suddenly recall something she had never mentioned before -- that I "annoyed" her about her alleged IRA sympathies? Attempting to answer this I reviewed my past writings. Because if I believed Finucane was soft on Sinn Fein I would certainly have raised it in one of my columns over the past 20 years.

But I could only find two columns which seriously took Finucane to task, and neither had anything to do with the IRA. The first was in 1998 when a farmer in Cork came up to a Dutch woman out walking with her child and their pet dog, and blew the little dog to bits with his shotgun on the grounds that it might worry his sheep. Later I criticised Finucane for, in my view, showing too much sympathy with the sheep side of the story.

The second was four years ago when I criticised the panels on her Sunday show for being excessively PC. The following week Finucane had her old friend, PR man James Morrissey, on to the Sunday show panel where he launched a long attack on me. And I admit I felt betrayed when Finucane laughed supportively and made no attempt to protect me in my absence.

Against that background I take her belated accusations about my "annoying" her with a grain of salt. Someone as media-sensitive as Marian Finucane would be well aware that anything negative she had to say about me would not only suit Team Irish Times, but they would also go down well in certain radical chic circles in RTE radio with whom I have been at war since 1987.

In November of 1987, at a trade union meeting, a majority of radio producers sidelined a motion condemning the Enniskillen bombing. This led to my resignation from my trade union. Later still I circulated RTE production staff with a polemic called Television and Terrorism, defending Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act which kept Provo propaganda off the air.

None of this made me popular in certain RTE radio circles. This may account for the fact that while I am sometimes asked on to RTE television shows, I am seldom asked to comment on current affairs on RTE radio. And while I write most weeks about media, I have never been invited on to Finucane's Sunday show -- although the panel is sometimes so soporifically PC it could do with someone like me to give it a good shake.

But despite this background, I believe Finucane's dig at me had nothing to do with politics. Looked at objectively, the main outcome of Finucane's dig at me was to serve as a distraction from the meat of any such interview -- what many see as Finucane's excessively fat salary and excessively short working week.

Finucane earns €570,000 a year for a four-hour working week. That's a lot of money for a little work. By and large, Sheridan gave her a soft ride in dealing with it, tacking the sensitive subject on to the end of an otherwise overwhelmingly positive profile.

But when Sheridan finally got around to asking her subject what she did from Monday to Friday, Finucane's "sigh of resignation" showed that her sense of entitlement had brought her perilously close to having a Pee Flynn foot-in-mouth moment.

Even more disturbingly, we found out that Finucane spends her working week at home, Monday to Friday, listening to RTE radio. In short, Finucane spends her week listening to her friends. And that can't be good. Not for us, and not for her.

Last week, if Finucane had listened to Sean Moncrieff's excellent programme on Newstalk, like I do, she would have heard an expert on mental ageing argue that as we advance into middle age, we should try to meet people who challenge our assumptions.

* * *

Last Sunday night, a post-match crowd of melancholy people made their way to the conference hall of the Malton Hotel, Killarney. But pride was restored when Jimmy O'Brien of Killarney sang The Boys of Barr na Sraide as all ballads should be sung -- with the words taking top billing.

And any remaining dark clouds were dispelled when Peadar O Riada and Sean O Se led Cor Cuil Aodha and Sean O Riada's old veterans of Ceolteoiri Cualann on to the stage. As we watched these grey heads bend over bodhran and bones, fiddle and flute, and as we watched Peadar play what his father played 40 years ago, we knew what Wordsworth meant when he spoke of thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Sunday Independent

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