Saturday 27 August 2016

Eoghan Harris: The hurt hits home when it is my own alma mater

Published 02/09/2012 | 05:00

IN MY line of work you can't be a wimp. My work is laying things on the line, long before saying them becomes popular or profitable. Like being fair to Brits, Northern Prods, Southern Prods who drew down the wrath of the Old IRA, the RIC, RUC and other outsiders.

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This has made me many political enemies. The Shinners are not the worst. The spiteful elements are armchair republicans, those who want to airbrush awkward moments in our history, and media hush puppies of many green hues.

Abusive attacks on me have been going on since 1972, first in Hibernia followed since by its successor, Phoenix. Time helps thicken your skin.

I have in the past been targeted by mainstream begrudgers -- for the crime

of being a premature pluralist. Professional peace processors avoid asking me to summer schools -- possibly because I know they played no real part.

But while I can shrug off the dents of the Dublin media, and the petty bile of the professors, the same

is not true of slights from my own city of Cork. As Dr Johnson observes "every man has a lurking wish to appear considerable in his native place".

So back in 2011, when Finola Doyle-O'Neill of the UCC School of History, who has no agenda against me, asked me to be a key speaker at a conference in that college in September 2012, to mark TV 50, I was considerably chuffed for two reasons.

First, UCC is my alma mater. I briefly tutored in the School of History. I was recruited to RTE by Liam O Murchu, partly because of an article I wrote in Irish on Sean South, for a college journal.

Second, I was suitably qualified to review RTE's past, present and future. As a producer in 7 Days and later in Feach, I had pioneered investigative journalism in English and Irish. By 1976, I had won two Jacobs Awards.

Furthermore, I had authored the critically acclaimed Greening of America, produced by John Kelleher, which also won a Jacobs Award and has a permanent place in New York's Museum of Broadcasting.

But I am also a critic of RTE's failings, particularly this year, in relation to Martin McGuinness, Gallaghergate and Fr Reynolds. So I was happy to hear from Ms Doyle-O'Neill on January 16, 2012 that all was well -- and asking me for help in another history project.

She wrote: "I'm looking forward to your talk on the 8th of September at UCC. However, it is with a different request that I now e-mail you. I am currently completing a book for Cork University Press on the role of Gay Byrne in popular culture. I would really appreciate your view on Byrne and perhaps some anecdotes/comments on the occasion(s) you may have appeared on either his Late Late Show or radio show and how these impacted on you and the public?"

In my reply, I recommended she speak to John Caden. For six months, I heard no more. Then on June 28 this year, out of the blue, Ms Doyle-O'Neill emailed me with some bad news.

She wrote: "Due to financial restraints, the television conference I was organising for Saturday 8 September 2012 is no longer viable in the format I had envisaged, largely due to a sponsorship agreement that has not materialised. I am truly sorry for the inconvenience caused and I hope to invite you to speak at a later stage when the climate is more propitious!"

Ms Finola Doyle-O'Neill then returned to the subject of her Gay Byrne book: "I am just completing a chapter of my book on Gay Byrne's interview with Gerry Adams and wondered if you had any current thoughts on that event? (I have kept some of your old newspaper articles commenting on this issue). Once again, my apologies."

From this, I formed the impression the conference had been either called off or scaled down because of "financial restraints". My one-line reply, of the same day, shows that I took the bad news stoically -- and promised to think about her Gay Byrne book: "That's ok, Finola. I'll have a think about the other thing."

But last Tuesday, I was taken aback when a colleague told me the conference was going ahead

-- and with a large panel of participants. Immediately I emailed Finola Doyle-O'Neill, and asked her why the "financial restraints" seemed to have restrained only me.

I wrote: "Apparently it is going ahead like any other conference, with a panel of expert speakers -- and I would certainly count as an expert speaker -- who it seems are not subject to the 'financial restraints' that caused you to cancel my attendance. Can you explain why I am not one of those speakers as discussed between us in emails as far back as 2011?"

Ms Doyle replied the next day, August 29, as follows "When we first discussed the conference and the possibility of your participation in it, the format was that of single speakers. As you know, it became necessary to look for a sponsoring partner and at one point it looked as if the conference might not happen. When we succeeded in involving RTE TV50 in discussions, the format changed; the greater part of the day became focused on thematic panel discussions."

But now to my surprise, Ms Doyle-O'Neill had belatedly found I could be squeezed into a panel.

She wrote: "However, in the last few days, we have expanded one of the panels to five speakers and so in line with that, I am delighted to have the opportunity to invite you to participate in the first panel of the day (11.45-13.15) on 'the Future of Broadcast Journalism -- A Blend of citizen voices with traditional reporting?' With Michael Lally, David McCullagh, Alison O'Connor and Kevin Rafter, chaired by Aine Lawlor."

In my reply, I first referred to the six months' silence between her January and June emails. "If the format had been changed meantime, from a single speaker to a panel, two questions arise. First, why was I not told of this? Second, why was I not invited to join a panel?"

I refused to take part on the new terms: "If I accepted such a tardy invite, I would be turning a blind eye to being shoddily treated by UCC, my old alma mater, in which I tutored in history for a time. I feel hurt and humiliated. I feel I deserved better from my old college. For shame."

University College Cork's motto is: 'Where Finbarr taught let Munster Learn.' From now on I will mentally add a question mark. So should you.

Sunday Independent

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