Like all bullies, Vincent Browne can give it out but he just can't take it
Published 05/08/2013 | 05:00
'THAT man can just ruin your reputation." Future President Michael D Higgins' nervous comment to me about a decade ago following an appearance on Vincent Browne's old RTE radio show, where he was mischievously harassed by the presenter, often puzzled me.
I have never really taken Browne that seriously. His shows tend to be as much about pantomime as pragmatism.
The image of the searching journalist haranguing guests for the answers is at odds with the reality of a man who can't handle being challenged himself.
He dishes it out, but cannot accept it himself.
Over the past 10 years, I have been a regular contributor on the RTE radio and TV3 shows, both titled 'Tonight with Vincent Browne'.
In that time I have taken the verbal blows, the sideswipes, the criticism and the often unfair targeting from Browne.
It goes with the territory.
I never complained about how I was treated on his programmes.
I still have never complained about how I have been treated.
If you are going to give it, then you have got to take it.
I am used to his tactics at this stage, so I often find him predictable.
But I did complain to TV3 about the treatment of my colleague Fiach Kelly, when on his first appearance on the show he was stitched up and subjected to one of Browne's tirades for 20 minutes.
TV3's head of news Andrew Hanlon admitted to an Irish Independent executive that the behaviour of Browne was unacceptable but said he had no control over the host – an astonishing admission from the man who was supposed to be Browne's boss.
That was that, though, and TV3 had actually asked me to be one of the guest presenters during Browne's absence, stemming from the fact that I had stood up to him on shows and subjected the presenter to questioning.
Some weeks after the Kelly incident, I was on the Browne show to talk about the Anglo Tapes revelations in the Irish Independent.
The previous weekend, I was delegated by the Editor-In-Chief, Stephen Rae, to contact RTE, Newstalk and TV3 and tell them what was coming.
Given the competitive nature of the market, it is pretty much unprecedented for a media organisation to tell others about an exclusive, 72 hours before publication.
But the Irish Independent had confidence in the material that was to prove so sensational and provoke worldwide reaction.
TV3 raised no concerns about the tapes.
The station was provided with exclusive pictures and video by this newspaper to assist their coverage.
Before the show began, Browne asked the three panellists – Constantin Gurdgiev, Ian Kehoe and I – if there was anything he needed to discuss before playing the tapes.
Kehoe suggested the €1.5bn of deposits per day leaving Anglo at the time, and I said the timing ahead of the bank guarantee.
I thought I was going to be asked about the Anglo Tapes – one of the stories of the decade, which offered the public an insight into the banking crisis.
As soon as the show went live, Browne immediately adopted a negative tone, began one of his typical auld hokum conspiracies about the length of time Independent Newspapers had the tapes and launched into one of his amateur-hour ambushes on me.
I was not going to put up with it.
Actually, I was initially quite taken aback.
Any idiot could see that the Anglo Tapes revelations took months of careful, painstaking and difficult research to put together.
The resulting exchange has generated quite a bit of traffic on YouTube as the bully was put in his place for once.
"Vincent, you spend so much time showing your bias towards Independent Newspapers, it's getting sickening at this point," I told him.
Browne is a columnist with 'The Irish Times' and produced a decidedly sycophantic programme on that newspaper in the past year.
His past history with Independent News and Media is not exactly harmonious.
At the end of the show, Browne said he wanted to talk to me.
Outside in the TV3 newsroom, there ensued a full, frank and fulsome exchange (note the pattern of the use of the 'f' – it is a hint to the content).
Jabbing his finger at me, he said that if I had a problem I should bring it up outside the studio. Ironic, considering his own habit of launching surprise attacks live on air.
I responded by saying that his treatment of Fiach Kelly was an absolute disgrace and I was sick of his biased treatment of the Irish Independent.
In the presence of his producer, Browne said to me: "As a result of your disruption to the programme tonight, I will do everything to ensure you never appear on here again."
He raised his voice.
I raised mine.
He pointed a finger at me.
I pointed a finger at him.
He shouted at me.
I shouted at him.
He swore at me.
I swore at him.
Neither side can particularly claim any credit from the incident – I'm man enough to admit that.
The expletive-ridden conversation would definitely have generated quite a lot of YouTube hits if it had been recorded.
He walked off in a huff to his desk in the corner, repeatedly saying: "F*** off."
My parting shot was to retort: "You can give it but you can't f***ing take it, Vincent."
After leaving the TV3 studios, I pulled the car in to ring Fiach Kelly, who found the entire episode hilarious.
As I related the events of the night to him, I began writing down notes of the exchange with Browne, while it was still fresh in my mind, as I anticipated he would deny banning me from the show.
How right I was, as his interview in 'The Sunday Times' yesterday illustrated, where he claimed I wasn't barred.
The message is clear: sit there and take abuse from him, just don't answer back or you will be gagged.
Browne's insults do not bother me.
Anything derogatory the curmudgeon says merely enhances you in the eyes of right thinking people.
But I have to say it is disappointing to see him cracking a joke about suicidal pregnant women.
You would think he would have learned his lesson from the revolver and bottle of whiskey analogy about Enda Kenny a few years back.
You do not joke about suicide.
Go pick another jibe.
Browne was a hero of mine when I was going into journalism.
I still admire his work over the decades, his social conscience, his contribution to the media landscape and genuinely hope he has recovered from his recent hospital treatment.
But the old saying about never meeting your heroes certainly applies.
Vincent Browne can give it, but he just cannot take it.