Tuesday 27 September 2016

The good, the bad and the ugly sides of Browne

Rumours that Vincent Browne had retired may have been premature, but maybe it's time he did, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30

Vincent Browne
Vincent Browne

There will no doubt be relief among TV3 viewers at the news that the eponymous host will be returning to his chair on Tonight With Vincent Browne in the autumn, because, let's face it, Tonight Without Vincent Browne can be a rather dull affair.

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For better and worse, it's Browne's personality that pulls the late-night political chatshow together.

Better means it's watchable. There's no one more formidable than Browne when he has a mood on him. In the right frame of mind, the irascible curmudgeon is as likely to flay someone who shares his unwaveringly orthodox left-wing views of the world as he is to attack a Government minister on the centre right.

It can be deliciously excruciating to watch as his victims stumble and falter under his rhetorical assault.

His greatest moment was probably when he confronted Klaus Masuch of the European Central Bank at a press conference in Dublin as the Troika flew in to survey the ruins of their own monetary policy. If Klaus had expected gratitude from a fawning Irish peasantry, delighted that someone clever and European had arrived to save us from ourselves, he was quickly disabused of the notion, as Browne demanded to know why we had to pay unguaranteed bondholders billions of euro that we didn't even owe. It was a reasonable question, but Masuch had no answer.

In that moment, Browne was what his breathless admirers, steeped in fantasies of what the news business should be all about ever since they first saw All The President's Men at an impressionable age, always imagined him to be - a journalistic white knight speaking truth to power.

At its worst, however, this side of Browne does have the tendency to turn into… well, the word "bullying" has been used in the past by those who fell foul of his temper. Former Tanaiste Joan Burton said as much, as did Irish Independent editor Fionnan Sheahan when he had a legendary row with the broadcaster over his long-standing hostility to Independent News and Media.

The charge of bullying may be unfair, but he does have what former Labour leader Eamon Gilmore called a "macho style" of confrontation that lays him open to the charge of bulldozing guests rather than giving them a chance to explain themselves in an atmosphere of reasonable debate. There are times, watching Tonight, when one does get the uncomfortable impression that the whole edifice is a sort of temple to the presenter, and that none may challenge him there.

He also unashamedly uses that platform to advance a very narrow political and economic agenda, one reinforced in his newspaper columns, which can be fearsomely tedious as they pile statistics on statistics to prove the world has gone to hell in a handcart and that his way alone can save us from perdition.

For years now, Browne has pushed the idea that Ireland, far from being broken by the recession, remains a fabulously rich country that could easily afford a socialist paradise if only we stopped being silly and took the money needed to build it off the rich.

It's such an enticing idea that it almost seems like bad manners to suggest that it might not be quite as simple as that - and anyone foolish enough to try is buried under another avalanche of Browne's minutiae. He's great at tangling up guests in their own contradictions, and he invariably "wins" the argument, without ever quite convincing those who don't share his assumptions that he's right.

It's a very lawyerly skill; he is, after all, a trained barrister. But this approach is more impressive than persuasive. Those who tussle with him may give up, but they don't go away with a belief that he is right, just that there's no point fighting with him.

This is a common fault among those on the left. They often come out top in debates, but the audience remains stubbornly unconvinced that what they heard actually makes any sense.

The epitome of Browne's approach was the long series of People's Debates, which he ran on TV3 in the run-up to the election. Browne travelled the country, visiting every constituency, inviting TDs and other candidates to answer questions from an audience of voters. These often descended into ugly and undignified scenes, with politicians being harangued from the floor. It felt some nights like a circus, with Browne as the ringmaster, and it highlighted his increasing populism.

He reflects a widespread hostility to politicians, which is an understandable mood, but where does that lead, ultimately? Someone has to run the country, and it often seems that none of them would be good enough for him.

It's not surprising that many decide a visit to the TV3 studios isn't worth the bother, because they'd just be playing second fiddle to another grandstanding performance. It's his gaffe, his rules, they'd only come out second best.

His own prickliness doesn't reflect well on him either. A man who makes a living from putting others on the spot shouldn't himself be over-sensitive, and Browne does often give off the impression, as Sheehan put it after that row a few years ago, that "he can give it, but he can't take it".

The news that he will play a part in TV3's autumn schedule, despite persistent rumours of retirement, could be a sign Browne still needs to work, either because he's been at the centre of Irish media and political life for decades and is not ready to give it up, or simply because he needs the money - he's been refreshingly honest about his finances.

But one can't help wondering whether it's a good idea. His once-terrifying technique has been reduced to a series of trademark rhetorical tics and tricks, with ever-diminishing returns. Jeremy Paxman hung up his own arsenal of frowns and sighs two years ago and he's younger than Browne. Maybe it's time Vincent did the same. There's only so long you can flog a dead horse before the viewers start feeling sorry for the nag.

Sunday Independent

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