Sunday 25 September 2016

Bill leaves it here so ...


Published 20/12/2012 | 20:50

Bill O'Herlihy pictured here with his wife Hilary, and his book.
Bill O'Herlihy pictured here with his wife Hilary, and his book.

From a 16-year old rising through the ranks at the Cork Examiner to a reluctant TV star, Bill O'Herlihy has experienced more than his share of ups and downs throughout his years as a journalist and broadcaster.

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The RTE sports anchor was back in his native Cork last weekend to sign copies of his autobiography 'We'll Leave It There So' and revealed to The Corkman that he was also somewhat of a reluctant author. Having initially resisted requests to pen his story, he was convinced by friend and colleague Eamon Dunphy, and was eventually written with help from 'ghost writer' award-winning Irish Examiner journalist Ewan MacKenna.

The book is framed as a day in the life of Bill O'Herlihy, providing the reader with an insight into the running of RTE's hugely successful soccer coverage. It is through this prism that Bill outlines his life and career, which began in news and current affairs.

"My starting off was with the Examiner, and I got into television by accident in 1965 because I had done a small bit of radio work, and there was nobody based outside Dublin at that stage for RTE."

His introduction to television came via a request from Frank Hall, who asked Bill to interview a survivor of the Lusitania to mark the 50th anniversary of its sinking.

"I didn't think the interview was any good. I said to Frank Hall "Look, I'll do it on condition that if it's bad you won't use it". I had no experience of television interviews," said Bill. "He saw something in that interview that I didn't see myself, personally and he said I was to do all the work out of Cork for Newsbeat," he said of the show that paved the way for Nationwide.

His career then led to 7 Days, the Prime Time of its era. Having been 'enraged' at being transferred from his home to Dublin - having just met his future wife Hilary in Cork - 7 Days would mark the most controversial point of Bill O'Herlihy's career.

"It was not at all the scenario that was envisaged by the government who saw RTE as an arm of government rather than anything else, there had never been a current affairs programme that had been looking forensically at government performance before that."

In the book Bill outlines how he felt the administration at the time were unhappy with 7 Days' coverage and were waiting for their moment to pounce on 7 Days - and how a programme he worked on regarding illegal money lending provided that opportunity.

"It was very dramatic, using hidden camera and hidden microphones and it showed a level of lawbreaking that was unbelievable. There was Dáil debates about it and so they set up a tribunal. But it was very much a Fianna Fáil orientated tribunal, very political and the bottom line was that the programme was considered not to be authentic.

"My judgement was that was codology but nonetheless that was the decision, and that eventually led to 7 Days being taken off the schedule about a year later."

Given recent events, and as his own current affairs work that came under such scrutiny, does Bill have sympathy for RTE journalists who are currently under similar examination?

"I don't have any sympathy whatever in relation to the libelling of the priest. I just don't understand how that happened. I can't for the life of me understand, when they were offered a paternity test, why they didn't wait and put the programme out after the paternity test results were in. That is unforgiveable, I just don't understand that.

"The Frontline debate is different, that was the white heat of a live programme. But having said all that, I was surprised that the day after, when Pat Kenny was doing his radio programme that [Sean Gallagher] wasn't in a position to actually make it clear that the text message they got was wrong.

"I entirely subscribe to the view of RTE that there was a certain level of audience, about 800,000, but a couple of million more who didn't see the programme at all and who had to vote, so they wouldn't have been affected by the programme.

"I thought that he [Sean Gallagher] handled himself extremely badly. If he had indicated from the word go that he was Fianna Fáil but that he was so disaffected that he felt he should run as an independent people would have understood it."

Despite the uncertainty after the axing of 7 Days, Bill says that the move to sport suited him.

"I think I was lucky in a way because sport suited me more, temperamentally, but on top of that I was lucky to be working with Eamon for a good few years and Eamon and myself established a very good rapport. Then John Giles joined us and therefore the strength of the panel, in terms of its appeal to the audience, became bigger and bigger and the climax of that was the Italia 90 World Cup.

"For the first time as a nation we qualified for the World Cup, and the panel established itself in a definitive way.

"Not everybody agreed with what was being said but at the same time they knew full well that we were talking an awful lot of sense."

The panel can be divisive - has Bill ever found himself at odds with their opinion?

"If it's a question of the tactical analysis of the game, I am not qualified to tell them they're talking bullshit.

"We did a survey that showed that only about 32% of people understood the game. So my function is to bring out the knowledge of the analysts on the panel, to make sure they weren't preaching but conveying a lot of knowledge that the people at home wouldn't have.

"My function then is not to blind them with science, but to ask questions that the ordinary person would ask as well.

"The obvious area where we had a problem was when there was a huge divergence of opinion in relation to Roy Keane and Saipan. I very much pinned my colours to Roy Keane's mast there, and also most recently the whole question of the disconnect between the Irish fans and Trapattoni's team, because of the way Trapattoni was playing them.

"Liam Brady was absolutely incensed about my attitude - when I said there was nobody at the matches he said it was due to the recession. I said that was part of it, but not all of it.

"When there are issues that I think I can legitimately take up, I do take them up, but not in football terms. Football is what they are about, not me, and they would put me in my place, let me tell you, if I started to say 'well, you're talking nonsense about the play of the midfield' or something like that. I wouldn't get away with that."

In his career in public relations, Bill has advised previous governments on their communications. He believes the current administration needs to do more to reach out to the public.

"I think that the government needs to communicate to a much better extent with the people. They inherited a huge problem and I indicated to them, but I'm not an advisor to the government, that what should happen is that every three months they would come back to the people and say ' look, this is where we started off, this is where we are at the moment, this is what we are trying to achieve and this is what the next part is'.

"I have great confidence in Kenny and I think he will do what FitzGerald did before when Mrs Thatcher said 'out, out, out' in relation to the Anglo-Irish situation. I have no doubt that Kenny will deliver in 2013."

Finally, in the book Bill recounts the advice he received as a young journalist from the Irish Times' Paddy Downey - what advice has he for future journalists or broadcasters?

"I think the advice I got from Paddy Downey was not to write for yourself, or to be self-indulgent, write to create a level of understanding. That's the first thing if you're writer, and if you are covering games make sure that people can understand exactly what you are saying.

"Write for the person, not the expert.

"In broadcasting, I would just tell people to be yourself. I have made loads of mistakes, but I just say ' that's me'."

Bill O'Herlihy's autobiography 'We'll Leave It There So' is available in all bookshops now.

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