Money lending exposé led Bill down accidental road to career as sports anchor
Published 26/05/2015 | 02:30
Bill O'Herlihy became a television sports anchor by accident. When he arrived in the sports department, its head Michael O'Hehir's first words were: "Bill I don't want you; but you are very welcome."
O'Hehir felt that O'Herlihy was being shifted from current affairs and foisted on the sports department following the severity of the tribunal report on how '7 Days' had reported on illegal money-lending in Dublin. O'Herlihy always believed that the Fianna Fail government of the day reserved a particular disdain for the pioneering current affairs programme '7 Days', which they thought was much too big for its boots.
They pounced when the minister for Justice Michael O'Morain received a deluge of complaints from within his department and from the Gardaí that an investigative report into money-lending had effectively accused them of dereliction of duty.
The Dail exchanges following the broadcast were not without humour. Fianna Fáil backbencher, Flor Crowley, asked if the minister would not agree that all producers and researchers in RTE should declare beforehand "whether they are Leftist, Maoist, Trotskyites or Communists?"
This elicted an unattributed heckle from another deputy: "Or Fianna Fáil."
Justice minister Michael O Morain told the Dáil that some of the testimony in the '7 Days' programme was "wholly valueless". Taoiseach Jack Lynch believed that the programme had "exaggerated the situation out of all proportion".
Desmond O'Malley, then a parliamentary secretary to Lynch, later recalled that at cabinet, O Morain was "foaming at the mouth" in his denunciation of the RTE programme, but that it still came as something of a surprise to some of the cabinet when O Morain won majority support to set up a tribunal of inquiry - not into money-lending, but into the '7 Days' programme itself.
The terms of reference were to report on the "authenticity of the programme and in particular, the adequacy of the information on which the programme was based, and whether or not the statements, comments and implications of the programme as to the number of unlicenced moneylenders operating in the city and county of Dublin and the scope of their operations, and the use of violence, to secure repayments of money lent, amounted to a correct and fair representation of the facts and ... reflected reasonable journalistic care on the part of those responsible for the programme."
The tribunal lasted 52 days with Bill O'Herlihy being cross-examined for six of those. He complained bitterly about the nature of some of the cross-examination, especially that from the chairman, Justice Butler of the High Court.
After lunch on day three of O'Herlihy's testimony, Butler opened a dictionary and invited him to define the word "classic".
"You mean in the context of the script, my lord?"
"No, I do not," replied Butler: "I want the precise meaning of the word." Bill O'Herlihy argued that since they were scrutinising his script he was entitled to know the context of his use of the word. [He had in fact used the phrase "a classic example" in his report.]
Butler refused "out of hand" to quote the context. O'Herlihy never forgot what followed. Reading from his dictionary, Butler said: "Classic, Mr O'Herlihy is the supreme example of the ordinary and I do not understand how a reporter of your experience on a programme of the stature of '7 Days' does not know the precise meaning of every word he uses."
In O'Herlihy's judgement, such an approach was "complete nonsense". "I'd fight my corner every single time on that because our use of facts was correct according to our research and we were anything but irresponsible."
He later wrote that once the tribunal process began, many of those who had given the most important testimony either "backed off" or "moderated their views significantly".
Most tellingly, those who had been filmed secretly as the victims of the money-lenders were fearful of giving evidence in public, although they had originally been promised anonymity. This had left "a huge hole" in the '7 Days' defence.
During its course, Maurice Gorham, former director of Radio Eireann, reckoned that the tribunal exercise was seen by the interested public to be "ridiculous". He expressed his sympathy privately to his friend and assistant Director General, John Irvine: "A whole pack of Senior Counsel, with the benevolent encouragement of the chairman, harrying reporters and producers day after day, labouring the ethics of hidden microphones and naming names, without any regard to the terms of reference, which heaven knows were searching enough; and all for no reason of public interest, as everybody knows."
Gorham said he was pleased to see the RTE witnesses refuting "the bland assertions of the Gardaí." Anyway, Gorham believed that the tribunal had "shown its bias so clearly", that even if it did eventually condemn RTE, nobody would be impressed and if it did not it would prove to be "a sweeping victory."
He hoped "the farce" would soon be over.
O'Herlihy believed that the goal posts had been changed in significant ways during the course of the tribunal. His verdict over 40 years later was that the Tribunal had been set up "to screw '7 Days' and current affairs generally. Anyone who says otherwise is either a knave or a fool."
Incidentally, the then chairman of the RTE Authority, Todd Andrews - a lifelong supporter of Fianna Fail - admired the programme on transmission. And he tellingly noted that the Department of Justice was "paranoid on the subject of RTE".
His verdict on the tribunal report was that it had "proved nothing and changed nothing."
Jim McGuinness, head of news, was not as impressed by the '7 Days' broadcast as other RTE bosses and he was now responsible for current affairs as well as news.
He wanted Bill O'Herlihy moved from '7 Days'. Many options were mooted but it was Bill himself who decided on sport.
There followed an initial stand-off with Michael O'Hehir, followed by a fruitful relationship culminating in the success now so well-known to generations of television viewers. Within weeks O'Hehir took an opportunity to praise his new recruit at a departmental meeting: "Bill I know I didn't want you, but thanks be to God you are here."
As for O'Herlihy himself, in his recent memoir he declared himself "a great believer in the Lord working in mysterious ways". And he was not certain that had he stayed in current affairs, he could have expected such success. "Certainly if I wanted a long term career in television, it was the right way to go, even if it was by accident rather than design."
John Bowman is a broadcaster and historian, he is author of 'Window and Mirror: RTÉ Television: 1961-2011' published by The Collins Press