Friday 15 November 2019

Obituary: Tom Savage

Albert Reynolds's adviser who became RTE chairman and co-founder of a media company

RESPECTED: Tom Savage worked in the communications industry after leaving the priesthood. Photo: Damien Eagers
RESPECTED: Tom Savage worked in the communications industry after leaving the priesthood. Photo: Damien Eagers
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Tom Savage was a former adviser to Albert Reynolds during his short-lived government of 1992-1994, chairman of the RTE board in 2012 during a "torrid" time for the State broadcaster following the Fr Kevin Reynolds libel affair, and founder of The Communications Clinic with his wife Terry Prone and their son Anton.

Savage, who died in Dublin last Thursday after a short illness at the age of 76, was described by one person in the public relations business as "an incredible communicator with the ability to get to the key element of whatever crisis he was dealing with".

He certainly didn't lack for them during his two years at the front line in government in the early 1990s as a key adviser to the then Taoiseach.

As a TD and minister, Albert Reynolds had a free and easy relationship with the media. Savage advised him to capitalise on that with a weekly briefing for journalists, which was something that hadn't been done before. It was also something the Taoiseach would later regret as the media turned on him over a series of government crises.

The first crisis led to the collapse of the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat government after Reynolds gave evidence to the Beef Tribunal contradicting his Tanaiste, Dessie O'Malley.

Savage and the government press secretary Sean Duignan were given a briefing on the issues at stake by Gerry Danaher, SC, before the event. As they were leaving, Duignan remarked that the issue was "a hundred times" more complicated than the abortion issue, which was also a political hot potato at the time. "I don't know about that," replied the astute Savage, "but it's certainly a hundred times more dangerous for Albert."

They were prophetic words. Reynolds went into the tribunal and the government fell after he characterised O'Malley's evidence as "reckless, irresponsible and dishonest". In 1994, Savage was at the heart of efforts to stop the dissolution of the Fianna Fail/Labour Party administration that followed - but, again, his efforts were unsuccessful.

Born on October 10, 1940, Savage was from a well-known family living in the Cooley peninsula of Co Louth.

He studied for the priesthood at the diocesan seminary in Maynooth, Co Kildare, taking a degree in divinity and arts before going on to further studies at Queen's University Belfast. He also played football for Queen's and was on the first team from the college to win the Sigerson Cup.

He was also a member of the Cooley Kickhams senior football team and won a county junior championship with the team as Father Tom Savage in 1964, and remained a loyal member of the club for the rest of his life.

He graduated from Queen's in 1968 and was appointed director of social welfare in the Archdiocese of Armagh in the early 1970s. As a priest, he was sent to greet British troops on the streets of Belfast following Operation Motorman, when the British government introduced direct rule and flooded Northern Ireland with thousands of soldiers.

In 1972, Savage was appointed to the Independent Broadcasting Commission by Archbishop of Armagh Cardinal William Conway, and joined the Catholic Communications Centre in Booterstown at the instigation of its director, the broadcaster Bunny Carr. He presented a number of religious programmes such as Outlook for RTE and End of the Day on UTV.

It was there that he met Terry Prone. Their friend Fr Brian D'Arcy married them, and spoke last week about how unusual it was for those who left the priesthood to be "upfront" about it in the Ireland of the 1970s.

"It was difficult for him and Terry, but they knew what they wanted," he said. "I admired them for it, their honesty and their integrity, although it caused them great difficulty."

After leaving the priesthood, Savage got a job as a sociology and media lecturer at Rathmines College of Commerce. The couple had one son, Anton, and the family home is a converted Martello tower in Portrane, Co Dublin. They also have a holiday home in Florida.

Savage returned to RTE as a founder producer of Morning Ireland, which was then presented by David Hanly. He also presented other shows on RTE such as For Better or Worse and Eye Witness.

He later joined Carr Communications, a public relations company that advised many high-profile political clients, with his wife and Bunny Carr.

In this capacity he became involved in emergency communications, helping politicians, public figures and companies deal with various media crises. Savage and Prone left Carr Communications to found The Communications Clinic in 2004 and worked closely with many political, business and sporting figures over the years. They have represented golfer Rory McIlroy and were involved in advising the crisis management committee of the Olympic Council of Ireland following events at the Rio Olympics.

Savage was appointed to the board of the national broadcaster RTE in 2009 and later became chairman. It was in that capacity that he became embroiled in the controversy surrounding the programme Mission To Prey, screened in 2012, which libelled former missionary priest Fr Kevin Reynolds, leading to an estimated bill for the station of €1m in libel damages.

In an interview with Niamh Horan, of the Sunday Independent, in the wake of the settlement, Savage publicly acknowledged that ultimate responsibility for the debacle rested with the then managing director of news and current affairs Ed Mulhall.

There was consternation in the national broadcasting service at his "off-the-cuff" remarks, which were made to the journalist at a reception in the Mansion House.

Although his remarks led to Mulhall availing of a severance package and leaving RTE, Savage at no time attempted to withdraw his comments, although he came under a certain amount of pressure in the media.

Tall and ascetic, Savage was always straightforward in his dealings and widely respected in his industry.

He will be buried after Mass in Cooley today.

Sunday Independent

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