Sunday 17 December 2017

Fighting the good fight at RTÉ

Non-Fiction Inside RTÉ – A Memoir Betty Purcell New Island, tpbk, €19.99, 266 pages Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

A newsroom in 1970s
A newsroom in 1970s
Betty Purcell
Inside RTE: a Memoir by Betty Purcell

Deirdre Purcell

Curly hair, a slight frame, a smile that could melt the heart of any iceman or queen: that was Betty Purcell as, during her 33 years working for RTÉ, mainly as a producer, she buzzed like a purposeful hornet through the corridors, studios and the boardroom at Montrose.

A strong, constant, brave and overt set of left-wing convictions is her hallmark and, in one of Derek Speirs' photographs, taken as she addresses a meeting of the Socialist Labour Party, she is reminiscent of one of her heroines, Bernadette McAliskey

Like McAliskey, she was a fierce little watchdog, born to growl at the feet of Establishment – any establishment, what she refers to as "powerhouses of State, church and big business". She barked her head off in warning at over-cautious and quiescent senior RTÉ management, biting when barking wasn't enough as when she, along with Alex White, fought a long battle against Section 31, the Government's official censorship of interviews with Sinn Féin members, widened unilaterally by RTÉ, she says, to include Sinn Féin voices, even when talking about mushrooms.

She does try to be fair, quoting the rationalisation that such excess caution came about because an RTÉ Authority had been sacked on the basis that it wasn't operating the law diligently enough.

Jenny McGeever, then a newsroom reporter and now a solicitor, was a casualty, having "shamefully" to leave the station as a consequence of including the voice of (an unnamed) Martin McGuinness in her report on the funerals of the three IRA members who were shot dead in Gibraltar. He had apparently been talking to relatives about what objects to put on the coffins.

Betty and her colleague, Alex White, took a legal case right up to the European Court of Human Rights. They lost, on the basis that the State had the right to protect itself against a subversive threat.

More contemporaneously, she has trenchant views about the internal chaos that swirled around Mission to Prey, the TV documentary resulting in a successful libel action being taken against the station by Fr Kevin Reynolds, accused falsely of fathering a child. The chapter in which this features, however, deals with more than this issue and is titled: What Went Wrong In Current Affairs.

In it, Betty also deals with the Frontline pre-election programme where Pat Kenny read out a bogus Tweet purporting to be from the election campaign of Martin McGuinness – and was not given the correcting Tweet. She had nothing at all to do with either programme, but did know how that department works from her stint on Questions and Answers. She dissects the controversy from a programmer's point of view, skewering (some) management, naming names, opining on individuals' ambitions and variable competencies.

Her view is that, by running such a tabloid-like story, the department was not consciously dumbing down per se, but were reacting to pressure being exerted by competition for ratings, especially given an improving performance by the less- well resourced but relentlessly competitive TV3. This caused decisions to be rushed, with those on the tightly interwoven team engaging in the now notorious "group think". Fatally, despite RTÉ's legal affairs people advising that the programme be delayed until the result of the paternity test offered by Fr Reynolds was available, it nevertheless went out. It cost RTÉ a million euro in damages, plus costs and while Ed Mulhall, whom she rates, was able to retire, Betty has great sympathy for reporter Aoife Kavanagh, whom she believes was sacrificed.

If there is criticism of the book's structure, it seems to a general reader to be in two halves, connected by Purcell's sense of social justice and fighting spirit.

In the first half, she writes with lightness and delicacy, but all too briefly, about her personal life, glancing off her two life partnerships but celebrating her two daughters.

As for a lot of the rest of Part One, except for those who love to find their names in indexes (sweetly catalogued alphabetically by first names) or those who enjoy researching detailed accounts of the internal workings and internecine rows between trades unions, the advice is to hold on. You will get to enjoy the day when she arrives in RTÉ, meets with another hero of hers, Michael Littleton, and as a result, finds her metier as a producer. For Betty Purcell decided that politics, journalism and social activism was to be her life's work, believe it or not, at 13 years of age.

She is fearless about reporting the struggle for political dominance during her early days at the station, between Worker's Party stalwarts and those espousing her own brand of activism who had been pithily but bitchily named "hush puppies" by Eoghan Harris. And while Harris will not particularly like his depiction in Inside RTÉ, even those with whom she clashed have to admire her spirit – and turns of phrase, such as her description of this country as "the dull and rancid Ireland of today".

Pat, Marian, Joe, Gay, the two Johns, Bowman and Kelly, she has worked as producer with them all in radio and television; her view on Pat Kenny's move to Newstalk confirms most insiders' opinions that RTÉ, complacent, thought: 'Nah! He'll never go.'

For this reviewer, her membership of the RTÉ Authority as a staff representative, during which she and film-maker Bob Quinn apparently formed a formidable left-wing Gang of Two, is especially enlightening because she doesn't hold back in describing the boardroom battles she took on in areas such as advertising to children which, ultimately and dispiritingly for her, were less than half-won.

Having moved on, she is now managing, or attempting to manage, Vincent Browne in TV3, with a particular responsibility for use of its large new studio for Vincent's "ordinary person" set of single-issue debates. Its most recent outing was about feminism, with the studio populated entirely with powerfully articulate women. Down Betty's alley, that was.


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