Sunday 15 December 2019

Braving broadcasting: Betty Purcell on her RTE memoir

Betty Purcell
Betty Purcell

Tanya Sweeney

When Betty Purcell went into RTE for her very first job interview almost 35 years ago, she had already been kicking up some dust in radical politics.

At various times a member of the Young Socialists, the Revolutionary Marxist Group, the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and People’s Democracy, Purcell came face to face with Michael Littleton, then head of current affairs in RTE. “He put a photo of me addressing an SLP meeting across the desk and said ‘you do realise that this will have to stop?’” she recalls.

Once she was finally through the door of the national broadcaster, her challenges were far from over.

On one of her first days in Montrose, a male staffer refused to shake her hand for the reason that he didn’t “believe” in a female doing the job. However Betty didn’t let it deter her and just said, ‘well, I’ve been appointed to the job so we’ll just have to get on with it’.”

Safe enough to assume that even in the ’70s and ’80s, Purcell was something of a firebrand that gave some RTE staffers, with their machismo newsroom culture, pause for thought.

“Well, people just need experience of working with female colleagues, and people are fearful of change,” she reasons. “(Newsrooms) can be a bit rugged and male-clique-ish, but the women’s movement has given people who might have blindly recruited men something to think about. The RTE newsroom is 50-50 gender wise, but if you go up to senior management it’s largely male-dominated. There’s a glass ceiling in RTE, as everywhere else.”

In the main, Betty’s memoir Inside RTE is an affectionate and nostalgic look at her time at the broadcaster, where she moved between various departments. Wielding influence at the helm of Questions & Answers, she migrated to The Late Late Show and Would You Believe, before eventually sidestepping into arts show The View.

The book is a compelling look beyond the velvet curtain of RTE, laying bare the elbow grease happening behind the scenes. “I think most people have a relationship with RTE, whether it’s friendly indifference or hostility,” notes Purcell. “They take RTE presenters into their homes like family members, so it stands to reason that they’re curious about the way in which programmes were made, and how the place works in terms of management and staff.”

“I’d say that the public perception is very unfair,” she says of the idea that RTE is populated with lackadaisical civil servants. “The colleagues I spent my 33 years alongside were very hard working. You want that big important interview, you want to do the best for your own programme. There’s a sense of trying to do the best you can because you believe the public deserves the best. I’ve seen staff working beyond midnight to perfect one small piece of film.”

All the more reason to be dispirited, then, when exacting viewers take to social media to voice their dissatisfaction with RTE’s output.

“People on Twitter can be very cruel,” admits Purcell. “People hiding behind hashtags can be vile, particularly about women. I’m constantly shocked at the personal nature of the comments. If someone goes on a programme like The Late Late Show to tell their own personal story or even promote a show, they are simply doing their level best. The invective against them, and against the presenters, can be pretty darn cruel. I can’t imagine what it’s like to come off air and see vicious stuff online.”

Purcell worked for just one season on The Late Late Show in 2001, at a time when the show was being derided for its soft-soap approach. Purcell missed the cut and thrust of current affairs too much to stay, admitting that lifestyle wasn’t her natural home.

“I was asked to go in and beef up the more serious side of the programme, and I was happy to do that because historically the show always got its teeth into issues,” she recalls. “In the good old days, no show could do it better. In my year, we covered a lot of serious issues too, like child sex abuse.

“The week of 9/11 was a really significant week in my career,” she adds. “The show is planned over a few weeks, but on that Wednesday lunchtime I had to gather the whole team and get everyone to stop what they were doing

and start from scratch. Pat (Kenny, then the show’s presenter) called in every contact he had, and in two days, we pulled together a really good show.”

But that was then, and this is now. The broadcaster, like many corners of the media, has been dogged by staff cutbacks and pay cuts. At the outset of her career, Purcell was already a fearless firebrand and a groundbreaker. It’s almost inconceivable to think that a young journalist in RTE today could have the job security and confidence to do the same.

“I do believe that more secure employment makes for better programmes,” says Purcell. “If you’re insecure about your job, you won’t want to make too many waves. But I don’t think it’s a generational thing; it’s a personality thing. You’ll always get people driven to make something significant. I really do believe that quality journalism takes time and money, and that’s not always there.”

After 33 years in RTE, Purcell briefly considered retirement, but wasn’t ready to hang up her spurs just yet. Nowadays, she can be found working in TV3, on the Vincent Browne Show.

Purcell ultimately credits her mother Frances for her fighting spirit and hunger for social justice. Frances fought for women having equality, ‘long before it became fashionable’, after her home was sold from under her when she separated from Betty’s father. When Betty was two years old, her mother placed her and her sister Mary in St Joseph’s orphanage for a while so that she could organise her life after the separation.

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday’s Irish Independent

“My mother was very delighted with my career,” recalls Purcell. “The first time I won a Jacobs’ Award, I brought her to the ceremony so she got to meet all the big stars and have her photo taken with Gay Byrne. She died two years ago, and I look back on that night and I’m so glad it happened.”

Purcell continues to fight the good fight over in TV3’s Ballymount studios, and it soon becomes clear that away from the newsroom, her keen sense of social justice and political activism hasn’t waned.

“My younger daughter spent some time in the West Bank in Palestine, and to me it sounds so much like how South Africa was. That’s the new apartheid,” says Betty. “I’d love to do some volunteer work in the occupied territories. That would definitely be a long-term goal of mine.”

Inside RTE: A Memoir is out now

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