Sunday 19 January 2020

Liam Collins: 'Bold broadcaster Marian had steely streak in pursuit of the big story'

The queen of 'personal testimony' was rigidly reticent about her own traumatic life

MANY FACES, ONE VOICE: A young Marian Finucane starting out in RTE
MANY FACES, ONE VOICE: A young Marian Finucane starting out in RTE
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

In later years her smoky voice had a 'lived in' quality which confirmed a long love affair with cigarettes, a glass of wine and the general experiences of life, while her fondness for phrases like "well it has to be said" and her sometimes drawled out sentences added to a personality unusual in today's broadcasting world.

There was no hint of celebrity if you saw Marian Finucane having a cigarette outside The Bailey pub off Grafton Street; she appeared to be just another well-groomed middle-aged woman enjoying a night out with friends. Although she did a couple of stints on television, she was essentially a radio person and as such protected from the unwanted attention that often befalls home-grown 'stars' when they venture into the real world.

She was regarded as businesslike and courteous within RTE, but she carefully chose where and with whom she socialised and was seldom seen in public without her husband John Clarke, if not by her side at least in the vicinity.

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Nor did she open up her own life the way she had others do for her. One profile writer quoted her as saying: "I hate doing interviews, I dread these things." The few that she did seemed awkward and guarded from someone in the forefront of the media, as she stone-walled questions about her background, her first failed marriage, her general beliefs and her enormous salary at RTE for what for years was essentially four hours of weekend broadcasting.

She insisted that her day started at 7am with Morning Ireland and told one interviewer "just in case people think I'm sitting around having a nice time only working at weekends, I'm working all the time". But, then again, so are many others in the media and elsewhere, who may have had much greater output but less impact.

She compartmentalised her personal life, traumatic as it was at times, from her professional life. The queen of extracting "personal testimony" from others was rigidly reticent when it came to her own.

Marian in the RTE studio in the Eighties
Marian in the RTE studio in the Eighties

Following her death last Thursday at the age of 69, the most frequent reference has been to her searing, semi deathbed interview with her friend, the writer Nuala O'Faolain. But there was more to Marian Finucane than that one piece of extraordinary journalism. Essentially she spent her career seeking scoops and she managed to hit the target frequently.

Managing the often banal aspects of a magazine programme, keeping the ratings high and the listeners entertained is not an easy feat. It requires a steely ruthlessness to discard the public relations flim-flam in pursuit of the story. One businessman, going on the show to promote a book he had written, got a cursory mention of it in the opening salvo with "we'll come back to that later" before she got down to unravelling the angst of his involvement with Nama (National Asset Management Agency). They never got back to the book, but over the next hour she extracted every ounce of news value from the put upon multi-millionaire.

They say that there is a "splinter of ice" in the heart of all good journalists and Finucane had a few of them.

On another occasion a politician asked that the death of her infant child should not be brought up in the interview. It was. The guest then replied, "But you know all about it, having suffered the death of your own daughter." There was a stalled silence, at which point Marian broke down and the producer went to an advertising break as the two women composed themselves.

EMPATHY: Marian Finucane. Photo: Damien Eagers
EMPATHY: Marian Finucane. Photo: Damien Eagers

Marian Finucane, who died in her sleep at home near Naas, Co Dublin on Thursday, January 2 at the age of 69, was born in Dublin on May 21, 1950, one of six children of Cork-born public servants.

She was educated at the Irish speaking Scoil Chaitriona in Glasnevin, Dublin and did her Leaving Certificate at the age of 16. She then spent a year as a boarder in the St Louis Convent in Monaghan. She studied architecture at the College of Technology, Bolton Street, Dublin. She was a keen debater and politically aware, taking part in protests at the demolition of a row of Georgian houses in Hume Street, Dublin in 1970, where she was a lesser-known figure among budding aspirant politicians like Garret FitzGerald, Mary Robinson and Ruairi Quinn.

Like many Irish students, she spent a summer in New York, where she considered switching to an arts degree, before returning to Bolton Street and graduating in 1974. She worked briefly in an architectural practice but according to herself a chance meeting with broadcaster John O'Donoghue at a party led to an interview for the national broadcasting service that did not go particularly well.

But she would claim that it was a "light-bulb" moment and eventually after several attempts, she joined RTE as a continuity announcer where she spent two years before moving up the ranks in Montrose.

She married architect Larry Granville at the age of 24, but the relationship broke down within five years. "We got on brilliantly but we weren't a good marriage, simple as that," she told Mike Murphy, the host of The Big Interview series in 2011. Asked if the marriage had an "acrimonious ending", she replied, "I suppose the endings tend to be but he was a really, really, nice guy".

Commentator Eoghan Harris, then a producer in RTE, recruited her to his books programme Paper Chase, she worked as a reporter on the current affairs show Day by Day, a summer filler presented by another novice, Pat Kenny and later presented Saturday View and Women Today which was launched in 1979.

In February, 1981 she edited the magazine Status, which came from the Magill stable and promised to be "an investigative news magazine for women". However, it closed after just 10 issues, by which time Marian Finucane had already left, because "it failed to generate the advertising support that was necessary".

In the intervening years she also presented Consumer Choice and Crime Line on television and made a number of well-received documentaries, receiving a Jacobs Award, a Prix Italia for a documentary on abortion and a radio journalist of the year award in 1988 for the Marian Finucane Show on afternoon radio. While she was involved in some ground-breaking programmes, her early broadcasting career sometimes verged on a desire to shock, both her listeners and her bosses in the male-dominated world of RTE, at that time. It was an era when the national broadcasting service could afford to alienate listeners as they had nowhere else to go and as she grew older she adopted a more mature sense of good radio journalism.

Liveline, which was devised as a format to give ordinary people a voice on radio, was an ideal platform for Finucane to further her broadcasting career, particularly as a majority of the listeners at the time were women and she was tuned-in to the issues that were exciting interests in her audience. It lasted for a gruelling 13 years but made her a household name and one of the station's top earners.

By now an accomplished and influential figure in RTE, she remained on contract rather than a full-time RTE employee, something that in more recent years allowed her to continue working in radio while others around her were reluctantly retired as the station attempted to save money and listeners were offered greater choice with the advent of new technology which has changed the media landscape beyond recognition.

It also led to controversy in 1993 when she was among a group of people who purchased apartments in the Mespil Flats complex off Baggot Street, Dublin which had been sold by Irish Life. She bought one with a sitting tenant with a loan of €42,000 from the Irish Nationwide Building. Following adverse comment she took legal proceedings for libel against several newspapers.

Although these went to court, they were eventually settled and her barrister Garrett Cooney SC said she was not a "get-rich-quick merchant" and she had purchased the flat as part of her pension.

She and her partner, John Clarke, a sheep farmer, lived originally outside Mullingar, Co Westmeath, before moving to Kildare. They had two children together, Sinead who developed leukaemia and died at the children's hospital in Harcourt Street, Dublin in 1990 and Jack who is now in his late 20s and was the subject of an horrific attack when burglars targeted their home in 2007, while his parents were on a trip to South Africa. After nearly 30 years together, they married in 2015. He also has three adult sons Jocelyn, Neil and Timothy.

On Gay Byrne's retirement in 1999, she took over his early morning radio slot to present the Marian Finucane Show, and then, in 2005, moved on to the Saturday and Sunday flagship programmes which earned her a huge audience and a salary that peaked at €500,000 a year, making her one of the most highly-paid broadcasters of her era.

She had managed to boost it substantially at one point by threatening to defect to rival station Newstalk. "It was what the market was, because I'd had offers from other stations and anyway why shouldn't the girls get it if the boys are getting it," she said by way of justification.

However, the "boys" in question spent far more time in both the radio and television studios at Montrose than she did. In recent years her salary had fallen in line with others but her take-home package in 2019 was still a very healthy €300,000, which was managed through her own production company, Montrose Productions.

There was talk in RTE that Marian Finucane would retire after her 70th birthday next May, and there was already speculation within media circles about who her replacement might be.

But sadly, as she often said when commenting on the sudden deaths of others, 'You never know the day nor the hour'. That hour came too soon for her to enjoy some well-deserved years in retirement.

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