Saturday 25 May 2019

Jim McGuinness

Former RTE Head of News, who shaped key journalistic teams during the North's troubles, writes Des Fisher

Jim McGuinness, who died on August 22, was one of the most significant influences in the development of broadcast journalism in Ireland since the RTE television service was set up in 1961. As RTE's Head of News in the first six years of the Northern 'troubles', he was in charge of the organisation's news coverage at a time when the Government, the broadcasters and the public were at loggerheads over the scope and comprehensiveness of how the happenings in the North should be reported and explained.

Born in Derry in 1920, McGuinness joined the IRA in London at the age of 18. On a visit to Dublin, he was spotted and arrested by a Donegal garda sergeant as he came out of the Adelphi cinema with a copy of the proscribed War News in his pocket and was interned for two years in the Curragh. His first major job in journalism came when he was appointed editor of The Irish Press in 1953 and was responsible for making it into the liveliest Irish daily of its time, with crisp news coverage and brisk features. He had a sharp nose for talent, bringing in Brendan Behan as a columnist and Ben Kiely and Sean White as contributors. After a disagreement with Vivion de Valera, he left The Irish Press in 1957 and went to San Francisco where a series in The Call Examiner on a Mexican denied the dole because he was 'unavailable for work' while attending the funeral of his daughter, killed in a traffic accident, won him a major award.

He came back to Ireland in 1961 when Ed Roth, the first Director General of RTE, appointed him in charge of information of the new organisation, including the launch of the highly successful RTE Guide, as editor of which he appointed Patrick Kavanagh to be film critic and used well-known artists, such as Gerard Dillon and George Campbell, to do illustrations. In 1966 he succeeded Pearse Kelly as Head of News.

When the troubles in the North began in 1968, Jim McGuinness was the first person in RTE to understand their significance. He realised that the News Division had not the staff or the resources, especially in the North itself, to provide the news bulletins and the current affairs programming which Northern developments would demand.

He made his case to the powers that were in RTE at the time. What was happening in the North, he said, would shape Irish history for the future. If RTE's news and current affairs coverage did not live up to the demands of the situation, history would rightly condemn the organisation. RTE had to match, in quantity and in quality, the best international news and current affairs programming. It was unsustainable that BBC coverage could be more comprehensive and more professionally produced than RTE coverage of historic happenings in what we claimed to be part of our own country.

Undoubtedly his Republican background in part motivated his demands that the Northern troubles be reported, analysed and explained as fully as the situation merited. At the same time he was a serious and fair-minded journalist who could see what was coming and the need for news and current affairs coverage to be able to respond.

Fortunately, RTE had at that time both a Director General and a Deputy Director General -- Tom Hardiman and John Irvine -- who realised the significance of what Jim McGuinness was saying. They accepted the argument that RTE's news and current affairs coverage should be upgraded to meet the demands of the momentous developments in our country's history.

McGuinness set about building up teams of journalists, presenters and producers who had the broadcasting talents and intellectual qualities needed to match what he thought the situation demanded. He expanded news bulletins and introduced programmes, including This Week and The News at One, which pushed out the boundaries of current affairs coverage, all the time insisting on scrupulous research and fair presentation.

His period as Head of News was marked by internal RTE contention between unions representing journalists and producers, by sustained external pressures from politicians and by protests from the public over his insistence on giving equal prominence to Unionist and loyalist opinions as to nationalist and Republican viewpoints. In 1972, the whole RTE Authority was sacked by the Jack Lynch government over a radio features programme in which Kevin O'Kelly quoted the words of Sean MacStiofáin, Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA, whom he had interviewed the night before.

The RTE of those years had many outstanding broadcasters -- it still has. In McGuinness's time in RTE the news broadcasters he was, in my recollection, most proud of were Mike Burns and Sean Duignan, whose names are synonymous with outstanding radio news features; Gerry Barry, still broadcasting every Sunday on This Week; Liam Hourican, Northern correspondent in the earlier years of the troubles; one of RTE's most distinguished journalists, Kevin O'Kelly, who went to jail to protect his source; Wesley Boyd, another shrewd Northerner, who was to succeed Jim as Head of News; Rory O'Connor, the most sharp-witted of Duty Editors in the newsroom; Joe Fahy, who revolutionised political coverage of the Dáil; and cameramen Gay O'Brien, Sean Burke and Jackie Merriman, whose footage of the Northern troubles went round the world via Eurovision and brought home to millions the real state of affairs in the North.

These were all on the news side of RTE broadcasting. On the current affairs side of programming, most of which were his responsibility between 1966 and 1973, the producers and presenters he most respected -- though he often had disagreements with them -- were Joe Mullholland, Muiris MacConghail, Ted Nealon, Brian Farrell, Michael Heney, Olivia O'Leary, still to be heard on RTE and the BBC, and Sean O'Mordha.

Jim McGuinness had his critics in broadcasting and in political life. But he never harboured a grudge. He could argue the toss with vigour and he could sternly criticise carelessness and incompetence but he never said an uncharitable word about anyone. He was a man of unflinching integrity and an inspirational boss, a journalist who observed the most stringent canons of the journalist's trade and who inspired many others to respect his values and to adopt his high standards.

He was, though, a very private person and it was only on the most informal of occasions and in convivial company that he would reveal his deeper feelings and emotions. And of those feelings and emotions, the deepest concerned his family. He worshipped his wife Sally and was immensely proud of his children, Pearse, Niall and Mary. To them and to all his colleagues, friends and relatives, I offer my sincere sympathy.

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