Separating the news from the noise

Tue, Dec 15, 2009, 00:00

TONGUES WAGGED and the chattering classes chattered. Why was Mark Little leaving one of the plum jobs in television journalism? What did his decision say about the state of the media? And what on earth was he going to do? He tells PAUL CULLENwhy

At least George Lee defected to the known world of politics, a mere hop across the plinth of Leinster House, but why was Little, who presents his last Prime Timeon Thursday, after seven years at the helm, turning his back on the cameras? As we met last week on a bleak midwinter, pre-Budget morning, the still boyish-looking 41-year-old is keen to scotch a few rumours. He is the Prime Timepresenter who doesn’t have eight children or front Battle of the Sexes, but he bristles at suggestions that his departure might have been prompted by pique directed at Miriam O’Callaghan. Tabloid claims that he might have been resentful of his colleague’s bigger wage packet were “just nonsense, Chinese whispers become fact”.

“It’s amazing how little bitchiness there is in television, given that generally your success takes away from someone else near you,” Little says. “One of the reasons why Miriam is where she is today is because she doesn’t create enemies; she surrounds herself with friends, and I consider myself one of her friends.” People added “one and one and got four. I earn a good salary – even before the current obsession with pay rates I didn’t necessarily think I was being hard done by. Money was never a factor in my staying or going from RTÉ.” He was even “happy” to take a pay cut.

So why is he packing in what he describes as a “cushy” job in RTÉ when everyone else – apart from Lee – is battening down the hatches? He says it’s nothing to do with the programme and no reflection on his colleagues at “the best place I ever worked in”.

Yet the push factors included a growing sense of disillusionment with television and other traditional media, and personal worries about the march of time.

“Perhaps, in the end of the day, being successful on telly takes away a bit of your humanity and you become a bit of a caricature,” he says. “When you see yourself on television you don’t really recognise yourself, and I think that’s happened to me over the last couple of years. I ended up being a bit more of a caricature than I felt was good.”

But journalism is changing too – and not for the better: “More and more, as the media tries to survive financially, it is trying to seek out the lowest common denominator and find what people’s biases are and then appeal to them, and I found that distressing.”

The defining moment came when he broke his leg in a skiing accident just before the last election. “I spent a long time recovering and I jumped back into work and it was just very disturbing. It was that sense of vulnerability and mortality and realising I wasn’t young any more.” Approaching 40, he realised it was time for a change. Politics wasn’t an option – he was in the Labour Party in college, but left it in favour of the journalistic pursuit of objectivity. “I dropped out of politics because journalism was the big love of my life and I felt politics was too partisan,” he says. “I got bored and irritated by it because I could see people in politics taking positions purely because of the party line, and they didn’t believe in them.”

The Pat Kenny path into light entertainment didn’t appeal either. “When you become a public figure, it can become intoxicating and you can flirt with that route. I came close to getting caught up in the lighter side of things. Then I realised people were more interested in your life than your work. When you start crossing that line, an alarm bell goes off in your head. Journalism means more to me than television and, if anything, television is over-rated as a career.”

Mind you, he still believes Kenny and RTÉ’s other high-earners are worth their six-figure salaries. “Pat Kenny is worth whatever they want to pay him, whatever the market will bear,” he says. “Cutting back his or Brian Cowan’s salary isn’t going to save the economy. It’s an easy target.”

The penny-dropping moment that finally showed Little the way to go came during this year’s Iranian elections. Cutbacks at RTÉ meant he had to watch the big news story, which erupted with post-poll protests, on television. The reporter from ITN was cooped up in a hotel room in Tehran relaying second-hand reports of deaths in a city square, a job Little would have been familiar with from his days as a foreign correspondent. “Yet here was I sitting on a couch in south Dublin, on the internet, and I was watching pictures of the bodies in that square,” he says. “So I was getting information quicker on my couch in south Dublin than the reporter in her hotel room.”

FROM THIS EPIPHANYcame the idea of starting a news organisation that extracts the “useful news” from the “useless noise” on the internet, as he puts it. “With the development of social platforms like You Tube, Flickr, Facebook and Twitter, people are talking and they’re having a conversation that is about current events. There’s a huge cloud of information on every single subject and a lot of it is generated much quicker than traditional news.”

Little talks about harvesting the “wisdom in the crowd” as opposed to the “wisdom of the crowd” by using computer technology to sift through the vast amounts of information being generated daily.

The role of professional journalists would be to “curate” the information produced by the citizen eye-witnesses and deliver global news for an international audience. He isn’t interested in the Irish market as such, but says the expertise is here to make the project work.

He claims to be a technophobe, but says this doesn’t matter. “I think I understand the consciousness that comes out of it. You can get too caught up in the shiny things and miss the human spirit that drives all this stuff.”

He’s already banged on the door of the main colleges and next year he’ll go looking for money to fund the project. Part-evangeliser, part-salesman, he’s perfectly suited to the role and can rely on his name to open doors, at least initially.

“I’ll always get one meeting because I have a reputation, but once in there, I’ve found there’s no sentimentality,” he says. “They want you to deliver immediately. It’s like going for a hard massage; you get beaten up by people who are interested but who want answers.”

From Malahide in north Co Dublin, Little says he enjoyed a “dream” middle-class upbringing. His parents ran The Sheepskin Shop and hailed originally from working-class areas in the city, but later moved to Oughterard in Co Galway to run a hotel.

“Politics was a source of entertainment for us, as much as sport was for other families,” he says. “We’d sit at the dinner table and take a position – sometimes you’d just take it to cause an argument.”

He studied economics and politics at Trinity College Dublin and spent a year as president of the students’ union. Back then, he would spend Saturdays protesting outside the US embassy but today, he admits, he has ended up in thrall to the country and its culture.

“I went to the States and realised that everything I thought was true,” he says. “There are lots of people waving guns and bibles, and they have a very narrow view of the world, but there’s also this other America. It’s everything that people say it is, but it’s an awful lot more. The sheer energy got me, and the optimism.”

HE FOUND THEtransition on coming back from Washington to Ireland hard. But if he has left the US, it hasn’t left him – two of the three books he has written are about the US, and his wife, Tara Peterman, is American. They met at an Irish embassy party in Washington, and up to this week they have been working together on Prime Time.

“She’s the executive producer and she’s in my ear during interviews,” he says. “On the first day she addressed me in that voice you reserve for your spouse when they don’t leave out the rubbish or they leave the top off the toothpaste. I could see myself jump.”

The couple live in Dalkey with their children, Daisy and Tommy, aged two and four. From a previous relationship, Little also has a 21-year-old daughter, Sorcha, who is studying dance in the UK. “I was 21,” he says. “I was definitely too young, but now I have a wonderful daughter and it gets better all the time. We don’t keep in touch as much as we’d like to – that’s one regret, being away when she was growing up. That was tough.”

Little is taking leave of absence from RTÉ, so the television door isn’t closing for good. If he is daunted about trying to succeed where countless others have failed – by making money from news on the internet – he doesn’t show it. “I’m happier than I’ve been for a long time, getting up in the morning knowing that I’m going to find out something new that day or meeting somebody that’s going to add something to my life.”