Betty Purcell: war stories from the heart of RTÉ

The ground-breaking producer reflects on the bitter battles of her 33-year career, close encounters with Haughey and her fight against the ‘censorship’ of section 31

Mon, Apr 7, 2014, 01:00

Betty Purcell is slight, very warm and always engaging. Sitting in the bright kitchen of her house in Ranelagh, it is strange to think how many bitter political battles she was once involved in.

“It got bitter because the stakes were so high,” she says. Purcell was a radical producer. She started radio programmes such as Women Today , ground-breaking back when there was a lot of ground to break. All of this is a working lifetime ago; her 33 years in broadcasting are recalled in her memoir , Inside R T É , published this week by New Island.

She is full of energy and still working – currently on Tonight with Vincent Browne for TV3. She is in charge of the new format whereby once a month the show has a live audience providing the content – “democratic engagement”, as she puts it. She is proud that the viewing figures averaged at 186,000 over the two-hour transmission time. “And 230,000 for the earlier part.”

Insi de RT É forcefully makes the point that Betty Purcell grew up in a different time. Here we are in 1969, on the first page of the introduction to the book, when the 13-year-old Purcell is observing national and international politics. “I was hooked. I couldn’t imagine anything more exciting than politics.”

That’s not a sentiment you would hear out of many 13-year-olds (or perhaps out of any age group) these days, surely? Purcell doesn’t agree. “My own daughters are a bit like that. There’s more young people interested in politics than you’d think. We had little to focus on. They have a lot of different things to focus on.”

The truth, she says, is that politics has been damaged by scandal. But she still believes in it, and in most politicians, although “they get bogged down in clientelism”, she says.


An interesting life
Why did a person who is so taken up with the present choose to write a memoir? “I suppose I felt I’d had an interesting life in RTÉ – been involved with interesting colleagues and conflicts,” she says.

In the book, she writes of her “more than 30 years working in the [trade] unions in RTÉ, more than half of those years locked in combat with the forces of the Workers’ Party and their supporters”. Chapter Six, from which that sentence is taken, is actually called “Battles with the Workers’ Party”.

Chapter Three, meanwhile, is called “Section 31: A Thick Cloud over Everything”. When she left RTÉ, she says, people asked her to write about several issues from her career – and section 31 was one of them. This section of the Broadcasting Authority Act 1960 banned paramilitaries and their supporters from being interviewed on electronic media in the State, and it lasted right up until 1994. She says she thought it “worth getting it on the record. I tried to be as fair as I can be”.

It was behind the scenes in RTÉ that the battle over section 31 was fought, and Purcell fought it very hard – she eventually took a case against the section to Europe, and lost. She saw, and still sees, section 31 as an issue of censorship, to be fought against tooth and nail.

Whether the reader will be fascinated with the internal politics of RTÉ remains to be seen. “Well they can skip those chapters,” says Purcell mildly. A young colleague on this newspaper had said to me: “It’s not all going to be about that, is it?” She needn’t have worried.


A working-class upbringing
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Inside RT É is what happened to Purcell outside RTÉ – that is, her family circumstances. Chapter One opens in St Joseph’s Orphanage in Dún Laoghaire in 1958, as the 2½-year-old Betty gets out of bed in the middle of the night in this strange building and goes to find her older sister, Mary, who is sleeping on a different floor, so that she can share her bed. The two girls had been placed in the orphanage by their mother, Frances.

Frances and her husband, Dennis, had recently separated. The marital home had been sold without Frances’s permission, and she needed time to muster her resources for her new life as, effectively, a single parent. (Betty’s older brother, Tony, was not put in the orphanage.) Both Frances and Dennis had served their apprenticeships as shop assistants. Frances now went to work in Clerys department store (where Mrs Guiney allowed her to come in a little late so that she could see the children off to school), and the family lived in half a house on Grand Canal Street.

Frances Purcell bursts out of this book as a beacon of female valour. She was the daughter of a family of Offaly schoolteachers, fond of Gilbert and Sullivan, ready to recite poetry at celebrations, and fighting like a tiger to keep her family afloat. She died in 2011, at the age of 90. There is a picture of Frances and Betty on the wall of the kitchen, at the Jacobs Television Awards. It is difficult to say which of them looks happier.

“My mother,” writes Purcell, “was highly theatrical, and if her circumstances had been different she would have loved to have been on the stage.”

Her mother’s experiences gave Purcell lifelong antennae for what she calls “women in jeopardy”. Like all families, hers was complicated. Their father wrote home from England, and eventually he retired here. Frances’s brother was a senior civil servant in the Department of Education, and “had money” as his niece puts it – he offered to help out with the children’s education. But on the whole it was a working-class childhood. Betty Purcell went to the Holy Faith convent on Haddington Road. “There was only one other girl in my class who went to university.”


A political animal
At UCD she threw herself into radical politics. “I was at various times a member of the Young Socialists, then the Revolutionary Marxist Group, the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and People’s Democracy,” she writes. And then she went for a job in RTÉ.

“I was in the SLP when I went for the job interview. Michael Littleton [who, as headof features and current affairs in RTÉ, interviewed her] pushed a photo of me addressing a meeting across and said, ‘Do you realise that this will have to stop?’ ”

She did realise it, and she didn’t resent it. For her time in RTÉ, she was never a member of a political party. She says now that she votes “for different people”. For her, broadcasting was politics by other means, which would have been a common enough view at the time.

She also remembers, in the run-up to the 1982 election, then taoiseach Charlie Haughey arriving unexpectedly on the steps of the RTÉ Radio Centre, ready to go into studio for an interview with John Bowman on the programme Day by Day . The interview had been planned to take place with Haughey speaking from his Dáil office. Purcell explained that there were no senior executives around to meet the taoiseach, as his arrival was such a surprise. “I wanted to see the whites of the f***er’s eyes,” replied Haughey.

In 1991, Purcell was making a programme on how Haughey had somehow persuaded the ESB to take the wind generator from Cape Clear and install it at his holiday island of Inishvickillane. When she announced her intention to hire a helicopter to take aerial shots of both islands – Cape Clear now with a generator that local people said gave only sporadic service – the programme was cancelled.


A changed culture
However, it is notable now, when even hospitals have public relations spokespeople, how direct the relationship between party leaders and the media could be back then. The taoiseach was unguarded by anyone but his own party troops – later, when she was producing the RTÉ current-affairs television programme Questions & Answers , Purcell had many rigorous conversations with Fianna Fáil press secretary PJ Mara. And in the book she makes the point that Garret FitzGerald did many things that his own press handlers were most unhappy about.

Naturally, this culture and the media’s own view of itself has changed over the years. My favourite moment in the book is a single sentence on page 164, when Purcell, by now in the new millennium and senior producer on The Late Late Show presented by Pat Kenny, shrewdly notes, in the course of outlining the show’s production schedule on the day of broadcast, that at 5.30pm “some female colleagues would even dash down to the hairdressers to get a blow-dry”.

Here also, there has been a shift in the culture. Nowadays, behind-the-scenes is part of the show, but in the 1970s and 1980s, it was a much less glamorous place.
That’s not all that has changed. In the book’s final chapter, Purcell gives a masterful analysis of how the Mission to Prey debacle shook a devalued RTÉ television current affairs department to its foundations. And how unfair and inadequate the subsequent disciplinary action was. This really feels like being inside RTÉ – in a good way. You can see how effective she must have been when she was a member of the RTÉ Authority for five years, from 1995.

Purcell is a team player, and she says she won’t write another book. “The loneliness of sitting in a room with a laptop,” she says. “I’m a sociable soul.”

Inside RTÉ is published this week by New Island

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