From goggle box to ballot box

Sat, May 9, 2009, 01:00

PROFILE:GEORGE LEE: He is television's best-known prophet of doom, but will his move from broadcasting to politics make him the the saviour of our battered economy?

HE'S OUR very own secular version of the Prophet Isaiah, who saw mountains collapsing and valleys lifted up. Night after night, from the lofty platform of RTÉ, George Lee intoned his economic message: "The end is nigh." And, this week, the nation watched openmouthed as its hero made a death-defying leap from pundit to politician.

Earlier this year, Lee's name began to surface in speculation about the Fine Gael nominee in the Dublin South byelection caused by the death of Fianna Fáil veteran Seamus Brennan.

But other names were also being churned out by the rumour mill: Ivan Yates, Alan Dukes, Peter Sutherland, David McWilliams - even former taoiseach John Bruton, now that his term as the EU's man in Washington DC was coming to an end.

In a political scene that can be as leaky as a sieve, Fine Gael kept their big secret in a manner that makes the adherents of Sicilian omerta look positively indiscreet. Even senior party people were told only that it would be, "someone who, in the present economic climate, will have no trouble getting elected".

The approach to Lee was made by party general secretary Tom Curran and director of organisation Frank Flannery. Leader Enda Kenny was not directly involved, although he was keenly aware of every move in the saga.

"We formally approached him after the April Budget," says a party insider.

At first, there was no sign of the Government moving the writ for the byelection, but this began to change very rapidly under pressure from Fine Gael. That meant it was decision time for George.

"We contacted George again and asked him to think about it." Lee took a long weekend with his family to mull over his course of action.

Some senior RTÉ people reportedly either did not know or chose not to believe their economic guru was about to jump ship. In an ideal world, Lee would have taken a fortnight off work, given plenty of advance notice to the powers-that-be in Montrose and made a smooth transition from broadcasting to politics.

But that's not how it worked out. Anyway, with that time-span, the secret might well have leaked and Fine Gael would have lost the element of surprise.

It's been an undeniable coup for the main opposition party. Even Lee himself did not seem to have thought things through fully and was clearly taken aback by a forensic radio interview from Sean O'Rourke on RTÉ Radio One's News at One.

However, RTÉ colleagues are universally complimentary about their recently-departed colleague. "He was an extremely popular figure in the newsroom, a very, very decent sort of person," says one of his co-workers, and that is typical of the reaction in the newsroom.

BUT THE MOVE into the political arena came like a bolt from the blue: "A lot of people were gobsmacked - people who thought they knew him."

At the same time there is a certain degree of admiration for the risk he is taking.

Lee's broadcasting style irked some journalists in the wider media who felt he was editorialising and that, when you gave him a story, there was only going to be one outcome, a gloomy dirge of doom. But at the same time it is hard to see how the economic crisis could be reported in the old "he said/she said" mode.

In recent times, though, it was becoming clear that Lee was getting emotionally involved with the story. He sounded like a man who wanted to move from diagnosing the disease to making an attempt at treating it.

Married to wife Mary, and father to two children, aged 12 and 20, he lives in Cabinteely and famously commutes to work by the quirky "personal transporter" Segway.

Dublin South has a history of lifting politicians to the top of the mountain and then casting them down to the depths. Poll-toppers Anne Colley of the Progressive Democrats and Eithne Fitzgerald of Labour both subsequently lost their seats. "In that constituency, with that profile, I think he will be elected," says a seasoned observer with longstanding Fianna Fáil connections.

"It's that kind of constituency, they're the kind of people who write letters to The Irish Times, complaining about things - it's full of those. They are an ungrateful bunch: they elect you and then give you a kick in the nether regions," the longtime Fianna Fáil observer adds.

Tactically, Lee might have been better advised to wait until the general election where another constituency could have been found for him. Fine Gael already has two incumbent TDs in Olivia Mitchell and Alan Shatter and, even if Lee makes it this time, it will be a tough challenge for the party to win three seats next time around.

More than one observer sees him as a courageous but somewhat naive "Mr Deeds Goes to Washington" character who may not fully appreciate what he is letting himself in for. In the words of Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan on TV3 this week: "I think George Lee will discover how much easier it is to be a commentator than a public figure.

BORN ON September 27th 1962, Lee's family background is modest. His father was a motor mechanic, mother a hairdresser and young George was the seventh in a family of eight children. No old-style Fine Gael silver spoons there.

The family lived in Templeogue but young George crossed the River Dodder to attend Coláiste Éanna, a non-fee paying Christian Brothers' School in the Dublin suburb of Ballyroan. "He was very quiet in school," recalls a classmate. "There was nothing during those years to indicate the kind of fiery, feisty, opinionated person he would become. He was studious but shy and certainly didn't stand out."

In the early 1980s, Coláiste Éanna boys did not tend to get to university. There were six or seven in George's class who made the leap but he wasn't one of them - at least, not at first.

Lee joined the civil service as an executive officer in the Central Statistics Office. Two years later he started at University College Dublin where he studied economics under such distinguished academics as Brendan Walsh and Peter Neary.

He emerged, in the late Micheal MacLiammoir's phrase about Oscar Wilde's educational progress, "encrusted with honours". He got a First in his final exams in "pure" economics and was offered not one but three postgraduate scholarships, one of them at UCD.

Lee was the first Irish recipient of a Rosebery Studentship, and used this as well as a scholarship from Anco (a predecessor of Fás, the training and employment authority) to fund a Master's in Economics at the prestigious London School of Economics where his specialist area was labour economics and unemployment.

Armed with his newly-conferred MSc, he took up a lecturing post at NUI Galway. From there he went to the research department of the Central Bank where he spent two years.

After that he moved to the specialist treasury consultancy, FTI. Around this time the Sunday Business Post was starting up and Lee made his first foray into journalism with a weekly economics column. Developing a taste for the media scene, he took up a full-time job with the Sunday Business Post,undeterred by the substantial salary cut his move into journalism entailed. He went back to the business world with a move to Riada Stockbrokers, where he spent a year before taking up a position in 1992 as a reporter with RTÉ's Marketplace.

LEE FOUND THE TRANSITION to broadcast journalism pretty tough going initially, but he persevered and, three years on, moved to the RTÉ newsroom where he became economics correspondent, getting promoted to economics editor in 1996.

He was joint winner of the Journalist of the Year award with Charlie Bird in 1998 for "opening the door on a series of banking and tax scandals" at National Irish Bank. They turned their findings into a book entitled Breaking the Bank.

But the real high point of Lee's journalistic career came with the collapse of the Celtic Tiger boom. He was one of the few who saw it coming and, despite charges of "negativity", he continued to hammer out his message.

At a time when senior politicians on the government side were in denial, Lee's prophecies of doom were not welcomed. But he was a man with a mission who clearly felt it was his duty to warn the nation of its impending fate.

Unfortunately for his critics and for the nation, Lee turned out to be right. As one admirer puts it: "He was brave enough to be negative when it was considered anti-national."


Who is he?George Lee, former economics editor of RTÉ who has embarked on a career in politics.

Why is he in the news?He's Fine Gael's surprise candidate in the Dublin South byelection.

Most appealing characteristic: Directness; George tells it like it is.

Least appealing characteristic: His relentlessly negative monotone gets on some viewers' nerves.

Most likely to say:"The light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train."

Least likely to say:"Everything's coming up roses."