Beacon of political broadcasters in first decades of RTÉ

John O’Donoghue: October 6th, 1931 – September 11th, 2014

John O’Donoghue

John O’Donoghue

 

With a twinkle in his eye, an impish grin framed by two of the deepest dimples seen on TV, John O’Donoghue who has died at 82, was a shining light of the first decade of Irish television.

He was a star among stars, up against heavy hitters – academic David Thornley, patrician Brian Cleeve, scholarly Paddy Gallagher and fellow journalist Ted Nealon – chairing studio debates that gripped the nation.

The leading current affairs programme 7 Days, which O’Donoghue anchored, regularly gained larger audiences than the Late Late Show.

O’Donoghue presented Broadsheet, a current affairs programme called 64, 65 and 66, and later 7 Days, the channel’s current affairs flagship, founded in 1966, with Lelia Doolan as producer. He anchored the inaugural TV election count marathon in 1965, and was joined by Prof Brian Farrell for the 1969 event.

His immediate grasp of an issue was astonishing. “Give him a sheet of paper five minutes before the camera rolled and it all went in,” a colleague marvelled. TV then was filmed “as live,” John Bowman noted in Windows and Mirror, his account of RTÉ’s first 50 years.

A six -minute interview was just that – time and resources ruled out editing. “Television was creating a new interest in politics. To the viewer and voter television was comprehensible and very informal,” Bowman wrote. The modern TV interview was being born, with O’Donoghue, the pioneer.

But if the nation could not get enough, politicians were appalled. Here they were being called to account by TV professionals running verbal rings around them.

When taoiseach Seán Lemass pushed through the new TV channel, he had naively expected the new medium to continue the respectful acquiescence of the previous generation of radio journalists, while he set in train major changes and began to open Ireland out towards Europe.

Relations between politicians and the public service broadcaster are not meant to be comfortable, but this inaugural voyage took place in choppy waters.

Premature departures of Telefís Éireann’s founding director general and chairman, Edward J Roth in 1962, and Éamonn Andrews in 1964, bore witness to those strains.

Back in the studio, presenters interrupting politicians, essential to keep a programme on schedule, became a flashpoint.

O’Donoghue’s timing was superb, unobtrusively slipping in the supplementary question that kept the interview focused. Complaints however abounded. The immediate following of a statement by minister for agriculture Charles Haughey by a rebuttal by farmers’ leader Rickard Deasy was taken as a gross impertinence.

In time, politicians would learn to cope. In the meantime, “shoot the messenger” became the political response.

Bizarrely, a 7 Days investigation into illegal moneylending in 1970 became the focus of a tribunal of inquiry into the journalism revealing it. Programme director Muiris Mac Conghail and young reporter Bill O’Herlihy were reprimanded for exaggeration – in another era they would have been commended for shining a light on a very sordid exploitation of the poorest in society. 7 Days was moved into RTÉ’s news division where it could be more closely supervised.

O’Donoghue was brought up in Milltown, Co Kildare, the only child of two teachers, Seán O’Donoghue from Kerry and Áine Twoomey from Clare.

He studied history at University College Dublin under Prof Desmond Williams. “I learned from him that it is not the business of historians or commentators to make moral judgments,” he later wrote. “Everyone is entitled to be heard because of our common humanity.”

On graduation O’Donoghue tried school teaching for a couple of years, then became a barrister, but never practised.

The Irish Times’s Jack White published some of his articles. White would shortly leave the paper for the new TV station and encouraged O’Donoghue to apply for a job there.

“John was a model of the kind of passionate-dispassionate, witty, truth-seeking explorer who is modest and trustworthy and the cornerstone of intelligent, humane public service,” says Lelia Doolan.

His impishness stayed with him. Post-retirement he remained a vigilant non-conformist, provoking his adoring grandchildren – including broadcaster Dylan Haskins – to push back against the establishment, to speak up and make democracy work for them.

Concerned about a recent historical programme’s accuracy, he wrote: “Please be careful of the record. Many of us paid a high price to establish it in the first place.”

O’Donoghue was predeceased by his wife Una Cowley. He is survived by his daughters, Deirdre O’Donoghue, Jane Haskins and Margaret and Una O’Donoghue.