Vincent Browne: I saw politicians squirm in fear before him

Michael O’Regan recalls the career of a tough journalist who hated to be liked

Vincent Browne is retiring from his show on TV3. Here are just a few of his most memorable moments.

 

It was to be no routine meeting of Kerry County Council in the Ashe Memorial Hall in Tralee.

Vincent Browne was in town to assess the level of debate as part of a series he was writing for The Sunday Independent, where he worked at the time.

It was the 1970s and I was covering the meeting for The Kerryman, where I then worked. Vincent joined me at the press table.

The councillors were intrigued and somewhat apprehensive.

“What will he write about us?’’ one asked me anxiously.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “But you had better be on your best behaviour.”

It was not to be the first time I would observe Browne’s ability to strike terror into politicians.

Years later, while working with The Irish Times and appearing as a panellist on his radio and television programmes, I saw politicians squirm in a charged studio atmosphere.

He was equally fearless in print, not least in Magill magazine which he founded and which broke new ground in Irish journalism. There was a rapid turnover of editors.

I was conscious of this when I was asked to write a speculative piece about a new editor as the post, yet again, became vacant.

Chattering classes

The then editor of The Irish Times Douglas Gageby requested it, knowing Magill was read by the chattering classes in what was then a much smaller media world. He also admired Browne’s journalism.

It was the early 1980s and there were no mobile phones and no email.

The Magill offices were located in Merrion Row in Dublin and the staff sometimes went for a drink in O’Donoghue’s pub after work.

It was late evening and I rang the pub’s public telephone. Whoever answered, amid the well lubricated background conversation, said they would locate Vincent. He was not very forthcoming on who the next editor might be.

As a regular reader of the magazine, I knew the only high profile member of the staff remaining was Gene Kerrigan, now a columnist with The Sunday Independent.

“Would it be fair to say it will be Gene Kerrigan?” I asked.

There was a pause. “It might be fair,” Browne replied. “But it would not be accurate.”

His pursuit of the origins of Charlie Haughey’s wealth throughout the 1980s, before a tribunal revealed all, became the stuff of legend.

They had a mercurial relationship.

Every line

At a press conference launching a Fianna Fáil policy document, Browne pursued every line with the increasingly irritated party leader.

“What is there for the ordinary people?” thundered Browne.

Haughey fixed him with a withering gaze. “Mr Browne, I would never confuse you with the ordinary people,” he replied.

He had his private likes and dislikes among the politicians he interviewed over the years and he did not hold back in post-programme chats.

“Prematurely waistcoated,” he said of one earnest young man making his way up the political ladder, following his then RTÉ Radio programme many years ago.

He is incapable of accepting praise of any kind. Phrases such as “the most influential journalist of his generation’’ would make him squirm.

In RTÉ one evening, I referred to a complimentary reference I had heard about something he had written. He dismissed it with a grimace.

I suspect this week was very difficult for him as he listened to the kudos heaped on him by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and others as his TV3 show came to an end.

Behind the unpredictability and the sometimes gruff exterior, there is an enormously likeable man with a huge social conscience.

He will hate to read that.

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