Badmouthing Bird and O'Brien is unbecoming


Sneering at Charlie Bird and Denis O’Brien betrays an unattractive Irish trait and fails to recognise their merits, writes SARAH CAREY

I EMIGRATED to America once. It was the early 1990s and there was no question of getting a job in Ireland. I still remember that horrible, sinking feeling as I got off the plane. Just like Charlie Bird, I was a home bird. I cried for a week, rang home and announced I was coming back.

After a few months I heard that someone called Denis O’Brien was setting up a telecommunications company. I wrote to him, admitting that I had no experience but I just needed someone to give me a chance. He did and the rest, as they say, is history. Well, my history.

So you’ll forgive me if the sneer-fest conducted at Bird and O’Brien over the past week got me down a bit. Today FM’s The Last Wordran an item criticising RTÉ for making a documentary about Bird’s experiences as Washington correspondent and no doubt TV reviewers are flexing their pejoratives for next weekend’s papers. Other journalists complained bitterly about O’Brien’s Haitian interview with Bird on RTÉ news. They didn’t mind what he said, but were indignant that he had sullied the airwaves with his presence.

I watched the Bird documentary on Monday night and thoroughly enjoyed it. As a study in media, it was really interesting to see how the news is physically made.

The piece on Guantánamo Bay illustrated the tight parameters within which the press must operate when reporting on the prison.

Another section showed how Irish journalists are herded around the White House on St Patrick’s Day and the desperately limited opportunity they have to extract anything from the occasion. It made me wonder why they bother going at all – apart from enjoying the junket, of course.

The programme had a human interest angle, too, as it covered Charlie’s struggle to settle down in Washington. He confessed he had made a horrible mistake but unlike me, he tried to make it work. You’d have to be pretty cynical and mean not to sympathise. But then I suppose there’s no one like the Irish to do cynicism. We prefer to wait until someone dies before saying something nice. So before he pops his clogs, I’ll have a go.

In a TV world of fake hair, fake teeth and fake tans, Bird remains fabulously immune from the artificiality of broadcasting. He never learned to hide his sense of discovery behind a veneer, dental or verbal.

His reports are raw and that’s what makes them sometimes amusing, sometimes almost amateurish but always, always, completely authentic. That’s why he’s a trustworthy and reliable reporter. In a world of mannequins, he is reassuringly human. I like that.

But the comments on O’Brien exposed the even more pathetic aspects of our national personality. Rosita Boland complained on Twitter that Bird’s interview with O’Brien on RTÉ news was “nothing but a massive plug for Denis O’Brien”. Justine McCarthy in the Sunday Timesremarked on the “PR benefits of having an RTÉ platform”.

The most spiteful comments though came from the Irish Daily Mail. In an article that accused O’Brien of “acting the saint”, Paul Drury reduced himself to asking why Digicel operated in Haiti at all. He complained that mobile phones are “hardly a priority on a Haitian shopping list”.

It’s hard to imagine that such ignorance exists. Countries like Haiti will remain forever dependent on aid unless they can develop a functioning economy. The simplest forms of trade require the means to communicate and cheap mobile phones represent genuine opportunity for a developing country and, yes, for Digicel. It’s a symbiotic relationship that will do more for Haiti than a lifetime of aid.

When there’s been a natural disaster, it’s useful if aid agency workers can phone each other. The natives, even if they are poor and black, may want to call their relations to find out if they’re safe. As for the accusation that O’Brien was “acting”, he was also helping to recover the bodies of his dead staff members.

There was no act.

In fact, for O’Brien and Haiti, the aid came first and the phones second. He first visited the country as a director of Concern and realised it needed a phone network. I found that out watching a CNBC report that would have made Drury choke on his cornflakes. He would have been infuriated by the footage of O’Brien and Bill Clinton in deep conversation.

CNBC interviewed O’Brien for the same reason Bird did – because he was a legitimate source of highly qualified news and analysis on Haiti, countering, for example, the expectation of violence with assurances that the Haitians were behaving with extraordinary dignity.

Of course, legitimacy is the point. O’Brien is not seen as legitimate because of the Moriarty tribunal and because of the tax. I’ll deal with the tribunal on publication. In relation to the tax, I think not paying the capital gains tax on the sale of Esat Telecom was a mistake, but currently O’Brien does pay tax on all income earned in Ireland. The income earned offshore stays offshore because he lives most of the year offshore. That’s the law.

If we don’t like it we can change it, but why do that when we can just moan about it instead? Sneering and complaining – the great Irish traits. Fortunately the Haitians seem to possess something more that hopefully will see them rebuild their country – mobile phones masts and all.