Noel Whelan: Six of the best from Vincent Browne
The journalist leaves a trail of memorable moments as he prepares to sign off for good
It is kind of hard to believe that Vincent Browne is set to finish up his late night television show at the end of this month.
The programme had lost some of its steam in recent seasons, in part because Browne himself has been in the host chair less frequently, but it still has a large following of political obsessives craving their late-night fix, as well as entertainment fans for whom it eased the journey to sleep.
In his final weeks Browne is running his own selection of favourites from the programmes over the years. All regular #vinb watchers will have their own memorable moments. For what it’s worth here are my six best bits which capture the mix of chaos, controversy and wily confrontation, which made the programme often unmissable.
1: As illustrative of Brown’s courage I nominate a programme in January 2010 which he devoted to a debate on TV3’s decision to reveal the fact of Brian Lenihan’s cancer diagnosis. It is a rare thing when journalists take on their own bosses but Browne did just that. He was critical on air of the station’s decision to run the story on St Stephen’s Day and equally critical of the failure of the station’s senior editors to come down the corridor into his studio and either apologise for what had been done or defend the work of their journalists.
2: For sheer entertainment value I nominate a clip from April 2015 which Browne himself replayed this week. During a discussion on the Croke Park agreement Jack O’Connor of Siptu tore off his microphone and threatened to walk off the set when Browne confirmed to him that TV3 didn’t recognise its employees’ right to collective bargaining. Browne then accused O’Connor of a pre-planned stunt. O’Connor gave as good as he got in reply but ultimately persisted in his televised walk out. As a subtle dig in retaliation the producers ended the programme running the credits over a rendition of the Ray Charles classic Hit the Road Jack (“and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more”). The clip has since had almost quarter of a million views on YouTube.
3: The TV3 presidential debate in October 2011 can be nominated as an example of Browne’s capacity, when the mood takes him, to conduct forensic cross-examination. The high point was when he theatrically pulled out and cited one by one eight books by leading journalists or former combatants each of whom said Martin McGuinness had been leading member in the IRA long after he claimed to have left it. Browne then cited senior intelligence and political sources and others he had kept in touch with since he worked in Northern Ireland which informed his view that McGuinness had long been a senior IRA commander. Browne pressed McGuinness: how come they were all wrong? The Sinn Féin candidate’s response was uncharacteristically weak. All he could say was: “People jump to conclusions.”
4: As an example of the capacity of Browne and his producers for innovation, I would nominate his live broadcast from the George, the iconic gay bar on South Great George’s Street, on May 23rd, 2015, the day of the results of the marriage referendum. I have to confess that I turned down an invitation the day before to participate, thinking that broadcasting from a nightclub might demean the political significance of what it looked likely would be the outcome. Watching the programme back later that weekend I quickly realised I was completely and utterly wrong. It was mayhem and it was moving television. Thousands thronged the dancefloor celebrating while patrons intermingled with panellists to each tell their story of what the result meant to them. It was Browne at his best, ringmaster to a wonderful, impactful, popular political programme.
5: To mark Browne’s genuine commitment to diversity in his contributors I nominate an episode of his People’s Debate monthly live show broadcast in April 2015 when his producers put more than 150 women into a studio for a special programme on gender issues. The range of impressive voices gathered put a lie to the suggestion made by other programme-makers that they just can’t find female contributors on some topics.
6: As illustrative of the programme's occasional impact I nominate the episode on February 5th, 2011, when Mick Wallace declared live on the programme that he would be a last-minute Independent candidate in the Wexford constituency for the general election. I remembered texting two candidates, from different parties standing in the county when I saw it. Both of whom were dismissive of Wallace’s chances. As well as the profile he had built up on Browne’s programme Wallace was prominent in youth soccer and otherwise in Wexford. He topped the poll with 13,386 first preferences. Appearances on the programme also made the late Peter Mathews who, having joined Fine Gael, also won a Dáil seat in the same election.
We won’t appreciate what fun we had in Browne’s version of political coverage until it’s gone.