A proper Charlie or a fine reporter?

Love him or hate him, Charlie Bird will be missed on our TV screens. But is that really because of his news skills, asks Padraic Killeen

A proper Charlie or a fine reporter?

FAMILIARITY can breed contempt or indifference. Both sentiments have been the response to Charlie Bird’s retirement from RTÉ.

There have been generous tributes to Charlie, too, but there have also been many snide remarks. That’s unsurprising.

Charlie Bird has been inviting snark for ten years, since the bigwigs at RTÉ transformed the veteran newsman from a dogged, door-stepping reporter into a bona fide ‘television personality’ and ubiquitous presence on our screens.

The transition didn’t work. Charlie Bird, like him or not, doesn’t have that charisma. He was never the Elvis Presley of newsmen. He wasn’t even the Priscilla Presley of newsmen.

No, he was just Charlie Bird, a very good newsman. Not that this deterred RTÉ from seeing otherwise.

Their first stroke was to freight Charlie with the burdensome title ‘chief news correspondent’.

It will be left to historians to trawl through the RTÉ archives to discover when this preposterous handle was first lumped on Bird’s shoulders. But, over time, the constant references to Charlie’s status as ‘chief’ of the news correspondents began to rankle with the public.

Perhaps it suggested unsavoury visions of Charlie bossing around all the other reporters, spitefully stealing their canteen vouchers and giving them all Chinese burns. Perhaps it just suggested vanity on Charlie’s part.

Whenever an RTÉ news anchor linked to footage of tsunami-struck Asia or crisis-torn Haiti, after first proclaiming the reporter to be “our chief news correspondent, Charlie Bird,” you cringed.

Every mention of Charlie’s auspicious job title got in the way of the news itself. Implicitly, what RTÉ seemed to be saying was: “This crisis is so significant that we’ve sent our top boy out there. We’ve sent out the incredible and amazing RTÉ legend, Charlie Bird.”

It didn’t help that Charlie often went on to describe what he, Charlie Bird, was seeing in these places, and how he, Charlie Bird, felt about it.

And then, in a more hubristic move still, RTÉ encouraged Bird to ‘spread his wings’.

In the name of travelogues, they began flying Charlie out all over the world, convinced this was what the Irish public craved — to see their idol, Charlie Bird, much like the forlorn protagonist of the Where’s Wally books, just repeatedly jettisoned in various inhospitable environments, a bemused and bemusing emblem of 21st century man.

They sent him to the Amazon, to the Ganges, to the Antarctic, and even — the sheer horror of it — to the unholy political hotbed of Washington DC. As his well-documented moaning in each of these places indicated, none of these excursions worked out so well. What we got was footage of Charlie terrified by a jungle bug in the Amazon, or complaining of his sore feet in the Antarctic. (Nor will anyone ever forget what looked like his weird attempt at coitus with a seal in the South Pole.)

Yes, it was strange, awkward, and dull TV. But this was RTÉ’s attempt to transform Charlie Bird from a mildly eccentric newsman into an all-round, loveable RTÉ ‘personality’ — another bland automaton in their unrivalled stable of charm-deficient drones.

In the wake of his retirement, however, it’s seems a pity that Charlie Bird’s reputation as a journalist has been diminished by his antics with RTÉ this past decade.

Bird was always a very fine reporter, at the coal-face of many developments in the Northern peace process and, alongside George Lee, the guy who broke the Irish National Bank scandal.

Yet he received surprising flak in 2006 when he was the victim of a beating by rioters in the Love Ulster parade in 2006.

His account to camera shortly afterwards drew criticism and he was accused of making himself the centre of the story. (This was an accusation often levelled at him over the years.) It seemed harsh.

The attack was newsworthy, and you suspect that the animus directed toward Bird then — and even today, on YouTube, the clip draws vitriolic comments — stems as much from people’s justified disenchantment with RTÉ as it does from Bird’s perceived failings.

And that’s the irony. Charlie Bird — much-mocked for an alleged tendency to centralise his part in any story — is not even the centre of the story of his own retirement. RTÉ is.

And even when RTÉ’s ‘personalities’ depart off into the Elysian twilight, as Charlie does now, they are always fated to return, a la Gay Byrne, Mike Murphy, et al, a little bit down the line. So, irrespective of his very nice retirement package, this is not goodbye for Charlie Bird. It is merely ‘au revoir’.

No doubt, we’ll be seeing him soon in all the old, unfamiliar places.

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