Goodnight to Vincent Browne, an unorthodox, tenacious man of paradoxes

Have you ever the heard the story about how Vincent Browne sought and secured the help of then-taoiseach Garret FitzGerald to save the now defunct Sunday Tribune, asks Daniel McConnell.

Vincent Browne with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on the set of TV3's 'Tonight with Vincent Browne' show. Picture: Peter Houlihan

It was the mid-1980s and Ireland was in the economic doldrums.

The Tribune had lived on the edge financially and had, by this stage, come to the attention of the Office of the Revenue Commissioners, which was seeking to wind up the company.

Unlike on previous occasions, the Revenue was refusing to meet Browne, the then-editor, and his finance director.

Panicked, Browne reached out to Mr FitzGerald, whom he had known and supported during his days in Young Fine Gael, to see if he could at least urge the Revenue to meet.

A meeting was duly convened, at the behest of the taoiseach, but Browne was met with a major shock.

The Revenue officials told him the company was to be wound up, with notices already placed with national newspapers for the following day.

Fiery and determined, Browne pleaded for a reprieve and said he had a plan which would see the debt repaid.

He asked, if he could get the adverts pulled in the other papers, would Revenue grant leave for the Tribune to continue.

Reluctantly, the Revenue officials agreed, but went away thinking the die was already cast.

But, Browne, tenacious, rang the advertising managers in the newspapers all over town and told them the story.

Importantly, he insisted the advertisers did not tell their news desks what was going on, because if it got out, the Tribune would be sunk.

Incredibly, they all did, and the Tribune got out of jail and Browne remained on as editor until he was sacked by the board, which had now become dominated by Independent Newspapers.

Founder Vincent Browne with former taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald at the relaunch of ‘Magill’ magazine in 1997. Picture: RollingNews.ie

Having worked as a columnist at the Irish Times and the Sunday Times since his sacking, Browne began to work in RTÉ, hosting a late-night radio show.

That show is now remembered for its ground-breaking coverage of the tribunals which had gripped the political system and the country.

Browne and his team had originally sought to broadcast recordings his team had made of the McCracken tribunal hearings in a bid to humanise the testimony, which remained beyond the reach of the TV cameras.

RTÉ bosses were deeply reluctant to allow the tapes be broadcast, but Browne, as a lawyer, questioned whether there was any legal barrier to them being aired.

In the end, he telephoned Judge Brian McCracken, who said that while he was not sure the tapes could not be broadcast, he requested Browne not do so, saying it would lead to a stampede from interested parties to the Four Courts.

But the something amazing happened. Apparently, it was the judge himself who suggested to Browne that he use actors to reproduce the hearings, as had previously been done to allow broadcasters to run interviews with Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams, who was still under the Section 31 ban.

“What a wonderful idea,” Browne said, and he enlisted the help of Joe Taylor and Malcolm Douglas.

Broadcasting history was made.

Limerick native Browne, at age 73, has an incredible legacy in journalism behind him, reaching far beyond his 10-year stint as the anchor of the Tonight Show on TV3, which finished this week.

The subject of many plaudits, Browne has been a unique presence in Irish journalism for more than 50 years. Bolshy, difficult, and prone to bouts of outrage, according to many who worked for him, he has been an unorthodox, fearsome, and tenacious advocate for journalism and has on more than one occasion put his own money where his mouth is. He was crucial in the establishment of the College Tribune newspaper in UCD, which continues to thrive to this day and is the current student newspaper of the year.

But his ventures were not always successful.

His Village Magazine was personally and journalistically fulfilling, but was a financial disaster and he was ultimately forced to sell his home to help fund his folly.

However, it was also part of the reason he ended up in TV3. In 2007, Browne’s time in RTÉ was coming to an end as it was made known to him that his contract was not going to be renewed.

He put out feelers to TV3 and to Newstalk, the independent radio station which was part of the Denis O’Brien stable of stations.

A deal was quickly done with then-boss David McRedmond and Browne became a most unusual addition to the TV3 roster.

The financial crash was the making of the show and, in its golden period of 2010 and 2011, the programme was required watching.

Largely helped by the willingness of top-tier politicians to appear, Browne became the public prosecutor in chief, eviscerating guests with sometimes cruel determination.

Guests would often leave the show “seething” as former minister Mary O’Rourke has said, only to reappear a couple of weeks later once their fury had died down.

However, as the crash turned to recovery, the standard of guest began to decline, as many Fine Gael ministers and TDs began refusing to appear, for fear of being kicked around.

Many different format ideas were used in order to revive the show, but it would ultimately revert back to the default position.

Suggestions that his leaving the station was brought about because of moves by management to assert more control on the veteran broadcaster have been dismissed as “utter bollocks”.

Throughout his career, Browne also sought to stand up to the powerful, from taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen to the ECB overlords who forced us to socialise our banking debt.

Vincent Browne asks Taoiseach Bertie Ahern about his personal finances at the launch of the 2007 Fianna Fáil manifesto. Picture: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie

But none more so than Denis O’Brien.

The pair had been friendly from the time O’Brien was company secretary at the Sunday Tribune. But their relationship became acrimonious in the wake of the Moriarty Tribunal report, which was damming of O’Brien’s winning of the second mobile network licence.

Browne accused O’Brien of seeking to use his personal “considerable wealth to stifle criticism” from journalists.

Browne said threats by O’Brien to personally sue him over comments made on his show, and in Browne’s Irish Times column, are “an abuse of the wealth and the attendant power you have acquired”.

“I will do what I can to resist that,” Browne said as he published the correspondence sent to him by O’Brien.

So now, as the curtain comes down on his TV3 show, what’s next for Vincent Browne?

He has been working on a book on one of his major journalistic targets, former taoiseach Charles J Haughey.

It is likely to be at least another year before it hits the stands, but is already highly anticipated.

Notwithstanding their public animosity, Browne and Haughey reconciled before the ex-taoiseach died in 2006, with Browne regularly making his way to Kinsealy for an audience.

Such paradoxes are central to who Vincent Browne is and have been central to his successes throughout his long career.

Some of #VinB’s best bits

By Joe Leogue

  • When Jack O’Connor of Siptu walked off the show during a discussion on the Dunnes Stores strike: “Ok, good luck Jack, goodbye now. It’s quite a stunt, isn’t it? Well done Jack. It’s impressive isn’t it?” — the show ended with Ray Charles’ classic song ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ playing over the credits.
  • Responding to Conor Lenihan’s angry rebuke to the suggestion that his decision not to resign from the Government was out of self-interest, despite his declaration that he had no confidence in Taoiseach Brian Cowen: “You’re not going to shout me down, and you can take me ‘full on’ all you bloody like... There’s a happy coincidence between your self-interest and what you perceive is the national interest,” Browne said to Lenihan’s threat to take him ‘full on’ over the accusation.
  • Responding to New Land League Jerry Beades’ claim that the repossessed Gorse Hill house in Killiney — which sold earlier this month for €9.5m — was a ‘bog standard house’: “You’re ridiculous, this is ridiculous. What on Earth are you doing in the middle of this? Pretending this is the Land League. The Land League was set up around 1871 to deal with tenants who were being ripped off by landlords, they had no fixture of tenancy... [Mr Beades interrupts]... Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, would you please stop talking? Jerry, would you just shut up for a moment, just shut up.”
  • Greeting Fianna Fáil’s newest recruit, Stephen Donnelly: “This is the first time Stephen Donnelly has been on the programme with me as presenter since he made the statesman-like, careerist move from the Social Democrats to Fianna Fáil. [pause]. Do you feel embarrassed by what you’ve done?” Browne continued: “You’ve joined Fianna Fáil because you think your chances of getting a ministerial job is enhanced by joining Fianna Fáil. It looks utterly careerist and shameless.”
  • An exasperated Browne to Labour’s Dominic Hannigan, having asked the then-Labour TD 10 times over a four-minute period as to why the Government paid €1.5m to unsecured bondholders: “Ok, I give up, I’ve asked you the question several times and you make these waffle speeches.”
  • “God it would do your head in, wouldn’t it?” after two Fianna Fáil TDs explained why they voted confidence in then-Taoiseach Brian Cowan.
  • Vincent asks Labour’s Susan O’Keeffe if she’s been training: “Did you take a coaching lesson on how to avoid questions before you became a candidate?” “No Vincent, I did not.” “So it just came naturally?”
  • During a debate during the presidential election campaign, Browne confronts the Martin McGuinness with a series of books, all of which state Mr McGuinness was a member of the IRA. “How come we are all wrong? That all the intelligence agencies are wrong, all the ministers for justice are wrong, and all these books that were written about the conflict in Northern Ireland, and my own experience, we’re all wrong. How is that?”
  • And finally, Browne’s exasperation at the Irish Water situation reaches boiling point. “And the fella who made the real cock-up is given a promotion to the European Commission, it’s fucking ama... I’m sorry, it’s amazing... I apologise, I’ve been off for a few weeks.”



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