Charlie Bird & George Lee

by John Boland

Last Monday week Charlie Bird told an uncaring nation that he was quitting his job as RTE’s Washington correspondent. Seven days later George Lee caused somewhat more of a stir when he announced that he was resigning from his nine-month-old post as a Fine Gael TD.

Such is Bird’s inflated notion of himself that he chose the two-part RTE documentary about his year in the United States as the platform for his revelation, thereby suggesting that his own story was of more importance than any to be found on Capitol Hill or the American heartlands. As for Lee, his abrupt defection from Fine Gael can be interpreted as the hissy fit of someone who hadn’t been immediately granted the starring political role to which he felt entitled.

There’s a pair of them in it, as Miriam O’Callaghan’s weekend radio interview show recognised a couple of months back when it invited both of them on as a preening double act. Thirteen years apart in age, they evinced in this interview no deep personal rapport, no persuasive reason why they should be so yoked together, though what came through very potently was each man’s undoubted sense of himself – a trait they appeared to admire in each other.

Or to put it another way, while opposites attract, so do like-minded egos. And while a highly-developed ego is an inevitable component of anyone pursuing a career as a public broadcaster, it’s hard to think of other RTE personalities with the unashamed arrogance of this duo – an arrogance that sees manner triumphing over matter, self over substance. You certainly don’t get that from Pat Kenny – he may be Ireland’s highest-paid broadcaster and for all anyone knows he may have an ego to match it, but if so he masks it publicly, opting instead to do what he’s paid to do, which is to enable, shape and further debate in which people other than himself are the story.

That’s why he’s valued, not just by his employers but by viewers and listeners, too. Bird and Lee, by contrast, have increasingly begun to see themselves rather than what they’re documenting as the real story. Thus, the Amazon and the Arctic became merely backdrop to the gripes, grievances and general woes of Bird as he tried to pitch tents, battle pesky insects and combat the cold on two epic journeys series that any other journalist would have been thrilled to experience and report on. Under the weight of Bird’s moans, they were risible to watch.

He was even more whiningly centre-stage in the recent two-part series abut his year as Washington correspondent, leading the aghast viewer to wonder why he’d been given a posting that hordes of his colleagues would kill for. His disaffection with the RTE newsroom had been well known (even though anyone else with his talents would have been ecstatic to be deemed the station’s Chief Correspondent), but this move to the US plainly wasn’t the answer. So why did RTE indulge it?

Lee has always been less of a self-pitying prima donna and indeed was accepted as something of a no-nonsense guru as he foretold the demise of the Celtic Tiger. But there were worrying signs of a self-absorbed pomposity even then and when he came to present George Lee in China, it was George Lee rather than China that predominated.

That was a bland and superficial series, an exercise in journalistic tourism, and last year’s series on the Berlin Wall was even shallower. By then Lee had defected to Fine Gael and seemed far too prickly and thin-skinned for politics when skewered on his actions by Sean O’Rourke in a memorable News at One radio interview. He was similarly unconvincing when grilled last Monday by the estimable O’Rourke on his defection from Fine Gael – O’Rourke asking him if his behaviour was that of an egomaniac  intent on putting himself above party and ignoring the wishes of the 27,000 people who had voted for him last June.

It’s hard to predict the future careers of either Bird or Lee. The former apparently will be taking up the job as chief correspondent that he held up to a year ago, but his well-known earlier discontent about it doesn’t suggest he’ll be any happier this time around, though disinterested observers might feel that he should count himself lucky to be afforded the opportunity. Ambitious newsroom rivals, on the other hand, might feel justified in resenting such a cushy reaccommodation.

In any event, the prospect for the weary RTE viewer is that a patently disenchanted Charlie Bird will be looming up at the head of news shows delivering his inimitable listen-to-me accounts of the day’s top stories.

And what of George Lee after his nine-month leave of absence from RTE? Well, as Sean O’Rourke pointed out to him last Monday, after his ill-fated alignment with a political party he can hardly expect to take up where he left off, pronouncing on the economic woes of the nation. So what’s the alternative? O’Rourke mischievously suggested the soon-to-be vacated Washington job. Too neat perhaps but don’t be surprised if it happens. Or don’t you care?

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