Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bouncing off my forehead

Two priests have played significant roles in where I am today. And coincidentally, I heard both of them on the airways over the last couple of weeks.

Neither influenced me in a religious sense. What they did was respectively offer me a belief in myself, and a space from which to do something with that belief.

In the late 1970s Fr Brian D'Arcy was teaching the journalism module of a Broadcasting course I was attending at the then Catholic Communications Centre in Booterstown, Dublin. Fr Colm Kilcoyne was the Director of the Centre.

Recently left the family business, I was working to find some kind of slot in journalism, having found that I really liked writing. Or, the other description, telling stories.

I was already moving onward from my efforts in The Bridge, Kilcullen's community magazine, with which I had been variously involved since it was founded. Both local papers, the Leader and the Nationalist, were taking material from me. I'd had some small successes with pieces in a couple of national titles. But it was a struggle, not least because I never had any training in the craft.

I was at this stage in my early 30s, and even if I had been young enough to undertake the two-year course which was then the only official way into journalism, I really couldn't afford the time. ('Young enough'? You had to be under 20 to start in it!) I found the Communications Centre course in a 'Night Classes' booklet. There was a place left, which was lucky because it was strictly limited to a dozen people.

The Journalism module was just a week in a six-week event. But it was extraordinarily formative to me, not least because it put me in touch with a number of professionals in the business whom I would never otherwise have met. Among them Tom Savage, Terry Prone, Mike Burns, Frank Delaney, Emer O'Kelly and several more who had inputs as tutors or had other involvements on the course. Some later became friends, others colleagues, which is often the same thing. After the Journalism week, I stayed on to complete the full course.

At the end of the Journalism module, Fr Brian had said that if I wanted to, I had what it took to be a professional journalist. When the overall course was over, Fr Colm offered me a job at the Centre.

By saying and doing what they did, both men gave me a self-belief which I badly needed at the time. I stayed with the Communication Centre for more than two years, continuing to learn and also teaching the essentials of journalism, broadcasting and audio-visual skills. At the same time I was building up my freelance work in a variety of publications, specialist and national. In particular I found I had an aptitude for radio, and it was while teaching the Journalism module on one occasion that the opportunity presented itself for me to begin broadcasting with RTE. A beginning which eventually resulted in me spending a decade as a broadcast news journalist with the national station.

Over the years since, I have bumped into both men on infrequent occasions, though I have always followed them through their own journalistic work. In particular Fr Brian, because he has tended to appear on radio and TV more.

Fr Colm was recently talking with Marian Finucane about his new book on Knock, which he was persuaded to write from his retirement. He no longer writes his weekly columns in a provincial newspaper, but for very many years in them he presented his religious thoughts as they could be worked out in real daily lives, and probably did more for the Catholic Church over that time than would a legion of Vatican cardinals. His gentle comments on matters such as celibacy for priests and homosexuality in that interview showed that, even at the venerable age of 77, he retains the thoughtfulness and wonderful compassion for which I remember him.

Fr Brian has also been in the news lately, most recently relating to the fact that he was 'censured' by a Vatican version of a Kangaroo Court last year, and has since had to submit all his writing and broadcasting scripts to a Church censor before publication. For a man whose lifelong journalism has spread the best of Christian principles as widely as possible in these islands, this is a fundamental and most undeserved humiliation from an organisation to which he has given his life.

In the Communications Centre, Fr Colm had one particular phrase which he used if any of us, or our students, said or wrote something which he believed wasn't clear. "That's bouncing off my forehead," he'd say, tapping said forehead with a finger. It was a signal that we were saying something which he—or by extension those with whom we were trying to communicate—couldn't understand.

Well, what the Vatican is now doing to priests whom the cardinals feel are stepping out of line is having that effect on me, and no doubt many others. As a communicator, I find the latest repressive actions of the Church against some of the best of its own to be reprehensible. As an observer, what they are up to is truly bouncing off my forehead.

No wonder the churches are no longer full.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Financially tagging the talking heads

I have a lomgtime friend in the motor business who is great company, has a sometimes quirky sense of humour, and is a rock of sense about business matters.

This week he came up with what I think is a great idea.

We’re all too familiar with the political and business ’spokespersons’ trotted out on our visual and audial airwaves to explain stuff. Whether a Government department civil servant, a political head of a committee, a university ’expert’ providing an opinion on our national financial policy, or whatever.

Most of the time they’re telling us what they think we at the listening end, the frontliners, should be doing. It can be Big Phil swingeing around with his big stick threats on the Household Charge, or Euro MP Joe Higgins articulately flailing his oar at everybody who isn’t a Socialist. It could be the Consumer Agency’s Ann Fitzgerald urging us to shop around as prices rise and incomes fall but mobile phone costs here are still three times what they are in the UK. Or representative men and women from industry and business lobby groups and unions.

Whoever. They’re all talking heads. Mostly they’re all saying the same things over and over. And pretty well all of that on the gloom end of the emotion spectrum.

Also, most are very well paid for their main jobs of telling us that we must tighten our belts even further.

So here’s my friend’s idea. The simplicity gets it a top score. He suggests that every time a public or semi-public servant is captioned while talking on a TV screen, their salary as paid by the citizen taxpayer should also be displayed. On radio, the ID out should also provide the information.

Similarly for Members of the Dail and Seanad, industry spokespersons, trade union leaders, bankers, judges, and anyone else speaking about the economy and other public matters on behalf of a large state or public company who is paid a salary for their position. And there might even be a case for the same relating to journalistic pundits, though not to reporters.

Academics who are regularly trotted out to pontificate on one side or the other would also come under the rule. After all, their salaries in their institutions are paid for out of the public purse.

To be fair, perhaps there should be a ceiling under which such information need not be provided. Say €60,000 a year, which also happens to be the salary which I believe ought to be the top payment to a TD, and then only if he or she manages to be elected to a second term. But that’s another story.

Y’know, if the idea was taken on board, we might well find that there are far less economic and political theatrics and talking heads preaching at us to tighten our belts any further. That would be a result.

If you have any thoughts on it, send them along (with a note of your annual salary if over the limit above).