'RTÉ is my mammy'
Viewers love him and he's a decent, hardworking journalist, but RTÉ's habit of parachuting Charlie Bird in to all the big stories rankles with some of his colleagues. Emma Browne profiles the veteran news correspondent.
Charlie Bird rang the RTÉ newsroom. He was in a danger zone, amid mines, explosions, ammunition fire and mayhem. The newsroom was unperturbed but the next day the Sun reported the event. Once again Charlie Bird was making news not reporting it. He had wandered inadvertedly on to a firing range of the Irish army on the Wicklow mountains.
He is back personally in the media limelight again, not because of any personal escapade this time but becaue of the publication of his autobiography (autobiography at 57?) co-written by himself and Sunday Tribune journalist, Kevin Rafter (why does a journalist require a co-writer?).
Born in 1949, Charlie Bird was the youngest of four boys, growing up in the Dublin suburb of Goatstown. In those days he was known as Charlie Brown Bird, a nickname from birth as he was born a shade of brown due to iodine treatment his mother received whilst pregnant. He went to the High School in Sandymount. He was not academic and failed his Leaving Cert. He has always felt a lack in this regard and "resented my own poor academic record".
He was never close to his family. He says there was never any praise or encouragement from his mother about his career.
After school his first job was making perfume at the Ponds factory in Rathgar. Around this time he got involved in politics through the Labour party and the Young Socialists.
While working as a lounge boy in the Goat pub he was offered a job by the Irish Times news editor Donal Foley, as a library assistant at the paper. That was in 1971.
In 1974 he got his big break via Sunday Independent journalist Eoghan Harris, who was then a producer with Seven Days, as a researcher on the programme. He worked in the RTÉ current affairs division until 1979 when he got a job as reporter. When he first went into RTÉ he wanted to become a producer and later applied for a job as one. He was turned down and he believes that it was because he didn't have a university degree. "I suppose now with hindsight wasn't I lucky that I didn't get into television production as I never would have become a reporter and travelled the world."
Bird has reported on many of the major stories around the globe – the Asian tsunami, Kurdish refuges, Rwanda, Somalia, and 9/11. He has also broken many domestic stories – Cian O'Connor and the horse-doping "scandal", an interview with Jim Monaghan of the Colombia Three and the story of the National Irish Bank overcharging its customers. He was also the RTÉ's liaison with the IRA, delivering many of their statements in the late 1990s.
In 1998 he got his biggest scoop – the National Irish Bank (NIB) controversy. He, along with RTÉ's economics editor, George Lee, broke the story that NIB had offshore investment schemes for customers who were evading tax and that they overcharged their customers. Bird and Lee were named journalists of the year in 1998 as result of the story.
The story also brought him the worst time in his professional life with the Beverley Cooper Flynn libel case. As part of the NIB story Bird reported, falsely, that Cooper Flynn had sold a customer one of the investment schemes. She sued Bird, Lee and RTÉ and the longest-running libel case in the history of the state ensued. Bird says: "It was hell. There is no other way to put it." One day during the High Court trial he broke down in the Four Courts. He was supported through this time by friends and family, in particular RTÉ colleagues Sean O'Rourke, the News at One presenter, and Joe O'Brien, RTÉ's agriculture correspondent.
Although now he is RTÉ's most high-profile reporter, he did not rise through the ranks easily. He was turned down for every job he applied for in RTÉ – Moscow correspondent, London correspondent and political correspondent. For a long time he felt frustrated in RTÉ and writes in the book that: "RTÉ tends to put people in a box and leave them there."
In the 1990s, RTÉ created titles for him of 'special news reporter' and 'chief news correspondent' and he has been happier there since.
The 'creation' of these titles for Bird has led to some tensions in the news room, as has his close relationship with director of news Ed Mulhall. Some RTÉ news reporters feel that Bird is parachuted in on their areas when a big story breaks. They also feel that in support of Bird, Mulhall gives him too much free reign. He is very encouraging of Bird's stories and in particular supported him to pursue the NIB story. Bird says: "I believe he [Mulhall] is the probably one of the most talented public-service broadcasters this country had ever had I am really fortunate to have been working in RTÉ during the period he was there."
But the tensions between Bird and his colleagues are limited. Generally he is well-liked and seen as a nice, hardworking guy around the newsroom.
But at one stage during this time in RTÉ he seriously thought about leaving. Eamon Dunphy's contract on Today FM was coming to and end and they thought he might leave, so they offered Bird the position if that occurred. In the end Dunphy renewed his contract and Bird didn't leave.
Mulhall and RTÉ are keen to use him on stories – the audience trusts him now and he is seen as an honest, straight guy who asks the questions people on the street would ask. This has brought him some criticism in the past when he is seen to ask 'soft' questions.
Bird believes he has stood out as a news reporter because of his unique name and the fact that he has been "fortunate and lucky" in relation to stories. "I sometimes feel that I have won the lotto." However for many others he stands out because of his unique reporting style – hyperactive, breathless, shouting to camera, boyish enthusiasm.
But sometimes this style singles him out for the wrong reasons. One diplomat said a few years back: "Charlie Bird makes every report sound as if Godzilla has escaped from Portlaoise."
He is also seen as an influential reporter. He is credited with helping Bertie Ahern win the election in 1997 through his reporting of Bertie on the campaign trail. Fianna Fáil was so impressed that they offered him the job of government press secretary afterwards. After an outcry from opposition leaders during the 1997 election coverage, RTÉ decided Bird would not cover any party leaders in the 2002 election as he was seen as too influential.
Despite his experience as a reporter Bird can be naïve. He was shocked at Fianna Fáil's "bare-faced lie" about its (non-existent) tracking polls in the 1992 election and was surprised to learn the Evening Herald used a fake byline.
Bird separated from his wife, Mary, in 1998 and lives in Ashford, Co Wicklow. He has two grown-up daughters, Ness and Orla. A self-confessed workaholic, he says he loves the chase of the story. But he makes time to go hill-walking in the Wicklow mountains and enjoy a pint of Guinness.
The book gives the impression that he loves the 'cloak and dagger' nature of reporting – secret destinations for interviews, hush-hush meetings with IRA sources. When he was researching the Cian O'Connor story he heard a horse outside his bedroom one night and when he woke up his garden had been dug up by horses hooves.
He thought someone may have been sending him a message, but it transpired that some horses had escaped from a local stable.
He says he will "end my days" in RTÉ. "RTÉ is my mother, my mammy. I don't know to be honest if I could leave RTÉ now. I probably would die."