Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Terrific Travels of Charlie and George

Charlie Bird and George Lee have been having it tough these past few months - by their own account anyhow. Listening to them whine about life outside Montrose is dispiriting to this journalist who remembers being in awe of them at the ESB Media Awards a decade ago. I was nominated for a colour writing award (and seated at a table with a medical monthly and a agricultural pamphlet, I had a fair idea I shouldn't worry too much about having to make a speech, sit back and enjoy the free dinner). George and Charlie, though, were the real deal and were honoured for their investigative journalism in breaking the NIB tax evasion scandal. Charlie's speech went something along the lines of "We were warned off this story but we are not anybody's typewriters..."
Oh Charlie, what has it come to?

My op-ed in the midweek Herald went a little something like this...

The crèche in RTE is apparently a very fine facility. No doubt it will shortly be taking delivery of a batch of the hotly-tipped children’s bestseller, The Terrific Travels of Charlie and George.

Through the medium of nursery rhyme, this listen-and-learn tome will prepare the offspring of RTE staffers for life within the Montrose family.
“This little boy went to Washington; this boy went to the polls; both little boys went ‘Wah! Wah! Wah!’ – all the way home to D4.”
Don’t bother trying to pre-order Charlie and George at your local bookshop: it has a very limited run and the small print is illegible to anyone outside Donnybrook.

Here’s how the world works for the rest of us: we jack in our jobs to go adventuring, we get a P45. When George Lee decided to run for the Dail so he’d have something to tell the grandkids, he got a guarantee that a job would be still there for him in RTE twelve months later. When Charlie Bird harrumphed that he’d had enough of Washington, he was told to come home early out of the cold.

Why wouldn’t you want to return to an employer like that? The very notion that Lee and Bird are some sort of maverick risk-takers is laughable. RTE all but sewed their mittens onto a piece of string and threaded it through the armholes of their duffle coats before sending them out to play.

They didn’t have to be called in for their dinner. Homesick Charlie has returned over two years early from a four-year post. George spent nine months on the job for Fine Gael. That’s just long enough for him to have kittens over not being treated in the manner to which he had been accustomed.

There is a case to be made for sympathising with Curious George. He looked beyond his role as economics editor at the State broadcaster and thought he could see a different future. (Albeit with RTE standing nervously on the shore, ready to chuck a lifebuoy at him if the waters got choppy).

He couldn’t hack a single winter of discontent. I don’t know if he was being intentionally hilarious when he complained to Pat Kenny on Frontline that he was frustrated that most TDs were “institutionalised” by the comforts and cosiness of life in the Dail. It certainly gave me a laugh. Is there not plenty of opportunity to become institutionalised by the fine renumeration, facilities and jobs-for-life at RTE? I’d be only delighted to be incarcerated in that golden a cage.

There’s no suggestion of a timeout in the sin bin. Lee has been touted for the seat in Washington newly vacated by Bird. In any case, he’ll return to his full salary of around e150,000 which should keep him warm until he gets out of the decontamination zone.

Bird has already laid out his own welcome mat in the documentary about his ill-fated year in the US. “I’ll be back in Dublin, I’ll be walking around and I’ll go back to doing the job I was doing before I left,” he said. Brave little soldier.

Why wouldn’t they expect to be allowed to come home to Mammy Montrose with the minimal of consequences? RTE looks after family, see. That devotion to family saw Charlie Bird miss out on the major US story of last year: the sudden death of Michael Jackson. He was in Dublin at the time, all over the rather more important job of toasting George Lee as he went off to dip his toe into politics.

It still seems scarcely believable that Charlie Bird admitted in public that he couldn’t cope with the Washington job. I don’t need to tell a man who – along with Lee – broke the tax evasion scandal at NIB in the late ’90s that journalism is all about making contacts.

So why did he admit that he essentially felt past the point of being able to do that? More to the point, why did RTE think showcasing his inadequacies in a TV two-parter was a good idea?

A much sterner mother would have said to them both, ‘Climb that tree if you want but if you fall and break both your legs, don’t come running to me.”

The prodigal sons may not know when exactly they are coming back to RTE, or to exactly what role. But no doubt they are looking forward to regaling their wide-eyed colleagues with tales of how awful it is in the world outside Montrose over cups of subsidised tea.

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