Seamus McKee was an English teacher at my last school in the late seventies. At the time he had also been moonlighting as a sports presenter and I recall a story going around about him getting into hot water for fooling about with a local football result at the time.
It didn’t do him any harm since he eventually left teaching in 1981 and went into the BBC newsroom full time. I don’t know what age he is now, but I’m sixty now and he was already an established and respected teacher when I joined the school in Sixth Form.
All good things have to come to an end sometime. And by large Seamus has been a very good thing. He does his research thoroughly and even as a generalist tries his best to get ahead of the interviewee beforehand and subsequently leaves few hostages to fortune.
In fact, the BBC NI struggled in the early days to catch up with the Tsunami of news generated by the Troubles and to start with since slots were few, people like Harry Thompson and John Bennett were able to maintain their teaching careers for quite a while.
Having become a bit of an RTÉ Radio One addict from long years living away from home, I know Noel Thompson better both personally and through his professional output on television, not least the long-running Hearts and Minds.
I first met him was in the office in Ormeau Avenue he was deep in the archives of Slugger looking up some item I’d written about three years earlier. If he had friends amongst politicians it never showed, he always had the cattle prod to hand whenever it was needed.
My very first radio interview was with Wendy Austin. I was in my mid-20s, nervous as hell and working the community arts at the time so I’d never had a sniff of media training. She was one of those people who pulls things out of you you almost didn’t know was there.
Along with Karen Patterson, they are all consummate professionals. But the irreplaceable value that you burn when you lose them all at once is the institutional memory that comes with that experience. It suggests that a major strategic change may be afoot at senior levels.
Of course, change is not only welcome but necessary. But at a time when the media (and politics) is being swallowed whole by an infinite and tumultuous “now” experience probably matters more in Northern Ireland than it ever has.
It matters that you pre-map the whole arc of a story, not just rebroadcast opinions in the here and now. Making judgements on the value of any given contribution is not a breach of impartiality in public service broadcasting but is critical to its relevance and success.
If we are not careful, Facebook and Twitter will take us into world in which simply recycling what celebrities (or politicians) say, without wise reporters to weave them into a web of connection and context, will leave us with a world dominated by a tower of babble.
These veterans know that you cannot leave it to the politicians to shape the story. To do that you have to get above the territory. That territory in Northern Ireland may be fractured and divided so you cannot put a false coherence on it, but it is still necessary.
Societies do not change by themselves, and journalists are not neutral bystanders. In RTÉ’s celebration of Gay Byrne last night John Caden, who worked on his radio show, identified the single most critical aspect of his now much-lauded and nation re-shaping work:
The most important thing I would want to say about Gay is his unrelenting courage. Most of us have courage for a day, or a week or a year. But Gay faced up to his employers every day of the week and that was part of conducting the modernising of the country.
Gay Byrne retired too early: he himself said he had another few years left – and his series, the Meaning of Life, proved it. Too much is lost when experienced cops or experienced reporters are retired too early and leave rookies looking around wondering who’s who.
Retiring too much experience all at once, at a time when Northern Irish politics has never been more lost in trivia, is asking for trouble.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty