Vincent Browne has nothing to lose... literally. It was revealed over the past few weeks that the veteran journalist is selling his house to pay off the debts run up by Village, the magazine he established in 2004. This financial failure sits incongruously alongside the success of his TV3 programme Tonight with Vincent Browne, in which he uses over 40 years of journalistic experience to regularly stick the boot into prevaricating politicians and pompous pundits.
His reputation is such that I'm worried he'll stick the boot into me as I question him about his long and distinguished career. Indeed, he's characteristically brusque when the phone rings midway through our conversation and he attempts to lure the caller onto his show ("Ah, you'll do it. No. We'll say nothing more about it. You'll make the time. Ah you will! You will. I'll see you there."), but for the most part he's reflective and philosophical, even issuing a caveat about the flawed nature of memory.
He learned just how flawed, he says, because from 1975 until 1983 the state tapped his phone and kept meticulous records ("Looking at the transcripts, I was very struck by how unreliable my memory was."). The tapping of journalists' phones in the 1980s has become symbolic of that repressed, pressurised and desperate decade. When Michael Noonan, then minister for justice, revealed that his predecessor Sean Doherty had been tapping the phones of Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold, all hell broke loose. "In response, Doherty said 'what's so bad about tapping journalists' phones? Vincent Browne's phone has been tapped for years!'" Browne feigns wide-eyed surprise. "Well, that was the first I'd heard about it!"
He admits that when his phone was first tapped there were legitimate reasons to do so: he had been in contact with IRA fugitive Dáithí Ó Conaill. But by the time the wire-tap was up and running he and Ó Conaill had fallen out. "So there was nothing of consequence in my transcripts. The longest was a conversation with an old friend from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Most of it was just terrible gossip about people we knew. I was reading this and laughing out loud. There was a fellow from the Department of Justice sitting across from me and I asked 'why would anyone bother typing all that out?' and he didn't know."
Browne's career began when he emerged from UCD after studying politics and economics and establishing the (still running) newspaper the College Tribune. Far from being a dissident voice, at that time he was a liberal member of young Fine Gael, even going so far as to edit a Fine Gael paper called The Citizen ("eventually banned because the party didn't like it"). His first journalistic break came when he convinced the Irish Times to send him to Czechoslovakia just in time for the Soviet invasion. "I was unquestionably the worst foreign reporter ever," he says. "I thought I should explain the historical background instead of the history that was happening in front of my eyes."
Over the next decade he developed his journalistic skills, first as editor of Nusight magazine, northern editor of the Irish Press group ("When I arrived in Belfast in 1970 I actually thought I'd missed it all," he says with a sigh. "I was very wrong.") and then as a journalist with the Evening Herald and the Sunday Independent. In 1977 he co-founded Magill magazine with Noel Pearson and Mary Holland, because "I didn't want to be a servant of Tony O'Reilly for the rest of my life".
Featuring the early work of many who dominate Irish journalism today (including Gene Kerrigan, John Waters and Fintan O'Toole), Magill became a reservoir of long-form investigative journalism and arguably reshaped the agenda of Irish media. Yet, in 1983 Browne took a backseat in order to re-launch the then inactive Sunday Tribune with Tony Ryan ("I wanted to turn it into a reasonably radical paper, I think."). At the Tribune he cemented his reputation as being both an inspiring and infuriating editor to work for. His own anecdotes bear out the fact that he was, at the very least, an unorthodox boss. "Tony Ryan had withdrawn and for maybe a week or two I owned the majority of the Tribune shareholding. The journalists wanted more money and I responded in a way that was regarded as the ultimate treachery in newspaper management. I said I would give them my shareholding, the whole lot, and they could pay themselves what they liked!" He chuckles. "This was regarded as terribly outrageous and they didn't take me up on it... unfortunately."
His downfall with the Tribune came as a result of launching a sister-paper. "I was keen for the Tribune to be part of a larger group," he explains. "I tried very hard to get the Irish Times to buy it but failed. I had discussions with the Irish Press group which thankfully came to nothing. Then I felt we had to become a larger group, so in June 1990 we launched the Dublin Tribune. That stretched us. I was catching a flight in Lisbon and I remember reading that Saddam had invaded Kuwait and I knew the economy was going to be affected." He laughs. "I've never forgiven Saddam! The paper ran into trouble and Independent News and Media came in and grabbed 30% of the shares."
Browne never saw eye-to-eye with INM, but he managed to hang on as editor for another two years before being unceremoniously fired. At this point he had "no money. By which I don't mean I had little money, I mean I had no money. I would have resigned earlier except I was broke and couldn't afford to. The morning after I was fired the accounts department sent me out a cheque for £5,000 before they'd be ordered not to, but I owed American Express almost £5,000 and when I lodged the cheque it was immediately grabbed and I had no money again."
This was quickly remedied thanks to the powerful connections he'd made as a journalist. "I went to lunch with Conor Brady [then editor of the Irish Times] to discuss doing a column and there was a cheque on the table for £5,000. He said: 'you're probably screwed financially so we thought that as a gesture we'd give you that'." Browne also penned a letter to a rich man he didn't know very well, and whose identity he won't reveal, asking for a loan of £10,000. "Then I decided not to send it," he says. "But two days later a cheque for £10,000 arrived in the post, anyway. I'd sent the letter by mistake. I was then in a better position for my negotiations with the Tribune [about a severance package] and within four days I was able to pay him back."
The '90s should have been Browne's wilderness years, but he was busier than ever. He rejected an opportunity to run for Fine Gael in the European elections: "They courted me. But I didn't agree with their policies and I didn't think I had the temperament for politics".
He also reinvented himself as a columnist (for the Irish Times and later the Sunday Business Post), re-launched Magill (very successfully; he sold it to Mike Hogan in 1997) and was called to the bar ("That's not of consequence," he says when I ask about this, instead telling me about political philosophers who have inspired him, including UCD's Kathleen Lynch). He also began a broadcasting career on pop station 98FM.
"98FM wasn't a great fit," he admits. "One day the fellow in charge of programmes wanted me to do something on cellulite and Princess Diana. We were at complete cross-purposes. I thought cellulite was something to do with bombs and that maybe there'd been an IRA attempt to kill Princess Diana. I did my research and told him that there had been no attempt to kill Princess Diana. He went away disbelieving anyone could be so stupid."
He found a more suitable outlet when he began hosting Tonight with Vincent Browne on RTÉ Radio One. His irreverent interviewing style, and dramatic recreations of the tribunals, made it compulsive listening. But things did not always run smoothly at RTÉ. "I was asked to present Prime Time but Prime Time was a bit of a mess at the time, so I did so only on condition that I could change my mind. I did change my mind but was persuaded for largely personal reasons to stay and cut my links with radio. This greatly irritated Helen Shaw, head of radio. She told me that I was to never darken her door again. Then Prime Time was a disaster [he publically expressed his dissatisfaction at the show's direction at the time] and I was paid for almost a year to do damn all."
His RTÉ career continued, but he never resisted criticising his paymasters. When in 2006 Village magazine castigated RTÉ management for their coverage of the Abbeylara siege, "I knew that my number was up and that when the contract expired that would be it for me at RTÉ. But people had warned me, so the door was already open to TV3."
Over the years, Browne's fatal flaw seems to be a sort of relentless, restless perfectionism. "I've a tendency to think that everything I'm involved in isn't great," he says with a sigh. "I always think they can be radically better. That's the way I'm made and that attitude has caused great irritation and annoyance to people I've worked with... in the past and now."
Lest this restlessness be misunderstood, he stresses his huge respect for staff and management at TV3. He also seems to respect politicians with whom he fundamentally disagrees. He has written surprisingly affectionately about his former bête noire Charles Haughey ("When he was well out of politics I became quite close to him and liked him."). Even the mention of one of his current sparring partners, Fianna Fáil's Martin Mansergh, elicits an affectionate smile. "I like Martin. He's so windable up. You just wind him up and off he goes. The voice raises magnificently in pitch and volume... It's very entertaining."
That said, he's probably more isolated ideologically than he's ever been. "The agenda now is very, very right wing," he says. "There's an absolute acceptance that the budget has to cut social welfare, has to cut health, has to cut education and that the idea of raising taxes is seen as completely mad. But we're still one of the richest countries in the world – richer on a per-capita basis than France. We wouldn't really have a crisis if we were to just redistribute things. But that's not on the agenda right now and anyone advocating that view is regarded as crazy."
Nowhere was he more explicitly to the left than with Village magazine, the enterprise which has seemingly destroyed his wealth. "I saved all my big financial losses for Village," he sighs. "I lost an awful lot of money. It was devastating. I started it in part to create a pension for myself, but as a consequence I'm having to sell my house. When I sold Magill in 1998 we were selling 30,000 copies an issue. I thought Village could do the same. I should have realised after three months that my assumptions were wrong.
"So I can't explain why it went on and on and lost so much money. It was mad. It was crazy. I can't adequately explain why I didn't stop it earlier. I remortgaged the house and secured bank loans. I've tried persuading Nama they should be interested in me, but you'd have to add a few noughts for them to be interested."
So here he is, at the age of 66, staring financial disaster in the face, but still maintaining a successful broadcasting career. Throughout the interview he's careful never to stray into territory that's too personal (he's reluctant to talk about his family and seems a bit surprised I ask) but when talking about having to sell his house, he sounds melancholy and resigned.
In contrast, when discussing the country's problems he's in his element. Thankfully then, for him and for us, four nights a week he gets to do this on national television. And he does it, incidentally, like a man with nothing to lose.