Desmond Fisher was not just a noted Catholic religious commentator. He was also a senior RTÉ executive during an important time in Irish history that saw the outbreak of the troubles in 1969. He was a former Head of Current Affairs and Deputy Head of News at RTÉ and died last week, aged 94. In this article specially written for RTÉ News Online, RTÉ’s Religious and Social Affairs Correspondent Joe Little looks back at his career…
Mr Fisher was one of the last surviving journalists to have reported from Rome on the Second Vatican Council which ended half a century ago.
His family had asked that his passing on 30 December last should not be made public until after his cremation which, in accordance with his wishes, took place after a private family Requiem Mass was celebrated last Friday, 2 January.
In a document released by his family, he described his experiences as a senior editorial manager at RTÉ in the early years of the Northern Troubles as the most stressful time in his working life.
Before coming to broadcasting, Des as he was widely known, had worked on the Nationalist and Leinster Times and with the Irish Press where he served as London Editor and Political Correspondent.
In 1962, as Pope John XXXIII was convening the Second Vatican Council, he took the helm at the Catholic Herald in London.
A graduate of UCD, he belonged to a post-revolutionary generation of thinkers hungry to learn about the wider world and particularly about stirrings of change in the universal Catholic Church which were stifled by the hierarchy here, thanks largely to the ultra-conservative Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who was appointed in 1940 when Des Fisher was 20 years old.
“It was alienating modern men and women and losing many existing members…”
Writing for this website two years ago, he described Pope John’s motivation in calling the Vatican Council which was to bring the Church face-to-face with the modern world: “He had seen that the Roman Catholic Church was not fulfilling the task for which Christ established it.
“Instead of motivating more and more new members to follow Christ and come to love and worship God, it was alienating modern men and women and losing many existing members.”
He described how most of the 2,500 Council Fathers or church leaders who favoured change had to reckon with a highly regimented traditionalist minority: “They took their lead from the Roman Curia, which was against change from beginning to end of the Council and is still opposed to implementing the Council’s decisions.
Despite the obstacles the Council produced five major documents.
Taken together, they portray a new kind of Catholic Church very different from the 16th century Counter-Reformation version that still prevails.
The Vatican II Church abandons the existing portrayal of the Church as a pyramid with the Pope on top of descending tiers of cardinals, bishops and priests sitting on a bottom layer of lay Catholics whose only function, as a bishop told the Council, seems to be “to pray, to obey and to pay”.
The Vatican II version of the Church is a “communion” of members sharing a common task to convince all the people of the world that God loves them and that Christ is the example of how to love and serve him.
In this Church lay people are not the passive onlookers they are seen as now but the most active workers at the coalface.”
Mr Fisher’s reference to the Curia’s ongoing opposition to reform foreshadowed the yet-to-be-elected Pope Francis’ scathing attack last month on Vatican’s administrators for being infected with careerism, scheming, greed and “spiritual Alzheimer’s”.
Not surprisingly, the veteran journalist welcomed the Argentine Popes election in 2013.
Extracts relating to RTÉ from Desmond Fisher’s own summary of his 70-year career in journalism have been released by his family.
They recall that one year after the Council ended, he left the Catholic Herald and freelanced to support his family in London.
But 18 months later, his former Irish Press colleague and fellow Derry man Jim McGuinness, Head of News at RTÉ, suggested he should apply for a job, about to be advertised, as his deputy.
After short attachments with the BBC and ITV in London in 1967 he came to Dublin in early 1968 to take up the job and to live full-time with his family which had moved to Dublin months earlier.
In October 1973, he was appointed Head of the Current Affairs Grouping, a new area in RTÉ responsible for all current affairs programmes on radio and television.
He wrote of this period: “What I do remember most about my time in RTÉ is that it was the most stressful time in my working life. My time there coincided with external pressure on RTÉ from a Government intent on denying publicity to the IRA and internal conflict between RTÉ producers and journalists working on current affairs programmes.”
“It was probably inevitable that a disaster would occur…”
Those twin pressures soon took their toll: “In the circumstances of the time, however, it was probably inevitable that a disaster would occur. The Current Affairs area is the most vulnerable in broadcasting, especially in a public service organisation with staff of divided political and trade union loyalties at a time when the country is in turmoil.
“On the night of October 17, 1974 while I was in Galway at the Annual Conference of the Labour Party, a seven Days programme on internment in the North was rushed on to the air…replacing the programme which I had cleared for transmission. It later transpired that the filmed programme included a sequence from a London agency, which had been brought in a short time before transmission, edited at the last moment and put out without my clearance.
“This led to a public attack on me on two successive evenings by the then minister in charge of RTÉ, Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien.
The inquiries that followed judged that I should have previewed the programme which, in my view, had been deliberately put out in my absence.
“I offered to resign if this would serve the institutional interests of RTÉ.
“This was refused but in April 1975 I told the then Director-General, Oliver Maloney, that the grouping would have either to be established as a full division with its own resources or closed down.
“He rejected the first alternative so I resigned and the Grouping was disbanded.
“Following my resignation, I was appointed Director of TV Development, a title later changed to Director of Broadcasting Development, a sideways move that really left it to me to determine what I would make of the job.”
He chaired the Planning Group for the station’s second television channel and continued to research and publish material for the public service broadcaster on a range of topics, including its relationship with government.
This was a particularly thorny subject given that in 1972, while he was Deputy Head of News, a Fianna Fáil government had fired the RTÉ Authority after the News Division broadcast a radio interview recorded with Seán Mac Stíofáin, then chief of staff of the Provisional IRA.
The then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, justified the dismissal saying the Authority had breached a government directive, given under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, ordering them “not to project people who put forward violent means for achieving their purpose”.
The Fine Gael-Labour administration, elected in 1973, had continued to implement the directive.
And this was the context in which Fianna Fáil’s new appointees to the RTÉ Authority and senior RTÉ management figures like Des Fisher, had to handle the seven days debacle in October 1974.
Des Fisher left the national broadcaster in 1983, less than two years before reaching the mandatory retirement age.
He became Editor and Managing Director of the Carlow Nationalist and Leinster Times.
In 2009, approaching the age of 80, he contributed to the RTÉ documentary “If Lynch Had Invaded” about his role with RTÉ in 1969 when the Taoiseach Jack Lynch made a dramatic television broadcast to outline the Government’s response to the security forces attacking nationalist communities in Derry.
In 1967, his book on the Second Vatican Council, “The Church in Transition” was published by (Geoffrey Chapman and) Fides.
He is survived by his wife Margaret (Peggy), daughter Carolyn, and sons Michael, John and Hugh, other close relatives and a wide circle of friends.
Extracts relating to RTÉ from Desmond Fisher’s own summary of his 70-year career in journalism are kindly reproduced courtesy of the Fisher family and are copyright © 2015