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In The Belly OfTheBeast
The second instalment of our wide-ranging interview with Sam Smyth sees the reporter extraordinaire come clean about life amid spindoctors, pol. cors., lobby fodder and other strange creatures indigenous to Leinster House. He also talks about his real reasons for leaving the Sunday Independent, his falling-out with Vincent Browne and his mano a mano battle with Noel Pearson. All this plus his favourite Donie Cassidy story. Tape recorder: liam fay. Snaps: colm Henry.
Liam Fay, 19 Feb 1997
If he d planned his own journalistic career 25 years ago, Sam Smyth says he couldn t have plotted a better course for himself than that which chance and circumstance have imposed. He is delighted to have wound up with a thrice-weekly column in the Irish Independent, under the editor he regards as the best he s ever encountered, Vinnie Doyle. He particularly relishes the freedom of scope afforded by his Indo remit, and by his weekly column in the Tribune.
It s a very prestigious thing to have a column in any daily newspaper, he attests. I didn t particularly want it to be my views, I hate people constantly banging on about their views or the minutiae of their life: Got up this morning and kicked the dog . I prefer a mix; the occasional joke, a little bit off digging in behind things, a bit of analysis, and, basically, breaking stories. You can t beat news. Something that somebody didn t know before is the perfect definition of news. I m not a particularly sophisticated thinker but I can spot the odd stroke. There s no great philosophy behind what I do. Some days it s good, some days it s not.
Who are the Irish journalists that Sam admires? Gene Kerrigan is one of the great journalists in these islands. Eamonn McCann was the news editor of the Sunday World in my time he s probably the most intelligent and talented journalist I have ever worked with. Declan Lynch is another great journalist, as is Kevin Myers, Matt Cooper. By far the best reporting done in the country, and reporting is something of a lost art, is done at the Irish Independent.
How about political commentators? What does he make of Eoghan Harris, for example?
He s a mesmeric figure, contends Sam. He has enormous intelligence and enormous energy but he s so certain about everything. I m one of those people who s not that certain about anything. I m surprised that anyone can be so certain and remain decent and modest. I ve seen his Sharpe s Rifles thing, it s terrific, really enjoyable drama, but I don t think it s a metaphor for life, I hope he doesn t.
Coming from the background in Republicanism to the Unionist position as he has, it s like somebody s who s undergone a religious conversion. The zeal of the convert very often distorts people s view on the way around.
A recent Phoenix profile of Smyth asserted that he no longer speaks to his former friend, Vincent Browne. What did they fall out about?
I ve had several falling-outs with Vincent Browne, Sam sighs wearily. I would say he is a great journalist, without doubt one of the most entertaining journalists and very able. I think his radio show is great. But he always appears to me to be so certain of everything. I have written some tart things about him. I think he s a bit precious. I think he s a mad bastard. And a total hypocrite at times. I ve teased him about his hypocrisy in print and he got very annoyed.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Smyth has no ambitions to become a newspaper editor. A lot of people like to boss other people around. I don t. I really never thought I would get a column in a daily newspaper. For that, I m grateful. I work hard at it. It just doesn t come by flamboyance or showing off. I quite enjoy what I m doing and I wouldn t fit neatly into any large organisation. I m a natural lone operator.
Does the number of scalps he has harvested for his proud collection give him a sense of power? No, not power, he insists. I wouldn t like to have a sense of power. People might be quicker to take your phonecalls, that s what it means. People who, in the past, might have thought that you were a total tosser might think that you re only a half tosser. And if you re only a half tosser, you might be worth talking to because you might be able to do something terrible to them.
I ve broken a couple of good stories but I hope I m long enough at it now to know that that s only going to last a couple of months. You have to be fairly consistently delivering stories, delivering work of a certain quality.
Only a few years ago, Sam Smyth shared the widespread perception that the Dail-based political correspondents are a smug, toothless pack of poodles happy to purr in the lap of the political establishment. That opinion has been revised since he started to breathe the same workplace air as the pol. cors.
They seem to be part of a club and they are part of a club, he affirms. But reporting politics does need rules, you can t just turn it loose. When you get inside, you see it s actually quite a hard job. It s an odd job.To me, a lot of it would be very boring but they seem to thrive on it. I d go daft if I just had to write about politics every day. Most of the pol. cors. are different from me in that they love politics. I wouldn t have a great love for politics. I have a fascination with it, in a sort of way.
Donal O Kelly of RTE is a guy I have enormous respect for. There s a guy who has to go out there and do it every night on TV. The rest of us can wait to see what Donal does on TV and then play around with it the next day in our papers. He gets it accurate, he gets it right, and he s a sensible guy, common sense being the rarest commodity.
A disturbing number of political journalists have jumped ship over the years and become politicians themselves or, even more unforgivably, become political PR merchants. Might Sammy one day join their ranks? No, he rasps firmly.
Have any of the parties ever invited to him spin on their behalf? I think I could have done it a couple of times, if I d been keen on it, he muses. It would be wrong to say that I ve been asked but, from time to time, various politicians have sorta broached the subject. If I d shown any keenness, I would have been asked. But I nailed that on the head straight away. I honestly don t think I could do it. I don t know how I d get the day in. I don t think I d be any good at it. I d find it difficult, not to live with myself that sounds too grand but I wouldn t be happy to that job. I just don t have that faith. I don t have the calling. I d go to the bad, turn to the drink.
Shouldn t the pol. cors. be more upfront about their personal bias? The Irish Times Geraldine Kennedy, for instance, is a former Progressive Democrat TD.
I ve never met anybody more upfront than Geraldine Kennedy in my life, Sam avers. Her views would not be party political. She has a view of the world, as most of them have, but I honestly have never seen her show bias towards the PDs. My own view is that if you can t be fair, be equally unfair. Geraldine brought down the last government and they will do it if they get the information. It may sound as if I m very defensive of them but they are, by and large, fair.
Most of them are incredibly deferential to the politicians though they seem to enjoy the pomp and ostentation of government office even more than TDs do.
That s a tradition, Sam contends. It s alright me tweaking the politicians noses and tickling their chins. But the office of the Taoiseach would be very important to a lot of these people, despite who s in there. Very often, people in the Taoiseach s office are very hard to have respect for, particularly at the press end. The pol. cors. are not the alternative media. Most of the people who buy their papers believe in the system, as do the political correspondents.
Does Sam Smyth believe in the system?
I don t know, he responds. I don t see any way of doing it better. The one thing I ve noticed in the past few years is how right the people get it. I go to courts a lot and juries are more often right than judges. The electorate are more often right than politicians. It is the electorate s country after all. I would make changes but, by and large, I think our system is the least bad available.
Who will Sam Smyth be voting for come the general election?
I will vote for someone I like personally and perhaps for my own mischievous reasons, he pledges. As I live in Dublin South East, I would certainly give Michael McDowell a vote. If that many people don t like him, he s gotta be doing something right.
I ve great respect for McDowell. I enjoy his company. He has one of the wickedest tongues. He really is very bright, and has thought through most things he says. I don t think he s a Nazi. He seldom opens his mouth and waffles, which a lot of them do. I wouldn t agree with an awful lot of what Michael McDowell says but I think he s a terrific member of Dail Eireann. He brings an awful lot to the party.
Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, Sam Smyth was synonymous with the Sunday Independent for whom he broke a slew of significant stories with far-reaching consequences. His decision to quit the paper in 1994 for its stablemate, the Irish Independent, was abrupt and seemed surprising to many. So, why did he leave the Sunday Independent?
Genuinely, it was because I was offered a better job downstairs, he insists. To be diplomatic about it, I got the feeling that they didn t think I was very good.
I became disillusioned. There were things about the paper I didn t like. I didn t like hunting in a pack. At times, there did seem to be a Victim of the Week mentality; the nominated victims were given a five minute start and we all got after them with hatchets. I just thought, What am I doing here? . It was a very good life. They paid me very well. But I always thought I could do better.
That said, Aengus Fanning, is a very talented guy. I did leave on good terms with him. He has a definite view of the world. He s a great cricket fan, and his mother, I think, was a Presbyterian. Aengus sees a lot of the people in Irish public life as intellectually sloppy and lazy and hopelessly sentimental. Most of which is true to a point but, by taking up that viewpoint, I think he misses the other point which is that some of the enjoyment of being Irish is in not being British.
Latterly, Sam s working methods have been impugned on the back page of the Sunday Indo in a story which claimed that he had plagiarised an article from Spy magazine. I thought it was stupid, I thought it was cheap and I thought it was nasty, he says. And I thought it was unfair. Somebody clearly declared war on me when I started to work for the Tribune. Why? They might not think that that s a good idea but they don t own the newspaper group. Vinnie Doyle didn t object to me working for the Tribune. If they think I m an asshole, that s their business. They re a big, rich successful newspaper, what on Earth are they writing about me for? Not that many people know me. I m not that interesting.
How would he react if the Sunday Independent were to target his private life in their gossip column? What could I do about it? Like anybody else, I wouldn t like it but then again, I don t exactly live like a rock star. They ll get very bored very quickly.
Sam remains on friendly terms with many of the Sunday Indo s most prominent contributors, among them Eamon Dunphy. I have a lot of time for Dunphy, he proclaims. I don t always agree with him and that can be a problem with Eamon. But he is astonishingly intelligent, frighteningly intelligent in how he can home in on a truth very quickly.
We were talking the other night about the Marie Geoghegan-Quinn thing. He says the problem with the back page of the Sunday Independent is that by its prurient reporting of politicians personal lives, it has given them an excuse not to answer pertinent and perfectly legitimate questions about their personal affairs for instance, in relation to the tax amnesty. Dunphy sees that immediately. I had never thought of it in those terms but when he said to me I could see it was a truth.
What did Sam make of the Sunday Tribune s controversial phone poll asking politicians whether or not they had availed of the tax amnesty?
I agreed with it totally, in principle, Sam states. The thinking behind the question was absolutely correct. I would have written the story differently. I d have been less indignant. They quoted one of the government press secretaries and a Fianna Fail spokesman as saying, It s none of your fucking business . I wouldn t have quoted that, but that may be because I know these people and I would be swearing at them and frequently do. I often clean up the language of politicians and I don t get that excited about it. But it did provide one of the great moments of television, when John Bowman said Fuck on Questions And Answers which made it all worthwhile.
In 1990, when Vincent Browne was in the Tribune and Brian Lenihan was running for the Presidency, there was a similar incident about which there was no furore. Lenihan had just had a liver transplant and someone from the Tribune rang up and asked to see Brian Lenihan s medical records. Now, I would have drawn the line at that, people are entitled to some privacy. PJ Mara, government press secretary at the time, said, Fuck off! We will show you Brian Lenihan s medical records when you show us Vincent Browne s psychiatric records . That was published just as PJ Mara saying, Fuck off! . The bit about Vincent Browne was left out which I thought was a bit unfair.
As his profile has grown, Sam Smyth has increasingly become the recipient of leaks and whispers about all manner of would-be scandals. Some are hot tips, others are bum steers, many are loony tunes.
I get more mail now but I also get more headcases, he avers. You can always spot their envelopes because they usually have drawings of TV aerials on them for some reason. The most common is from people who believe that they ve been operated on and transmitters placed in their brain which send their thoughts out to other people. Very often, these people can speak eloquently on the phone for 20 minutes. Then, suddenly, a TV aerial appears in my mind, and it s time to go.
Sam does not believe that the country is seething with major corruption and crime. It s there all right but not in the depth that some might imagine, he opines. I know there are some things going on that are seriously wrong but these are the ones I ll never be able to prove.
He is adamant that the gay activist group, Outrage, will not deliver on its threat to out a prominent Irish bishop who was putatively arrested in London in the company of a rent boy. Though it has been widely retailed in journalistic circles, Sam has satisfied himself that the allegation is nothing but a rumour.
That Peter Tatchell fella is contemptible, he asserts. It s just cheap and nasty rubbish. He s doing to homosexuals what homosexuals feared for years, blackmailing them, intimidating them. This bishop may well be homosexual but I followed up the stories and none of them stacked up.
I m not a conspiracy theorist in any way but I suspect strongly that some elements in the British establishment were poisoning that fella s reputation because of some connections that he is perceived to have had in the past. But, as they frequently are, the British were wrong and bone-headed about it because I don t think the man is particularly republican.
He s not guilty of the allegations that were made to me about him, allegedly importuning young men in King s Cross and being arrested and officially cautioned. He was supposed to be in a hotel and caught with a rent boy in his room. I went through computers, nothing. I visited the room where this bishop was allegedly staying, it s just not true.
The surprising thing is that people are disappointed that it s not true. They think I m covering up. But all I can tell you is what I discovered. Those things did not happen. If this man was a homosexual, I d be very loath to out him on that basis alone. If he s involved physically with someone, it s certainly an hypocrisy given what his church says. But human beings are human beings. I don t think you could be more cruel to a person.
Sam Smyth lives in Sandymount, County Dublin, with his second wife Faela, and their 9-year-old daughter, also called Faela. He has two grown children from his first marriage a son, Jamie, who lives in Japan and Fiona who s based in Brighton. I got divorced in the 1970s in the North, and Faela and I got married in a registry office in London, in 1990, he affirms. My attitude has always been that if you re going to do anything involving your personal life, keep the Republic of Ireland and the Catholic Church well away from it.
Sammy won t spill the precise figures but he insists that he is not as extravagantly salaried as some might suspect. Even after he has salted away the royalties from his tome on the Riverdance phenomenon (which is soon to be published in Australia, America and anywhere else the show orbits), he says he will still be an ordinary working stiff, living from paycheck to paycheck.
I didn t get that much for writing the book, he exclaims. But I would hope, through the sales, to pick up some good money. I was annoyed that some people would rubbish the concept of writing a book about Riverdance. Why the fuck wouldn t you write a book about Riverdance? It certainly seems as interesting as writing the history of Fine Gael!
I don t know any rich journalists. I know some journalists who have made money from other things but not from journalism. It s the nature of the work. I m not bitching or whinging but I ll never be able to retire until the natural time. I don t make that much money. I don t make that much more than most reporters.
Smyth has little time for those hacks who bleat about the woes and hardships of the journalistic life. Why would anybody complain?, he scoffs. It s like those old country songs, I m in another airport, in another strange hotel . Bullshit! It s great craic, good fun. I ve enjoyed every minute of it. I do work hard and there are sacrifices. But if I was a milkman, I d be up at 4 o clock every morning.
Finally, it is said that Sam Smyth is the proprietor of the finest stockpile of Donie Cassidy yarns in the known universe. What s his favourite?
I went around the world with Donie Cassidy, Sammy gloats. Donie asked me to go to Australia with him to cover Foster and Allen. I spent two weeks with him and I have never laughed so much in all my life. He s a mad bastard.
Foster and Allen s gig in Melbourne was in a place like the National Concert Hall with a concert hall sort of audience. They started to play and I listened attentively. Donie leaned over and asked me what I thought. I said, It sounds great, Donie, but it appears to me that the vocals are very loud for the instrumental accompaniment . Oh, says Donie, that s a deliberate policy . Hmm, deliberate policy? We did a survey , says Donie, and we found that 15% of Foster and Allen audiences are deaf .
I immediately whipped out my notebook, which is the same as a policeman cautioning you that anything you say will be taken down in evidence. I said, Donie, do you mind if I write that down? . He says, Not at all, this is a scientific fact . n