Desmond Fisher Photo: Nationalist & Leinster Times
Nationalist and Leinster Times obituary (courtesy Tom Geoghegan) January 13 2015
Des Fisher: broadcaster and former editor of The Nationalist
DESMOND M (Des) Fisher passed away peacefully at the Blackrock Hospice early on Tuesday 30 December. He was a former head of current affairs with RTÉ and deputy head of news at the national broadcaster. Des Fisher had a lifelong association with The Nationalist & Leinster Times in Carlow, of which he was managing editor for a five-year period during the 1980s.
Aged 94, he was one of the last-surviving journalists to have reported from Rome at the Second Vatican Council, which ended half a century ago.
He had been in failing health over recent years. Despite his declining health, Des retained a keen interest in newspapers and the media in general, maintaining his link with Carlow in retirement through reading The Nationalist online every week.
Having lived in retirement with his wife Peggy (née Smyth) from Co Monaghan for the final 26 years of his life, he had remained in close contact over that period with Tom Geoghegan, retired managing director of The Nationalist.
At the time of his death, he had just completed work on a new book, Stabat Mater. Other publications of Des Fisher’s included Broadcasting in Ireland (1978) and The right to communicate: a status report (1981).
A native of Derry city, Des Fisher was a highly-accomplished journalist and broadcaster who was regarded as a theological (sic) heavyweight. He started his journalistic career with The Nationalist, being appointed assistant editor in 1945, a position he held until 1948. While working in Carlow, he met his wife-to-be, who was employed in the Bank of Ireland branch at Court Place. In his early years in Carlow, Des forged close working links with Liam D Bergin, managing editor of the The Nationalist and a doyen of Irish provincial journalism. It was to develop into a lifelong friendship.
In 1948, Des moved to The Irish Press as a sub-editor and London editor to the Press Group until 1964, when, while still based in the English capital, he was appointed editor of the Catholic Herald newspaper.
Des believed that his best work as a journalist was the coverage of Vatican II for the Catholic Herald, which was held from 1962 to 1965, having been called by Pope John XXIII. In 1967, his book on the Second Vatican Council, The Church in transition, was published by Fides. He was Irish correspondent for The Economist and a trustee of the International Institute of Communications as well as being a member of the international advisory board of the Media Institute, Washington DC.
During the late 1980s, Des Fisher fronted the RTÉ One television religious programme Newman’s People. Having given 16 years to the realm of public broadcasting, Des’s next port of call was to return to The Nationalist in Carlow. He was appointed managing editor in 1983 and subsequently managing director, succeeding Liam D Bergin. He also served as a member of the newspaper’s board of directors for a long number of years.
For the first two years of his editorship in Carlow, Des was backed up by the professional vision, expertise and innovation of the late Seamus O’Rourke, particularly in the area of layout and design. Seamus, who passed away in early January 2014, served The Nationalist as news editor for some 20 years. Des Fisher held the position of managing director and editor until 1988, when he formally retired from the fourth estate.
In an editorial in 1983, marking the centenary of The Nationalist & Leinster Times, he wrote of the publication that meant so much to him: “It (Nationalist) can fairly claim to have lived up to the highest ideals of the journalistic and printing crafts and to have served the community of which it forms a part.” In the same editorial, he stated: “In performing its role as the public watchdog, the press must observe one over-riding role first enunciated by the great editor of The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) CP Scott: ‘Comment is free but facts are sacred’.”
Extracts relating to RTÉ from Desmond Fisher’s own summary of his 70-year career in journalism have been released…
They recall that one year after the Vatican 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 as his deputy. After short attachments with the BBC and ITV in London in 1967, he came to Dublin early the following year 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 with responsibility 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.”
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 17 October 1974 while I was in Galway at the annual conference of the Labour Party, a 7 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 enquiries 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 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 broad-caster on a wide range of topics, including its relation-ship 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 by saying the authority had breached a government directive 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 7 Days debacle in October 1974.
Des Fisher left the national broadcaster in 1983, less than two years before reaching the mandatory retirement age. He then became managing editor and managing director of The Nationalist and Leinster Times.
In 2009, approaching the age of 90, 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.
His family had asked that his passing on 30 December 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 on Friday 2 January.
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.