David Dunseith: Broadcaster whose 'Talk Back' programme served as a people's forum during the Troubles

David McKittrick
Wednesday 06 July 2011 00:00

David Dunseith was a titan of Belfast broadcasting, presenting current affairs radio and television programmes for the entire length of the Troubles in a career that spanned almost four decades. During that time he coped with scores of atrocities and dozens of political cataclysms, earning himself an unrivalled reputation not just for incisiveness but also for courtesy and, above all, fairness and objectivity. In effect he set the gold standard as an interviewer, particularly within BBC Belfast, which broadcast to a society wracked by strong political and sectarian divisions, and all too often by violence as well.

The success of his efforts was illustrated by the tributes that flowed in after his death, from the public, and all points of the political compass. The Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson described him as a consummate professional, while his Republican deputy Martin McGuinness said his shows were unmissable, adding, "David was, for me and I am sure many others, quite simply the voice of radio here."

He will always be associated with BBC Radio Ulster's ground-breaking Talk Back programme, which hepresented for almost 20 years. This was, and is, a live show which for a daily hour and a half informed and entertained with items ranging from the Troubles-related to the morelight-hearted and sometimes saucy. One area of investigation, for example, concerned the regularity with which Belfast males changed their underpants. Dunseith's versatility meant he could tackle any topic, no matter how controversial or how offbeat, moving seamlessly from the desperately serious to the frankly whimsical.

He had behind him an imaginative production team which had himpolitely but tenaciously grilling senior politicians and paramilitaries. But the show, in a radical departure for the BBC, also put telephone callers on the air to vent their opinions. The result was a airing of all shades of opinion in a way that was novel to Belfast. Some callers to the show were sensible and constructive; others were fuming and destructive. But together they gave a picture of various slices of public opinion which was sometimes called the people's parliament.

The philosophy was described in a London School of Economics report, which said: "Dunseith operates on the basis that all talk, even what is manifestly prejudiced, is better than none, especially if it allows opinion to be tested within a public sphere in which people cannot listen only to the ranting of their own side."

Some contributors came to be known as "crazies" –Republican, Loyalist and others – who tested the limits of Dunseith's civility. "Have you been listening at all?" he would exclaim. "Have you heard one word that's been said?" His irritation was always kept within the bounds of politeness, and his expressions of exasperation became an integral part of the show. He was also well-known for his own favourite subjects: he detested in particular litter and cruelty to animals.

His time on Talk Back began in 1989, which meant he dealt with major acts of violence, huge political developments and the course of the peace process, which was for many years a highly controversial subject. Being on live radio for more than seven hours a week meant he often had to cope, with hardly a moment's notice, with emergencies and crises. This he did with great grace. After one emergency I thanked him, as his producer, for handling things with such poise. "Look, that's what I'm for," he responded. "The routine stuff is easy enough – it's coping with the unexpected, that's why they hire me."

Though regarded as a supreme professional, he actually started out as an untrained amateur who had no formal training in journalism. He had previously been an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary's drugs squad; when he appeared on television in this role he was spotted as a natural communicator and persuaded to leave the force to join Ulster Television. Broadcasting in Belfast had previously been something of a backwater but the eruption of the Troubles meant that a new type of journalist was called for. Dunseith fitted the bill.

He later made the switch to BBC Belfast, working in a variety of roles before joining Talk Back. It was such a perfect fit that both he and theprogramme developed into broadcasting institutions. Of his thousands ofinterviews, his most famous was with Helen McKendry, a west Belfast woman whose mother had been abducted,shot and buried by the IRA in the 1970s. Her Talk Back interview is remembered as one of the most poignant and heart-breaking moments not just in broadcasting but in the Troubles as a whole. McKendry broke a silence of morethan two decades before giving the interview, which highlighted the largely unknown issue of what became known as "the Disappeared". She described the torments of a family which had been shattered, with the children placed in care.

The IRA adamantly denied responsibility but gradually a campaignexerted mounting pressure and the IRA eventually admitted it had carried out the killings. Some bodies remain unrecovered to this day but that of McKendry's mother was eventually located and given a decent burial. In a tribute to Dunseith McKendry said: "David came to my home. He was the first person who listened to me speak and helped me when I needed it. I was very frightened – people had known there were people who had disappeared, but they were too afraid to speak. He was the man who gave the Disappeared a voice."

Dunseith escaped from the Troubles when off-duty by living in an idyllic cottage in rural County Down. His wife Roisin, who was also a broadcaster, died last year.

David Dunseith, police officer and broadcaster: born 2 October 1934; married Roisin Walsh (died 2010; three sons); died 30 June 2011.

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