herald

Saturday 30 August 2014

Pat Stacey: What next for George Lee?

It's easy to make fun of George Lee. I know. I've done it several times in this newspaper. In fact, I was at it again less than a fortnight ago.

With Lee about to return to his €150,000 a year position in RTE, but with uncertainty still surrounding precisely where or how he's going to fit back into the organisation he left for a brief misadventure in politics, I suggested -- tongue wedged firmly in cheek -- an alternative career in stand-up comedy, where his deadpan style would be appreciated.

Lee lends himself naturally to lampooning.

His sober demeanour and virtually expressionless face make him ripe material for satire and caricature. Gloomy George. Dull George. Depressing George. George the Prophet of Doom and the Angel of Debt.

The image that sticks in our heads from Lee's time as RTE's economics editor is of him standing steadfastly in the financial trenches, sodden with despair and warning about the economic catastrophe that lay in wait for the country.

Nobody wanted to know. Many lost the run of themselves -- although as we now know, to our cost, many more again have since lost something much more important: their job, their home, the shirt off their back.

All this tomfoolery, however, does Lee a disservice. Unlike his pal Charlie Bird, Lee never comes across as someone with hidden shallows; he never seems to be lacking the crucial self-awareness gene.

He's a serious man. He took his job in RTE seriously and he took the economic disaster facing the country seriously enough to try to do something about it.

It's easy to forget that long before we ridiculed Lee, we revered him. In 1998, he and Bird uncovered a major tax evasion and overcharging scandal at National Irish Bank, one of the great domestic journalistic scoops in recent memory. So, in deference to the man's seriousness, let's put the jokes aside for a while and ask a few serious questions: where does George Lee go from here? What are his career prospects within RTE? Does he have any career prospects left within RTE?

Risk

That last one might seem unduly harsh, but it's pertinent. When Lee left RTE to stand in a by-election for Fine Gael, he did so knowing that the national broadcaster's back door would be left open for a year, should he choose to return.

But neither this nor the fact that he walked from Fine Gael just nine months later -- in the process disappointing the 27,768 people who voted for him -- should obscure a simple truth: George Lee took a risk.

True, the cynics will argue that the risk diminishes when you know there's a €150,000 salary waiting for you if things don't work out. But the fact is it required cojones of considerable circumference for Lee to do what he did. A fat salary is a nice thing to have, yet it's not entirely gratifying if you don't have a proper job to go with it.

There's absolutely no possibility he can return to reporting and commenting on economic affairs for RTE, certainly not within the lifetime of the present Government. He's tainted goods.

And the bind Lee finds himself in is not going to miraculously vanish after the next general election, either. Were Fine Gael to be the party in power next time round, his situation would arguably worsen.

Short of upping sticks and moving to TV3 , it looks as if his TV career as an economic analyst could be well and truly over.

So, have we seen the last of George Lee on our screens?

Not necessarily, since less evolved TV organisms have carved out fairly successful careers. He'll survive if he can adapt, although the opportunities would seem to be limited.

If he can demonstrate the range and breadth of knowledge to move beyond bulls, bears and bankers, he could find a spot in general current affairs -- although the good ship Prime Time is already a pretty overcrowded vessel whose crew members might not welcome Lee barging on board.

Glare

A stint fronting a weekend chatshow might be a stretch for a man so apparently light on natural charisma. Beyond that, Lee's salvation could well lie away from TV and in radio, a medium so intimate and infinitely flexible that almost anyone can reinvent themselves as anything they want.

Some cynics in Fine Gael suggested it was the lack of public recognition that forced Lee out of politics and back into the arms of RTE. If he can manage to live without the glare of the television lights, he might find that a quiet spell in a dim radio studio is his best route back into the limelight.

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