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Rex Cathcart (1928 - 1994):
Educationalist and broadcaster

Though he spent much of his working life in various parts of Ulster, Henry Rex Cathcart was originally from Dublin. He attended St Patrick's School in that city (one of the teaching staff was the well-known maritime historian and radical politician John de Courcy Ireland) and won a scholarship to the University of Dublin. On graduation (MA) he became a teacher and by 1953 he was established in Ulster, as Headmaster of the Royal School, Raphoe, Donegal, one of the five Royal Schools established in the early seventeenth century. In 1960 he moved back to Dublin to become Headmaster of Sandford Park School, Ranelagh. He also found time to obtain a PhD on the subject of Bishop George Berkeley of Derry, the eminent eighteenth-century philosopher, and to pursue his interests in the geography of glaciation and in educational psychology. He gained a Higher Diploma in Education and a Diploma in Geography from his alma mater Dublin University, and Diploma in Psychology from the National University of Ireland. He presented religious discussion programmes on the new television service of Radio Telefís Éireann (now Raidió Teilifís Éireann), the new Irish public broadcasting service, successor organisation to the state-run Radio Éireann.

From 1967 until 1973 he was Regional Officer for Northern Ireland of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, the regulatory body for commercial television in the United Kingdom, set up under the Sound Broadcasting Act 1972. 1967 was on the threshold perhaps of an inauspicious time to be taking up such a post. The Managing Director of Ulster Television, the Northern Ireland Independent Television station (then as now) described how television as the new medium could allow the Troubles, which he as a broadcaster regarded as having begun on October 5, 1968, when a demonstration in the city of Derry descended into violence, images of which filmed by television news camera crews, to be so visually and immediately witnessed and therefore perceived not just within Northern Ireland but also - crucially - throughout the United Kingdom, Ireland and the wider world. There was also the matter of the effect of the Troubles polarising and hardening political views with the attendant problems of balanced coverage.

This was not Cathcart's direct managerial responsibility, but not only was he the official overseer representing the IBA (and therefore a public representative) - he later described how early in the Troubles, the IBA Head Office in London simply did not want to pay much attention to Northern Ireland, seeing it as a local problem not significant enough to arouse their interest, so that many important decisions which would normally be made in, or in consultation with, London, were in fact left to Cathcart to take on his own. Though according to Cathcart this became less and less so the more that Northern Ireland came to governed from London; nevertheless he certainly had a hot seat. He later described how, broadly speaking, the onset of the Troubles in the late 1960s provoked three groups of reaction to Independent Television's coverage: unionists resented any coverage of their political opposition; what he called the "middle ground" was repelled by the emphasis on violence, division and confrontation; finally, nationalist-republicans would be enraged by what they saw as their position being ignored or even censored.

Cathcart was dismissive of these views, finding that to a large extent they existed in the minds of their holders; he also quipped that while he could not reduce or eliminate complaint; he still hoped to be able to achieve a situation in which rival stacks of letters of complaint were of roughly equal height.

Cathcart also took an interest in the creative side of broadcasting, devising, writing, producing and presenting television programmes, not least educational output with such series as Let's Look At Ulster and This Island About Us. He was rightly described as a pioneer of broadcasting for schools in Ulster.

In 1973 he was appointed Professor of Education at Magee College, Londonderry, which by then was part of the New University of Ulster and in 1977 became the first occupant of the new Chair in Further Professional Studies in Education at Queen's University, Belfast where he remained until his retirement in 1994. He had a wide range of interests, which included the use of broadcasting in schools, the teaching of children with special needs, community education and the psychological study of relationships and communication in the classroom. He published a major book, The Most Contrary Region: The BBC in Northern Ireland 1924-1984, a study which focused on how the BBC, which was formed in a society with a large degree of political and social consensus (that is, Great Britain), reacted to operating in a profoundly divided society. He argued that the divisions in Northern Ireland, while not violent until the late 1960s, were nevertheless there, however invisible or not obvious, and that a minimalising coverage of sectarian or political tension, as had been observed by BBC Northern Ireland (it too was largely left to its own devices by London) was mistaken as it served to conceal not tackle social strife, and the subsequent explosion was all the worse for it. The credibility of broadcasters, he argued, depended on open, direct reporting.

Cathcart retired from Queen's University in 1994 and died only a few weeks later.

Born: 29 October 1928
Died: 26 August 1994
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann