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David Dunseith (1934 - 2011):
Journalist: broadcaster


David Dunseith was one of the predominant figures in Ulster broadcasting for many years, whose accomplishments were dominated by his Talkback programme on BBC Radio Ulster. This daily live news and current affairs programme, covering the widest range of topics and flavoured by questions and comments on almost every topic and of varying degrees of politeness or otherwise from its daily phone-in listeners, was presented by the unflappable Dunseith for two of the four decades of his broadcasting career, and the programme was one of the most listened to in the history of Ulster broadcasting.

David Lumsden Dunseith was born in Derry and initially was not a journalist but a policeman, who was making a steady career, being promoted sergeant and transferring to the Royal Ulster Constabulary Drugs Squad, formed to tackle this incipient problem of the 1960s. Intelligent and articulate, though not always starchily dressed, he became media spokesman for the squad, delivering press interviews and briefings which were open, frank and interactive, certainly unlike other police briefings of that time, and which attracted the positive attention of broadcasters. David Waddell of Ulster Television later gave this account:

"I remember David coming from the Drugs Squad for interview in the studio. I was producing and I was impressed with the way he handled the studio so afterwards I asked if he had ever thought of a career in television. He said he had a career in the police, but six months later he changed his mind and joined Ulster Television. He had a very inquisitive mind and sympathy with the people - and was photogenic."

That was in the late 1960s, when the outbreak of the Troubles presented an enormous challenge to the local media, not used to covering what quickly became an internationally-known trouble-spot, having been something of a backwater. Ulster Television's principal evening news programme was UTV Reports, which Dunseith presented. It aired every weekday at 6.00 pm, and was a direct competitor of BBC Northern Ireland's Scene Around Six. Viewing honours were fairly even, though with Dunseith's programme slightly in front. Robin Walsh, then at Ulster Television though later at BBC Northern Ireland, said of the programme that one of the keys to its success was the quality of its presenters: their "robust interviewing style" meaning that "newsmakers of the day received little quarter from the journalistic excellence" of presenters such as Dunseith.

These were dangerous times for many, and broadcasters were not exempt. Dunseith would later recall incidents such as one journalist who, under physical attack by masked men, was rescued by an indignant elderly lady brandishing her umbrella. He also received at Ulster Television headquarters, what in Ulster is known slightly euphemistically as a "suspect package". He opened it gingerly, and glimpsed what he called a "fluted metal thing in black", which he took to be a hand grenade. The building was evacuated, the Bomb Squad called out, and the package taken into the yard. It turned out to have been an object covered with black-painted milk bottle tops - a hoax; otherwise as Dunseith told an interviewer, he might have been the subject not the presenter of that evening's news coverage.

In 1981, Dunseith moved to BBC Northern Ireland as a political journalist and analyst. He was a presenter of the current affairs programme Spotlight and chaired programmes dealing with major events such as elections. In 1989 he became presenter of the already-successful Radio Ulster programme Talkback. This had been the idea of a producer, Martin Dillon, and was at first presented by the highly regarded Barry Cowan. The radio phone-in programme format was becoming popular at the time, but Talkback was of a different ilk in that it made no effort to sidestep controversial issues, or to cushion them; on the contrary, the programme met them head on, becoming something of a province-wide soap box, a conduit for listeners to voice their views on any subject, from the tragic to the serious, to the light-hearted, to the rather bizarre. There would be pre-recorded reports, guests live on air, callers live on air, and phoned-in comments constantly read out; calls could be received at the rate of 120 per hour, from listeners used to the familiar voice announcing emphatically, even a little ominously: "This...is Talkback" at midday each weekday. This style of programme was a new departure for the BBC, but if it was a gamble it paid off, the programme even coming to be known as the "people's parliament" - especially in those lengthy periods when the people did not have a parliament.

It has been suggested by some that the most significant example of the influence of Dunseith and Talkback concerned the issue of what were known as the "Disappeared". These were people who had been abducted, presumably murdered, but whose remains were disposed of in secret, in unmarked graves. It was widely believed that this had been the work of the IRA; many were afraid to comment publicly about the issue until the daughter of one of the victims spoke openly about her reaction on Talkback, supported by the sympathetic Dunseith. This airing helped bring the long-suppressed issue into the open and the remains of some, if not all, of the "Disappeared" were recovered and given proper burials. The victim's daughter said of Dunseith: "He was the man who gave the Disappeared a voice."

Many examples could be given to illustrate the range of themes the programme covered, and its tone. On one occasion, a cleric from one of the minority, if well-known, churches, was Dunseith's studio guest and was courteously though earnestly urging a return to "biblical values", which however he was interpreting rather too literally for one member of the public who called in and simply asked the guest if he wore "poly-cotton" socks, reminding the perplexed and totally wrongfooted cleric of the proscriptions, contained in Deuteronomy 22.18 and Leviticus 19.19, on wearing garments of mixed materials. On another occasion was this exchange, not unusual: a distinguished and respected politician was the studio guest. Dunseith announced a caller with the usual formula, forename-plus-location, and inviting the caller to make their point or ask their question. This caller scolded the politician, saying that he couldn't stand him ON being asked if he had ever met the said politician, the caller replied that no, he hadn't, and no desire to either. Dunseith had no objections to whimsical views; outright rudeness or obtuseness from callers was usually met with a resigned sigh, from one who had heard it all before. On this occasion he sighed.

He won "Local Broadcaster of the Year" in 1993 at the Sony Awards for his role in the programme, which was itself the recipient of a Gold Sony Award in 1997 for Best Phone-in/Topical Debate and a Silver Sony Award in 2006 in the News & Current Affairs programme category.

Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General, said of Dunseith and Talkback:

"For 20 years, David provided a safe platform for people to air their views and appreciate the perspectives of others. He did this with tenacity, encyclopaedic knowledge and patience; putting the audience at the heart of his programme and winning loyalty and respect from all sides of the community."

Dunseith was married to a fellow broadcaster, Roisin Walsh, who was one of the few female reporters working in any newsroom in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. She reported for UTV Reports, as well as presenting programmes such as Want a Job and Family Matters. She conducted numerous interviews with a wide range of subjects from the legendary Bing Crosby to Lord Dunleath, the prominent politician. She later opened a shop in south Belfast, but predeceased her husband.

It may not be inapposite to dip into the stream of tributes from members of the public to the presenter of the best-known listener-comment programme in Ulster. The themes are constant: a tenacious, probing, no-nonsense interviewer, always courteous and afraid of no-one. One member of the public regarded Dunseith's programme and his presentation of it as germinal to the peace process. In that he encouraged people to talk, and to talk back, with this assessment many, from the lunchtime caller to Talkback to the highest politicians in the province, would not likely demur.



Born: 2 October 1934
Died: 30 June 2011
Richard Froggatt
Acknowledgements:

Wesley McCann

Bibliography:

Jonathan Bardon: Beyond the Studio: A History of BBC Northern Ireland; Don Anderson: 50 Years of Ulster Television; obituaries: The Independent 6.7.2011 (David McKittrick); The Guardian 26.7.2011 (Chris Ryder); www.u.tv/50years/Info/; Eddie McIlwaine: "David Dunseith: Former policeman who became an arresting interviewer", Belfast Telegraph, 1.7.2011