Wednesday 24 Sep 2014
David Dunseith passed away on Thursday 30 June 2011, surrounded by his family. Here BBC Northern Ireland pays tribute to one of Northern Ireland's most highly regarded and much-loved broadcasters.
A voice on the radio can seem like a close friend. You feel you know the man, even though you've never met him. Thousands tuned in on weekdays to listen to David Dunseith.
The programme's mood was changeable, like the Irish weather. There were storms, occasional icy patches and blasts of true sunshine. Over 20 years, the man and the programme fused – Dunseith was Talkback – a voice of authority who kept a wry eye on machinations in Northern Ireland.
His colleague Gerry Anderson, who delighted in playful banter, once said that David Dunseith went to work every day "in the belly of the beast".
"Here come the crazies," he'd joke as he handed the airspace over to David. But Dunseith just laughed.
He revelled in his programme. He did not let his interviewees, nor the public who stormed the phonelines, off the hook. Many of the callers were regulars. Gerard from Clonard, Bertie from Lisburn or East Belfast Protestant Lady all had their say.
Some callers were furious; others infuriating. But like the circus ringmaster, he cracked the whip, reined in the lions and kept a close eye on the clowns. David Dunseith once said Talkback was: "the people's parliament".
As presenter at the helm from 1989 to 2009, he offered the man and woman on the street a voice in the dark days of the Troubles when many felt their voices counted for nothing.
Helen McKendry broke a silence of 22 years to speak to him. She went on Talkback to describe the day her mother, Jean McConville, one of the so-called "Disappeared", was taken away to be murdered by the IRA. Later, Lord Fitt was to describe that interview as one of the most poignant, he had ever heard.
It was David Dunseith who conducted a measured, thoughtful interview with IRA Brighton bomber, Patrick Magee.
Back in the Eighties, it was on Talkback that John Hume, the then leader of the SDLP challenged Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader over violence. Hume said he wanted to talk to the IRA. Perhaps Talkback was a small footnote in the history that followed.
The beauty of Dunseith's touch could be seen in the way he moved seamlessly from dark, challenging or worthy topics to lighter ones. "Sometimes when politicians are debating the weighty matters of state, we find that the listeners want to talk about other matters entirely," he once said, bemused by the sheer quixotic nature of life.
"Just mention litter, chewing gum or telephone directories and the phones light up. This is what makes Talkback a success. Ultimately , it's the people who decide what's in the programme and long may they continue to do so."
There were plenty of laughs – Talkback was where it all began for The Hole in the Wall gang.
There were groundbreaking outside broadcasts like the one in the Whiterock in West Belfast held to mark Operation Banner – the withdrawal of the army from Northern Ireland. There, ex-soldiers and ex-IRA men had their say.
The mark of the man was his way with people – they wanted to talk with him, they wanted to engage. It was often a love/hate relationship. He interviewed politicians, priests, prime ministers, paramilitaries – but most of all, he championed the point of view of the man and woman on the street.
The debate was often heated – his gift was that he never was. He cajoled, he chastised, he was a straight talker and he was not afraid to put the tough questions.
"I take a lot of personal abuse – but I take a professional approach and I accept that that is inevitable," he said.
If there were brickbats, there were also bouquets. In 1993 David Dunseith won a coveted Gold Sony Award as local broadcaster of the year and Talkback won further Sonys in 1997 and 2006.
His colleagues benefited from his expertise and his down-to-earth approach. BBC NI Head of News, Kathleen Carragher, said: "David Dunseith was passionate about Talkback and its audience. His grasp of Northern Ireland society was unparalleled. A whole generation of producers worked with David and learned from him."
The London School of Economics said of his work during some of the most difficult days of the Troubles: "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."
David Dunseith grew up in Londonderry and was an RUC police officer before he turned to journalism in the Seventies. He worked for UTV before moving to the BBC in the late Eighties. He stepped down from Talkback in 2009, but returned to host BBC Radio Ulster's Seven Days. In 2010, his beloved wife Roisin Walsh-Dunseith, a former UTV journalist, died. She had suffered from Motor Neurone Disease.
David will be missed by his family.
On his last ever Talkback programme in 2009, he stepped down in a suitably low key way that summed up his humility, his warmth and his style.
"Difficult now... What do I say?
"There was a song – I think it was a Woody Guthrie song – 'So long it's been good to know you. I gotta be drifting along'.
"That's all from me now..." And with that, the studio light faded, the microphone went silent and he was gone.
BBC Director General, Mark Thompson, said: "David Dunseith served BBC audiences in Northern Ireland with distinction throughout some of the most difficult and contentious years of its history. 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. He will be greatly missed by all at the BBC."
Peter Johnston, Director BBC Northern Ireland, said: "David was a unique broadcasting talent in Northern Ireland. Host of the iconic programme Talkback he became a true legend of the airwaves and was much loved by listeners from all walks of life. He conducted interviews in a searching and robust manner, always with courtesy and good humour. We honour his contribution to the success of one of our flagship programmes. He will be greatly missed by his colleagues and loyal audiences who he has served for the best part of his life. Our thoughts are with his family on this sad occasion."
Wendy Austin, Talkback presenter and colleague, said: "I'm so sorry to hear the news. David was a fantastic broadcaster – his immediately recognisable voice was known and loved in so many homes in Northern Ireland and further afield. As his successor on Talkback I'm only too aware that it's a challenging programme – David carried it off with aplomb and friend and foe alike regarded him with respect. All of us who worked with him knew how devastated he was by the loss of his beloved Roisin – it was typical of David that despite his own illness and grief he kept on broadcasting for as long as he could. We will all miss him."
Gerry Anderson, BBC Radio Ulster presenter, said: "David Dunseith was a consummate gentleman and was one of the finest of broadcasters I had the privilege to know. I'm so very sorry to hear that he has passed away."
BBC Northern Ireland Press Office
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