Barry Cowan: television and radio reporter and presenter in Ireland

Irish broadcaster Barry Cowan has died at the age of 56. A senior figure in broadcasting journalism, he was a reporter and presenter on both radio and television in Belfast and Dublin.

After graduating from Queen’s University, he joined the BBC as a studio manager and was mid-way through an attachment to the BBC World Service at Bush House in London when he was recalled to Belfast. He subsequently became presenter of the BBC Northern Ireland Scene Around Six programme in 1974 as the conflict in the Province gathered momentum.

He later became editor of Spotlight, the investigative news programme.

He won an award for a commemorative programme about the Kingsmill Massacre, in which 10 Protestant workers were murdered in south Armagh in 1976. In the early Eighties, Cowan left the BBC in Belfast to join RTE in Dublin, where he fronted the flagship television current affairs programme Today Tonight for several years. He subsequently returned to Belfast to become the first presenter of the live news and current affairs radio programme Talkback on Radio Ulster.

Cowan founded an independent television production company, Bridge Television, based in Holywood, Co Down. He is survived by his wife, Sue Hanson, and two children, Christopher and Holly.

Keith Baker, former head of news and current affairs at BBC Northern Ireland, writes:

When I joined the BBC, Barry Cowan was already a legend, his face and his voice known in every Northern Ireland household.

He would never have fitted a Hollywood casting director’s image of the perfect news anchor.

He was slight of build, he had a curtain of long fair hair, a beard, and who can forget the black leather jacket or those suits with the never-mind-the quality-look-at-the-width lapels that scream The Seventies.

Yet any viewer who saw Barry in action in front of the cameras on Scene Around Six as the Troubles began to tighten their grip, knew they were watching someone very special, a formidable broadcaster with enormous journalistic skill.

He had been given the presenter’s chair in difficult circumstances. It had been occupied by the late Larry McCoubrey, an enormously popular figure and a tough act to follow.

But Northern Ireland was changing and television journalism was changing with it.

Almost overnight, Scene Around Six, from being a routine nightly regional magazine, became a hardedged news programme dealing with events on an international scale and Barry found himself at the centre of the hurricane in which the community was being engulfed.

There was no training for this. No one taught you how to report a deepening civil conflict, yet Barry seemed to know instinctively.

The BBC’s journalism could not have been in better hands. He lived for live broadcasting, both on radio and television – that arena of the unpredictable.

He was at ease with programmes constantly changing to react to breaking news.

Night after night, audiences saw him carry out incisive probing interviews, each of them a model of fairness and even-handedness and all with one aim – to get at the truth.

We owe him a lot.

We are all better informed about this place and each other thanks to the work of this master craftsman, a convivial colleague and a consummate professional.

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