George Hook: “Stop fucking around and just go”

Motley’s Current Affairs and Sport Editor Dylan White talks to Irish media personality George Hook about honesty, emigration and building up the courage to believe in one’s potential.

Some have described him as the greatest broadcaster since Gaybo. But nothing upsets Hook more than being labelled the rugby equivalent of Eamon Dunphy. “I’m not remotely like Dunphy. He has a long record of saying things for the sake of being controversial. I say things because I’m an argumentative bollocks and I’ve been an argumentative bollocks ever since I left [the Presentation Brothers College in Cork] at 18 years of age. I’m proud of the fact that what you see on television is me, what you hear on the radio is me and what you read in the Irish Independent is me. You can be very popular by saying what the mob want and I’m not terribly interested in what the mob wants,” he tells Motley Magazine exclusively.

His rise from poverty, a catastrophic 30 years trying to feed off a catering profession that lacked produce, only to be reborn as a national broadcasting icon speaks volumes. The family-man, the friend and the legendary broadcaster that continues to polarise the nation with his views-George Hook. He does not speak in one or two lines. He ruffled a few feathers recently when he dared to suggest that there should only be three provinces playing Irish rugby. “People don’t like views I hold. Half the same population in Irish rugby realise that we can’t afford four provinces but you can be very popular by saying what people want to hear”.  Hook is a firm believer that honesty is the name of the game but laughs: “I thought when [someone] asks you a question you’re supposed to be honest. I suppose it’s because so many people aren’t [honest] that people are surprised”.

Allegations surrounding the national police serve of Ireland, An Garda Síochána, have been rife in recent weeks. A number of TDs have described Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s position as ‘untenable’ and have called for him to resign in the wake of the controversy over alleged surveillance at the Garda Ombudsman and the handling of a Garda whistleblower. Hook says he was “astonished” that a serving Garda would shred his career regardless of how he felt about it and believes whistleblowers are “different” from the rest of us. “Typical of Ireland we get it arse ways. We send it into the Public Accounts Committee where all you’re seen now is politics at its worst.  Shane Ross and Alan Shatter are in the same constituency, a constituency I feel will lose its seat in the next election. Every single politician is only angling for coverage”.

But Hook says he hasn’t lost faith in how the country is being run:  “I’ve never had anybody fix penalty points or a summons for me and that is the general feeling in the Irish people. 15 years ago the instinct reaction in Ireland would be that we are a little shit country off the western coast of Europe that is unimportant, has an exaggerated opinion of itself and has no understanding of rules.  [Take cyclists for example]. They think red lights are green. That’s why people park motor cars on double yellow lines and don’t pay their taxes. Ireland is about nodding and winking. I’m only amazed that people are surprised by it”.

Hook openly admits to suffering from depression and believes that worry never solves a problem. However, in the current economic climate, he understands how damaging unemployment can be to a young person’s psyche. “Depression is a very difficult topic. I don’t believe in medication and tablets. They’re too readily available. I suffer from depression today but I’ve learned to control it and know the things that trigger it. Unemployment for a young person is much more damaging. He/she comes out of college with the expectation of work. He/she has never worked. This is the next step in his/her life, the idea of earning and getting a cheque on a Friday”.

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“I honestly don’t think I’m arrogant. It’s to do with confidence and the younger you are the harder that is because what can you base your confidence on?”

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Hook believes this generation has to do what he did and emigrate in order to have a decent standard of living. He also feels that emigration should be seen as a positive thing. “I was 19 years of age and went out to the airport, got on a plane and went to London because I wanted to work. If you want to work you have to go. They talk about the wandering Jew but I essentially think that when God made Ireland he created the wandering Irish. Since the famine we have been moving. Australia isn’t the arse end of the world anymore. America is only hours away. I see more of my daughter in London than I do my daughter in Dublin so I don’t think emigration should be seen as something negative. There’s no question that you’re going to be more valued abroad than you are here because when you go abroad you’ll find that the competition is worse. It’s going to be much better for you and you’re going to do better”.

Hook says young people have to “stop fucking around and just go”. He added: “I see kids playing rugby and there stacking shelves.  Why would you stack shelves? There’s no future for you stacking shelves”.

Hook made the transition into journalism “very late” in life and admits that he only found what he was good at when he was 55 years old. “I was always good at it but I didn’t have the confidence [when I was younger].  I never had the confidence to write a letter of application to RTÉ for instance for a job. My whole life was a kind of preparation for it in that I was mad about sports.  I was a debater, so I had good language skills. Since I first picked up The [Irish] Examiner at about 7 years of age I had been reading newspapers every day. It was a pretty lousy way to prepare: 30 years of failure as a businessman, as a father and as a husband”. The 72 year old admits that he only became the “finished article” 18 years ago and says he would be an “unbearable prick” today if he had been given the opportunity at 25.

The number of former professional sports people going into journalism and the media when their careers come to an end has been telling in recent times. Hook says that the “vast majority” of their articles are ghost written and understands why young journalists get “pissed off when they see some former half-ass sportsman’s” name on their work. He added: “When the [Irish] Independent first rang me in 1997/1998 they said ‘look, when the match is over we’ll get a reporter to call you. He’ll do a report and we’ll put your name on it’. I said ‘no you won’t, I’ll write it’. The guy in the Independent they asked me if I could do that and I said ‘I went to school didn’t I’? I wrote it and to this day I write every single word”.

The veteran broadcaster says the first cheque he received for television was“25 quid” and the same for the Irish Independent. “I had a hole in my trousers but I was made up to be getting 50 quid. I worked my ass off to get better. I work harder now than probably anyone else doing the same job that I do. I do 7 days and 100 hours a week at 72 years of age. How many 72 year olds do you know doing that?”

Hook says aspiring journalists must have “opinion” and be passionate about what they’re writing. “Nobody pays you to say on the one hand and on the other. There’s no point in going into a newspaper and saying I’m a journalist. You’ve got to be an expert in something. Believe it or not, I was an expert in rugby. That’s what gave me the break”.

The controversial pundit claims there is a difference between being arrogant and “not giving a shit about opinion”. He also says he is “not paid to please people” and that young journalists must “learn their trade”.  He explains: “I honestly don’t think I’m arrogant. It’s to do with confidence and the younger you are the harder that is because what can you base your confidence on? Even though I had 30 years of failure I could at least base it on something. It’s harder when you’re young. The big problem with modern young people in journalism is that they don’t want to start at the bottom. They want to start half way up and they want title. You must start at the bottom [and work your way up]”.

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“Ireland is about nodding and winking. I’m only amazed that people are surprised by it”

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Hook recently announced that he will retire from television after the 2015 Rugby World Cup which takes place in the autumn of next year and will call a halt to his radio show, The Right Hook, a year after that in September 2016. In what has been deemed the longest goodbye in the history of Irish broadcasting, the outspoken broadcaster says that the announcement was not for the benefit of the public. “It’s for me. I have the dates now and there set in stone. I’m not going to change my mind. I’m going!”

The host of Newstalk’s drivetime talk show says he’s optimistic about the future and says “the country is its people, not its politicians”. He explains: “The government is not going to change.  Politicians are politicians.  As [Nikita] Khrushchev, the Great Russian politician, said: ‘Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build bridges even when there are no rivers’. [Irish people] are special. We only fuck up in our own country. We don’t fuck up when we go abroad. What we have to do is realise how good we are because we’re bloody good”.

But has Hook any plans for the future? “I’m going to write a book of fiction this year. [If that goes well] I’ll write another one. I love writing. I have six grandchildren so they should keep me active”. However, Hook says his main objective is to get his grandson “George the fourth down in Carrigaline” into Presentation Brothers College in Cork. He added: “I hope I’m around in 8 years’ time to see him walking in the gates in his Pres blazer.  That is what I want to see more than anything”.