Kee, Robert (1919–2013), journalist, broadcaster and historian, was born in Calcutta, India, on 5 October 1919, only child of Robert Kee (1879–1958), manager of a jute mill, and his wife Dorothy Frances (née Monkman). The family were initially prosperous, but in the Great Depression of the 1930s the elder Robert Kee was dismissed without a pension. He returned to Britain and worked in temporary and dead-end jobs until the age of seventy-four. The younger Robert was deeply marked by his father’s loss of self-respect. In 1933 he won a scholarship to Stowe School, Buckinghamshire (which he called excellent preparation for a prisoner of war camp), and in 1937 an exhibition to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read modern history and had a lively social life including many love affairs. He became a favourite pupil of the historian A. J. P. Taylor, fellow of Magdalen (1938–76); they maintained a lifelong friendship and Kee was one of two speakers at Taylor’s cremation.
Graduating with a second-class degree in 1940, Kee joined the RAF and trained as a pilot. After being commissioned in July 1941 he flew bombers against German shipping. On 18 February 1942 he was shot down off the Frisian Islands and taken prisoner. His subsequent experiences as a prisoner of war in Poland (including two attempted escapes, one getting as far as Cologne) were recorded in his novel–memoir A crowd is not company (1947) regarded as one of the finest second world war memoirs (new ed. 1982). These experiences reinforced his relatively solitary personality and lack of concern with possessions (though he was a dandy). Repatriated in May 1945, he was demobilised in February 1946. He befriended Frances Partridge (1900–2004) who introduced him to the remnants of the Bloomsbury set and associated literary–journalistic circles, including Partridge’s protégée Janetta Woolley, whom Kee married on 20 January 1948. The marriage produced one daughter but was stormy and they divorced in 1950. Bloomsbury’s emphasis on emotional fulfilment over ideology and non-judgmental attitude to complex personal relationships are reflected in Kee’s life and work.
In 1948 Kee co-founded with James McGibbon the publishing firm McGibbon & Kee, which published several well-received authors including Brendan Behan (qv) and Patrick Kavanagh (qv). Kee himself wrote three rather feeble novels and translated German books, some related to the second world war (notably the ‘Gunner Asch’ novels of Hans Hellmut Kirst (1914–89)) seeking to distinguish between the Nazi regime and the German population as a whole. The publishing firm proved loss-making, and Kee moved increasingly into print journalism, beginning in the Picture Post whose investigative and educational ethos was reflected in his pioneering articles on race relations in Britain and his 1989 compilation The Picture Post album. He subsequently worked on the Sunday Times and the Observer, was briefly literary editor of the Spectator, and went into broadcasting in 1958 on the BBC current affairs programme Panorama. His reports on the Algerian conflict were highly praised. (In a 1960 programme Kee contrasted controversy over exportation of Irish horses for slaughter with indifference to half a million starving Algerians.) He left the BBC for the short-lived Television Reporters International but was recruited by ITV to present the current affairs programme This week. He worked for ITV companies as reporter, presenter and writer from 1964 to 1978, and in 1972 was the first presenter of the television programme which became News at one. In 1976 he received a Richard Dimbleby BAFTA award, given to presenters of news and factual programmes.
Kee’s interest in modern Irish history grew from a lengthy 1950s love affair with the socialite Oonagh Guinness (qv), involving frequent visits to her house at Luggala in the Wicklow mountains. In 1955 he unsuccessfully approached a publisher about writing a history of Ireland from 1891 to 1925. He continued to read Irish history and was influenced by the Irish Historical Studies school of T. W. Moody (qv) and R. D. Edwards (qv), which Kee considered bracingly professional and inaccessible to the wider public, and by the narrative achievement of Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The great hunger (1962). In 1963 Kee scripted and presented a Television Reporters International television documentary on the 1916 rising, modelled on George Morrison’s film Mise Éire (1959). As Northern Ireland returned to the headlines in 1967–8, Kee decided to write up the book project and The green flag: a study of Irish nationalism appeared in 1972. The book became a steady bestseller both as an 800-page hardback and as three paperback volumes (1976).
Kee began his analysis of Irish nationalism with the United Irishmen. His account is in the British liberal-philo-nationalist tradition, arguing that while the conflicts of early modern Ireland produced identities based on religious division and the experience of conquest and exploitation, modern nationalism among the catholic population was a relatively late phenomenon containable by greater British sensitivity to Irish poverty and self-respect. He emphasises the gap between harmful or anticlimactic political events and their subsequent mythologisation, a process he regards as simultaneously distorting, inevitable and necessary. He placed particular emphasis on Daniel O’Connell’s (qv) achievements in political mobilisation, Charles Stewart Parnell’s (qv) raw ability to harness popular grievances and make compromises while maintaining his followers’ respect, and Michael Collins (qv) as the only professional revolutionary Ireland produced. Given the abiding links between the two islands, he thought that home rule for Ireland was preferable to separation.
Kee became fascinated with Parnell and began researching a biography with an Alastair Horne fellowship at St Antony’s College, Oxford (1972–3). He abandoned the project on discovering that F. S. L. Lyons (qv) was far advanced on Parnell (1977), but later decided that more remained to be said. In 1972, shortly after publication of The green flag, Kee became honorary secretary of the newly founded British–Irish Association; in the late 1980s he was a patron of the British Association for Irish Studies, and in 1991 a patron of the Dublin feminist theatre company Smashing Times.
In 1980–81 Kee’s Ireland: a television history was broadcast by the BBC and RTÉ, which co-produced it. He wrote and narrated the thirteen-episode series, which took two years to film. Since much of Ireland had only the two RTÉ channels, British viewers had three terrestrial channels, and public service broadcasting obligations were interpreted in a more expansive manner than subsequently, this was a major media event. Its UK audience was estimated at three million. In Ireland, the single authoritative presenter speaking ‘received pronunciation’ irritated some viewers. Critics complained that Kee overstated the centrality of catholicism to Irish national identity and that the episodic structure (which Kee considered preferable for television) led to such major omissions as the Ulster 1798 uprising and the role of Michael Davitt (qv) in the Land League. Kee was accused of promoting the two-nations theory associated with Conor Cruise O’Brien (qv), although he had stated publicly since 1972 that he favoured a united Ireland.
In the episode on the Great Famine of 1845–9, Kee’s dispassionate recital of horror after horror, juxtaposed with visual material, actors reading eyewitness accounts and the bureaucratic self-congratulation of Charles Trevelyan (qv) produced a shattering impression. (It also reflected Kee’s personal experience of war, famine and refugees.) The unionist A. T. Q. Stewart (qv), a historical adviser to the series, complained ironically that English acquaintances were apologising to him personally for the Famine. As the series covered 1916–23, Kee interviewed former Black and Tans and British servicemen as well as members of the IRA. An enduring image was the IRA veteran Vinnie Byrne (qv) cheerfully describing how he ‘plugged’ two British officers on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 21 November 1920.
The final episodes on the Northern Ireland Troubles interviewed a wide range of political figures. The inclusion of Sinn Féin and IRA spokesmen and loyalist paramilitaries created a risk that these episodes might be censored under Section 31 of the Irish Broadcasting Act, though the uncensored BBC version would be widely accessible. (Communications Minister Albert Reynolds (qv) granted an exemption.) The series was criticised for emphasising violence over constitutional politics and is often described as presenting Irish history through the Troubles. Concluding with the December 1980 Dublin Castle negotiations between C. J. Haughey (qv) and Margaret Thatcher, Kee balances uneasily between the hope that history’s prison may be opened by mutual understanding and apprehension that Northern Ireland might be trapped in a primal cycle of sectarian conflict.
The series received a Jacob’s Radio and Television Award and the 1981 Ewart-Biggs Prize (jointly with Brian Friel’s play 'Translations'). The associated illustrated book became a best-seller, despite minor errors. (Kevin Boland (qv) received £600 legal costs and £5,000 damages because it called him a 1970 arms trial defendant). Margaret Thatcher allegedly chose it as holiday reading during negotiations leading to the 1985 Anglo–Irish Agreement. A revised and updated edition appeared in 1995.
In January 1982 Kee became presenter of Panorama but resigned in May over a programme on the Falklands War which he considered biased towards anti-war campaigners. He was one of five heavyweight presenters for the new breakfast news programme TV-AM (launched early in 1983), but viewers thought the ‘Famous Five’ overly highbrow and they were replaced by the glove puppet Roland Rat.
Kee then published newspaper-based chronicle histories of the years 1939 (1984), 1945 (1985) and the 1938 Munich agreement (1989). He campaigned for the Guildford Four, Maguire Seven and Birmingham Six, Irish residents in Britain unjustly convicted for IRA bombing offences. In 1986 he published Trial and error (rev. ed. 1989) an account of the Guildford and Maguire cases which made clear his belief that those convicted were innocent. He lobbied for new court hearings, and in 1986 told a Dublin meeting that the Irish government should not legislate for extradition of political offenders to the UK until miscarriages of justice were addressed; some compared his role to that of Emile Zola in the Dreyfus Affair. Kee also campaigned for the ‘UDR Four’, imprisoned on the basis of questionable confession evidence for murdering a catholic civilian, and contributed to Fr Jarlath Waldron’s book on the 1882 Maamtrasna murders a foreword comparing the fate of Myles Joyce (qv) and some co-accused to contemporary miscarriages of justice.
In 1993 Kee published a major Parnell biography, The laurel and the ivy. Unlike Henry Harrison (qv), Kee was not shocked that Katherine O’Shea might have continued relations with her husband after becoming Parnell’s mistress, and took a sympathetic view of William O’Shea’s (qv) apparent initial condoning of the affair. While the work emphasised the personal over the political, it reiterated that had there been no split or had Parnell survived into subsequent decades, home rule might have provided a lasting settlement. In a 1993 interview, Kee suggested an independent Northern Ireland offered the best compromise between the two communities; thereafter he offered detached and sceptical commentary on the peace process, emphasising the need to respect the sensitivities of both sides.
In 1998 Kee was appointed CBE. He died of heart disease and pneumonia at his home in Camberwell, London, on 11 January 2013. By his second marriage (1960–89) to Cynthia Judah, television production assistant, he had two sons (one died aged one) and a daughter. His third marriage (1990) to Kate Trevelyan, publisher, lasted until his death.