O'Kelly, Kevin (1924–94), journalist and broadcaster, was born 12 June 1924 at 36 Nelson Street, Dublin, son of Kevin Kelly, a civil servant, and Kathleen Kelly (née O'Keefe). Educated at the Catholic University School, he began his career in journalism with the Irish Press, where he impressed especially as a knowledgeable film critic, before working with the Irish News Agency. In the early 1950s he made several short informational films. Joining Radio Éireann in 1954, he worked as a news reporter and presenter. Programmes that he presented included Provincial news roundup and City newsreel. During the 1960s he was among the broadcasters who spearheaded the expansion of RTÉ radio news services, working on the original production and presentation teams of the daily News at 1.30 and the Sunday lunchtime programme This week. He covered on location many of the major news stories of the decade, including the American space exploration programme, the four sessions of the second Vatican council, the participation of Irish troops in UN peacekeeping missions in the Congo and Cyprus, and the escalating crisis in Northern Ireland. An original member in 1968 of the news features section in the RTÉ newsroom, he became news features editor in 1971.
O'Kelly was at the centre of one of the most famous cases in Irish history concerning confidentiality of a journalist's sources of information. On the This week programme of 19 November 1972 he presented a scripted report of an interview that he had conducted the previous evening with the IRA chief of staff, Seán Mac Stiofáin (qv). Deeming the report to have breached the directive issued under section 31 of the broadcasting authority act, which banned the broadcast of material that might promote the aims of a subversive organisation, the Fianna Fáil government of Jack Lynch (qv) dismissed the entire RTÉ Authority on the basis that its response to the incident was inadequate. On 25 November O'Kelly was called as a prosecution witness in the trial before the special criminal court of Mac Stiofáin on a charge of IRA membership, the primary evidence being a cassette tape recording of the interview, which had been handed over by RTÉ on foot of a court summons. In evidence before the court, O'Kelly testified that he had interviewed someone on the night in question, and stated his opinion that the tape recording was an accurate and authentic document of an interview with Mac Stiofáin. However, he declined to disclose the circumstances under which the statements on the tape had been made available to him, including whether he himself had been physically present when the statements were made, or to identify the person whom he had interviewed. To do so, he asserted, would violate the confidence between him as a journalist and another person, and thus jeopardise the free exchange of ideas. Ruled in contempt of court, he was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment. Mac Stiofáin was convicted on the basis of a garda detective's evidence that his was the voice on the tape recording, and was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.
Members of the National Union of Journalists and other trade unionists within RTÉ immediately went on strike, in sympathy and solidarity with O'Kelly, and to protest against the lack of legislation to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources; their action shut down the station for some sixty hours. Print journalists in Dublin and Cork went on a twenty-four-hour strike, obviating publication of newspapers on 29 November, despite O'Kelly's appeal to fellow journalists to refrain from industrial action, which would impede the free flow of communication, the principle on which his action was based. The second journalist in the history of the state to be imprisoned for refusing to disclose his sources to a court of law, O'Kelly spent two nights in Mountjoy jail before being freed on bail pending appeal of his sentence. In July 1973 the court of criminal appeal reduced the sentence to a fine of £250 on the grounds that O'Kelly's evidence had sufficiently identified Mac Stiofáin as his interviewee, and that his refusal to answer certain questions had not effectively impeded the prosecution's case.
O'Kelly subsequently became religious affairs correspondent for both RTÉ radio and television. Deeply interested in the subject, well read in contemporary theology, and moving within a wide circle of informed acquaintances, he developed a strong reputation in the brief. In view of this speciality and his earlier interest in space exploration, he was known jocularly within RTÉ as the ‘correspondent on extra-terrestrial affairs’. Noted throughout his career for a gritty independence, and a capacity to convey the heart of an issue in simple and direct language, he combined a traditional ‘hard news’ approach with informed, considered, and sober analysis. He won two Jacob's broadcasting awards, for his reporting of the first moon landing by the Apollo 11 mission, and for his presentation of the weekly radio programme Addendum, which analysed religious affairs in Ireland and abroad. He retired early from RTÉ for health reasons in 1986, but continued to present Addendum for some years thereafter.
A devout, liberal Roman catholic, who strongly supported the reforms of Vatican II, he was a committed ecumenist, with a sympathy for liberation theology. He and his wife Ann, who survived him, had three sons and two daughters, and resided at 4 Eglinton Park, Donnybrook, Dublin. O'Kelly was chairman of the Camphill Communities of Ireland, which work with the intellectually disabled; his son Kevin was resident in a Camphill community. He was also public relations consultant to the Eastern Health Board. Afflicted with angina for ten years, he died suddenly of a heart attack on 31 August 1994 in Inch, Gorey, Co. Wexford, and was buried in Shanganagh cemetery, Co. Dublin.