Cork woman: I feel very privileged to be in this role

COLETTE SHERIDAN catches up with the recently appointed MD of RTÉ News and Current Affairs, Deirdre McCarthy from Cork
Cork woman: I feel very privileged to be in this role

Deirdre McCarthy MD for RTÉ News and Current Affairs

CORK woman Deirdre McCarthy, who was reared in Douglas, has climbed the ladder at RTÉ, having recently been appointed as managing director of news and current affairs.

As the first woman to hold this position, Deirdre is proud to take on such a responsible editorial role. But she could equally have ended up in the arts.

Deirdre, who has a BA degree from UCC, a Masters in politics from UCD and a higher diploma in conflict and dispute resolution from TCD, has always loved the theatre.

While politics and journalism are her passions, she was drawn to the theatre growing up and as a student. Her mother, June McCarthy, was involved in the Everyman and in amateur drama.

“My appreciation of literature, language and drama comes from my mother,” says Deirdre. “At college I was heavily involved in Dramat and the Everyman. I acted, I did stage management and front-of-house. I got to work with John Crowley (whose subsequent successful career as a director has seen him direct Brooklyn and Intermission among other movies.)

“After graduating, I worked with Graffiti theatre on a production for four or five months. We went to schools around the country with it. I did speech and drama along the way as well.”

A past pupil of Christ the King Secondary School, Deirdre says the diploma in conflict resolution was the most interesting course she completed over her years in academia.

“It covered everything from Arbour Hill to Afghanistan as well as the courts system and mediation.”

Deirdre started out with both an Equity card and a NUJ card.

“I went with journalism because that’s where the work was.”

She recalls an early report she did for RTÉ Radio Cork.

“It was about the tenth anniversary of the closure of Verolme Dockyard and the effect that had, as well as the closure of Fords and Dunlops, on the economy of Cork. So many people had lost their jobs within 18 months of each other. After that, I did more radio.

“It’s all about coming up with ideas and being willing to go anywhere to tell a story,” says Deirdre. “I honed my radio and television skills.”

That included reporting for Nationwide.

“There were opportunities for freelance television work. I was in the right place at the right time. Flor McCarthy and Jennie O’Sullivan started around the same time as me.”

Deirdre McCarthy MD for RTÉ News and Current Affairs
Deirdre McCarthy MD for RTÉ News and Current Affairs

In 1995, Deirdre joined the RTÉ newsroom and has been there ever since. “Having come from the regions, I had an understanding of what is required to deliver a story. In the regions, you had to do an awful lot of the hard work yourself. That was a great foundation to have coming to Dublin.

“In Dublin, I’ve worked everywhere in RTÉ, at all the desks. I worked on The Week In Politics, first as a reporter and then as the editor. I worked in Leinster House for ten years. I was RTÉ’s political coverage editor there.”

This involved leading the reporting of political news stories as well as overseeing the live broadcasting of national events such as general elections and referendums including Marriage Equality and the abortion referendum.

Asked if she ever feels frustrated trying to get politicians to say something meaningful as opposed to spouting the party line and point-scoring against the opposition, Deirdre says that informal exchanges with them are often more fruitful.

“In fairness, once politicians see a microphone or a camera coming towards them, it’s hard for them. They feel that what they say is on the public record and it’s going to be seen and heard by a lot of people. I suppose you get a better sense of where politicians are at and how they feel from talking to them more informally.

“Sometimes, a politician may not necessarily agree with the party line but will go with it. They may not want their own views on things to be public. I completely understand that... it’s about trust, that they know when they say something is off the record, it stays off the record.”

There are 300 people working in news and current affairs in RTÉ.

“It’s everything from the Investigations Unit to Nationwide to our online and social media platforms as well as the 6pm and 9pm news programmes, Morning Ireland and the News at One. That’s a huge breadth. 

"Having worked across so many desks has been really helpful for me. I know the pressures journalists are under and the pressures editors are under and what it can take to get a story over the line. 

"And obviously, I need to maintain and build on RTÉ being a trusted news source. I sign off on and am responsible for everything (in news, current affairs and online) that is going out 24/7. I feel very privileged to be in that role. It’s a huge responsibility.

“I’m very conscious that I’m accountable to the public and to all the various stakeholders. I have to ensure we stick to our values of being factual, accurate, objective and fair. Do we make mistakes? Occasionally we do. We’re very happy to clarify them. That’s just as important as getting it right. It’s about being transparent.”

While Deirdre says RTÉ is “still the most trusted news source online in Ireland, we need to maintain that. There’s a bigger challenge which is one of my priorities – and that is challenging disinformation and fact-checking.”

In this era of ‘fake news’, Deirdre says there is a lot of disinformation doing the rounds online on social media.

“It’s constant. It’s not just about conspiracy theories. It’s in and around everyday stories that go on social media and elsewhere. Sometimes, we need to explain to people why we’re not covering a particular story. We are regulated. We have to adhere to the laws of the country. As a public service media company, there are obligations.”

RTÉ has never before had so much competition in the media zone.

“The bottom line is that news consumption has changed. People are looking at their phones and devices at shorter versions (of news.) 

"There’s still a lot of us who like the longer piece. Our correspondents do their blogs really well but they’re for an older audience. Our younger audience want news to be short and sharp. They want video. They want stories to be told differently... Can you tell a story in five or six words? This is not exclusive to RTÉ. Every single media company is challenged by this. But we do need to be front and centre of it.”

Deirdre says that the influence of the technological revolution on young people means that behemoths like RTÉ have to broaden their scope when it comes to telling stories.

“There’s a different tone and approach. You can see from Tik Tok that the tone is much more conversational.”

She adds that RTÉ needs to “connect with younger audiences. We do that, but we need to do it a lot more.”

Asked what was the biggest story Deirdre has ever covered, she says: “It was the economic crash of 2008/9/10 when I was editor of The Week In Politics.

“Managing the political coverage through that period was immense and hugely challenging from a variety of perspectives. You have to navigate it and try to tell the story, while being cognisant of the impact it may have on individuals and the general public and on the political establishment. It was a massive period.

“And subsequently there was what happened in 2011 with the general election. That time stands out for me.”

You can’t talk about RTÉ without reference to the high salaries some of its presenters are paid. And you wonder if big money means the presenters are out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people, particularly with the current cost-of-living crisis.

“I think that the presenters and journalists, because they’re the ones looking for the stories and presenting them, are very much in touch with what matters in people’s lives and what’s affecting them daily,” says Deirdre.

“Where RTÉ was 15 or 20 years ago is not the place it is now. The salaries have reduced by 40% over the last 15 years and have been further reduced in the last couple of years. It’s something that is under review the whole time,” adds Deirdre.

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