Miriam and Steve RTÉ's power couple
Published 11/12/2011 | 06:00
Miriam O'Callaghan's wedding ring is carved with the letters ALWFS. It stands for 'A Long Way from Strokestown,' a sentimental reminder of the day she met her second husband Steve Carson.
The RTÉ presenter, a single mother of four girls at the time, was working on a story at the famine museum in the Roscommon town when she set eyes on the Belfast-born BBC producer.
Not long before, her first marriage to sports commentator Tom McGurk had come to a heartbreaking end. Carson appeared like the proverbial knight, giving her a second chance at love she never dreamed of. He had, she once said, been heaven-sent by her sister and best friend, Anne, who succumbed to stomach cancer in 1995, at the age of 32.
Since then, the working lives of RTÉ's first couple have been intertwined, but this week their relationship took on a whole new dynamic when the father of four of her eight children became her boss.
As acting head of current affairs, Carson (43) will have a hands-on role in the production of Prime Time, until such time as the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland's inquiry into the defective programme about Fr Kevin Reynolds is complete. Carson, who will continue in his current post as head of TV programming, is standing in for Ken O'Shea who has stepped aside from the position pending the findings of the broadcaster's own internal inquiry and the BAI report.
During these nerve-racking days for RTÉ management, Carson has been chosen to steer its news team through the fall-out from the Prime Time Investigates scandal, to rebuild morale and regain the trust of the viewing public. The pressure on him will be immense.
As for RTÉ's hardest-working presenter, the presence of her husband in the Prime Time studio two nights a week when he would normally be at home cooking dinner and minding the kids, could prove a shock to the system and their domestic lives.
Although her €290,000 annual salary is thought to be in another orbit to his undisclosed pay package, he will head up all of RTÉ's entire current affairs output and have the final say on her daily brief.
"It will certainly add to the frisson of tension in the studio which would have to be a good thing right now because the atmosphere in there at the moment is atrocious," says one observer.
"But how will it impact on their marriage? When they drive home in the evenings, is Steve going to rap Miriam on the knuckles for giving a guest too easy a ride or allowing politicians to shout over her?
"Or is she going to give out that a slot was given too little time or a subject not enough research? Not exactly the most romantic way to end an evening, and God help the rest of the team if they ever have a row on set -- that could be mortifying."
Knowing RTÉ's first couple, the chances of that are remote -- not least because they are consummate professionals but because they still appear to be deliriously in love with each other.
O'Callaghan (50) says she adores working with her husband. He calls her his saviour and is 'in awe' of her broadcasting talent and multi-tasking skills as a mother.
The last time their paths crossed professionally and potentially awkwardly was in 2009 when O'Callaghan was tipped to become the new Late Late Show host after Pat Kenny resigned. It was a period she calls the most difficult of her career. At the time, Carson chose to eliminate himself from the decision-making panel, a step taken of his own volition when his wife's name appeared on the list.
During the months of speculation that followed, they made a pledge not to discuss the subject -- and never broke it, she has claimed, apart from once when she momentarily considered taking her name off the list for fear that she might lose the security of her Prime Time job if she accepted the Late Late. He told her to persevere, that she would be "brilliant".
When it was announced that Ryan Tubridy would replace Kenny on the show, she recalled how the first person she called when she was told she hadn't got the job was Carson.
"I rang Steve and I said 'OK, love. I'm not doing the Late Late -- meet me in the car park.' It was like for a snog. It was quite weird. I said, it's as if we're having an affair and we're married. But there was that sense of a huge weight being lifted off my shoulders because all that time I couldn't speak to my husband."
One acquaintance of the couple says "Prime Time is very much Miriam's baby.
"Prime Time is Miriam. Miriam is Prime Time. He's coming onto her patch, but there is no ego involved with her. She's no diva and will just keep the head down and focus on the job in hand, as she always does. As for Steve, he is a gentleman with a huge amount of experience. He'll have the tact to handle it."
What will also stand to them is a long and successful track record of working together in the past, at first on BBC2's Newsnight in the 1990s and later in 2001 when they set up their own production company, Mint, which made documentaries and television series for RTÉ, the BBC and Channel 4.
"They have an established working relationship together and there has never been any issue with them professionally," says one media insider.
"He is also her boss on her summer TV show but in neither that or in Prime Time does she report directly to Steve. There is always a chain of management.
"In the case of Prime Time, the presenter works directly with the producer and director of that night's show. When there are team discussions, the editor chairs that but it is done as a team.
"Steve may well be around the set of Prime Time on any given night but if he has any suggestions to make, he will make them to the producer or director. You don't have the editor of current affairs dealing directly with the presenter, be it Richard Crowley or Miriam.
"Across the media, there are family relationships where paths cross professionally. It happens all the time. It's something that people take a moment's notice of and then pass off. For the director of television to have to step in across all current affairs output carries with it a plethora of responsibilities and challenges, of which the appropriate management of any single person on the staff is a tiny detail.
"Either way, Steve won't be in that position for long. It's a pro tem solution for a finite period. It will be dealt with professionally. All of the evidence so far has been that that's exactly how the two of them operate whenever they are working together. It's just business and they will handle it as such."
As the Montrose power couple take on their latest challenge, Strokestown must indeed seem like a long way off.