Exclusive: 'I was a bit like, 'oh my God my career is over, my life is over' – Sarah McInerney on cancellation of Newstalk show
Presenter reflects on 'crazy' few weeks at Newstalk as she fronts new shows on Newstalk and TV3
Sarah McInerney is angry.
It’s 48 hours post Budget 2018 and there’s one issue sticking in the craw of the Newstalk and TV3 presenter – the housing crisis.
Having tackled the issue in a recent documentary for TV3 and having had a ‘right ding dong’ with Minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy, on her new politics show on Newstalk, it’s to the forefront of her mind.
“It makes me so mad,” she tells Independent.ie. “And the budget made me so mad in relation to what they did, or didn’t do, and how they’ve let this get completely out of control.
“I think they’re just waving the white flag on it. I think they’ve just surrendered and said, ‘this is not going to be fixed now for a couple of years, nothing we can do about that folks’, which is just not good enough.”
She’s mad about the €2 increase in Child Dependant Allowance (for children of parents on welfare) when every other welfare payment rose by €5.
She’s mad that homeless children are eating their dinners off hotel room floors and that the recommendation in one report was to supply these children with kitchen tables.
“That’s where we’re at. That’s what we think is a good recommendation. That’s how ambitious we are being for our children,” she says, shaking her head.
“I get mad. I try not to get mad. Some people say, ‘Go Sarah!’ Other people are like, ‘I don’t need to be listening to this aggression. She needs to calm down.’
“I have tried to measure it a little bit but I find I just… it’s not that I’m losing my temper per se. It’s just I get angry.”
On the day we speak she’s due to fill the absent Ivan Yates’ seat on Tonight on TV3 with Matt Cooper and we joke about her channelling the previous host, the formidable Vincent Browne.
There’s a certain irony in her taking Ivan’s seat at TV3, albeit temporarily, as he currently sits in the one vacated by herself and Chris Donoghue after Newstalk Drive was cancelled in order to bring Yates back to drivetime.
Is she angry about it? She says she was “very disappointed”.
“I was a bit like, ‘oh my God my career is over, my life is over, this is the end’ but I was pleasantly surprised at the offers coming in and the reaction people had.”
The reaction was an outpouring of support from women, and men, who felt she would be a loss, particularly as she had been the last remaining female voice on weekday radio at Newstalk following Colette Fitzpatrick’s return to TV3 in February.
Sarah’s departure reignited debate about female representation in media, radio, and particularly Newstalk. When she had arrived in September last year she rejected the idea that she was a ‘woman in media’ as she simply thought of herself as “a person, a journalist” in the media after working in print, most recently for the Sunday Times.
A year later, however, she feels differently.
“The last year has changed that for me and I think it was the reaction that I’ve got from women because women see me as a woman in the media and that was, and is, very important to women and I wasn’t aware how important it was until I started getting that feedback,” she reveals.
“They were writing to me saying it was important to them and it meant a lot to them to hear a woman’s views, a woman’s thoughts, a woman’s anger, I suppose, on life on air and that sort of took me aback a bit. I wasn’t expecting that.
“I feel it’s important not to push that away now, and to embrace it.”
She continues, “I’m a woman in the media and I’m probably going to represent women’s views probably more than a man is going to represent women’s views. Some male presenters represent women’s views very well but to a large extent they can’t. They can’t talk about certain things because they just don’t have the experiences.”
With a referendum on abortion looming next summer, female voices in the media are even more necessary.
“I think men can’t talk about abortion in the way women can talk about abortion,” says Sarah. “That’s not to say they don’t have a right to talk about abortion or give their views on it but I think a woman’s perspective on it is always going to be more nuanced and they’ll look at it from a different perspective.”
A lack of female voices is, she says, an issue for “Newstalk, for Today FM, for the media more generally. There’s no female editor of a national newspaper for example and those things matter because editorial decisions will differ depending on what perspective and what gender you’re coming from.”
She adds, “Maybe it’s because I’ve been at the centre of it for the last couple of weeks and my perspective is a bit warped but I think there’s a rock rolling down a hill sense to it, that it’s gathering moss, that there’s a momentum behind it that’s different this time to other times.
“I’m not saying necessarily in relation to Newstalk specifically but I think there’s a movement now of not just women but women and men who are looking for more equal representation on our airwaves, both TV and radio, and there’s a push and a pressure for that that has been building slowly for years but I think is gathering momentum and it is more in the public consciousness than it has been before.”
Regarding to the reaction to her own deprature from weekdays, she adds, “I was surprised by the strength and the ferocity of the reaction over not just me being gone but women being gone. It did cause a reaction I didn’t expect.”
However, the reason why there are no women on air on weekdays on Newstalk anymore has nothing to do with the station wanting to silence women, she says, but is simply down to the fact that they wanted Yates back on air.
“He’s a very popular, very able presenter, one of the best Newstalk has produced and I can understand why they wanted to do that,” she ventures. “He’s a very good broadcaster and people like him and I’m sure they have plenty of research showing that when people think of Newstalk they think of Ivan Yates and they think of George Hook. They’re probably the two names most associated with Newstalk.”
As for her relationship with Yates, she says has only met him “four or five times”.
“None of that was personal,” she says. “Ivan wasn’t out to get myself and Chris. I assume he was looking for a job because he got one. He has his career to look after. I’ve my career to look after. It’s not personal.”
As Sarah left her post and the conversation about women on air bubbled away, the other name most associated with the station, George Hook, made his comments about rape, comments which suggested that women can be in some way responsible when they are attacked.
Sarah admits she was “shocked” by his comments, but opted not to voice her views immediately.
“It’s a very emotive issue for people. It’s a very difficult issue. I know even from personal experience, from talking to friends of mine that it actually hurt a lot of people, it actually properly hurt a lot of people,” she says.
She adds, “More than anything else over the ten days the controversy was blowing, what really bugged me was this suggestion that we should have a debate about this and this was shutting down free speech. That really bugged me because it legitimises something that I don’t think should be legitimised.
“As a society we should all be standing up and saying, no this is not up for debate and to even suggest that it is legitimises the concept that a woman could ever be responsible, or partly responsible, or be in any way at fault for being attacked.
“So that part of it really, really bugged me because I think that went way beyond George into a very depressing reflection of how this country still treats and thinks about women. When I say that I mean the way both men and women think about women.”
Many people, both men and women, wrote to newspapers and online publications and stated on social media that they supported George’s view and felt there should be debate.
“I was depressed by it. I found it deeply upsetting,” she says.
“I thought long and hard about the issue, whether to debate about it or not. I can understand, when that is seething underground, is the right societal response to just ignore it and shut it down rather than lift the lid and say, ‘This is here, let’s talk about it’? And that is a question I thought about a lot during the week before I talked about it
“What I came to on balance, and maybe I’m wrong, but what I came to on balance is we should not talk about this, we should not lift the lid and start pulling all the threads because ultimately, at the end of the day, to do that legitimises it and we don’t do that with things like racism or child abuse.
“Even though we know there are child abusers out there and probably a lot of people out there who are racist or have racist inclinations or homophobic inclinations, we don’t lift the lid and say, ‘well, are they right about this part?’, or ‘maybe they have a point on this?’. We don’t do that. So I think on balance we have to make a decision as a society to approach this in the same way.
“The whole thing is so depressing.”
During the week the controversy raged, singer Mary Coughlan, who has spoken openly about being abused as a child, walked off Ivan Yates’ Newstalk programme live on air in protest at Hook’s comments.
While Sarah says she understands Mary’s anger, she felt walking off was “not the best way to approach it”.
“She was taken on the show in good faith and if she wanted to make a point maybe she could have asked to come on the show to make a point about that rather than hijack the show,” she says.
“It’s not fair to the presenter and the researchers to do that and just leave everybody a bit taken off guard. I’m not sure there was any need to do that.
“Maybe if she had asked to come on to talk about it she might have bene given the platform to do it, if not on Newstalk, on another station. Maybe that’s the way to approach it. If you want to talk about something, be upfront and talk about it. But I can understand why she was angry. I can absolutely understand why she was angry.”
Just days later, another Newstalk presenter Dil Wickremasinghe released a statement in which she revealed that she had been the victim of sexual abuse when she was just 13 and said she could not present her weekend show while George Hook continued in his role.
Hook, who apologised unreservedly for his comments, was ultimately suspended following an internal investigation and stepped down from his weekday High Noon show. However, he is slated to return with a weekend slot later this year.
Three weeks after Dil released her statement detailing her stance, and criticising management, her weekend show, Global Village, was cancelled.
Sarah commends her former colleague for speaking out, “I think she was really brave to come out and talk about her own experience. Her own experience was heartbreaking. And I can absolutely understand why, if she found herself in a position where she didn’t feel she could go on air while this was ongoing, and while George Hook was on air, I can understand from her perspective that it was extremely difficult and I think she explained that herself really eloquently.”
She adds, “I’m very sorry to see her go. I think she brought a diversity in loads of different ways, not just the woman thing but also because of her sexuality, her background. She just brought a different voice to Irish radio which was great to have and hopefully she’ll be back on Irish radio somewhere.”
Sarah, meanwhile, is still present at Newstalk albeit for one hour on Saturday mornings - with her new politics show Between the Lines - as opposed to fifteen during the week on Drive.
It’s the first time she has worked part-time and she’s relishing the time with her son Ben (3) although she reveals she spends her days “reading the newspapers obsessively, watching [RTE’s] Leaders’ Question catching up on the News at One, whatever radio show, catching up on Tonight, watching Claire Byrne…” so she’s having trouble winding down from the full-time mentality.
She’s still getting to grips with how she’ll rejig her work life balance, but says that losing Drive has made her wary of planning anything more than a couple of weeks or months in advance.
“I had spent a lot of the last year thinking, ‘what’s going to happen when Ben goes to school in three years time because that’s going to be problematic for me from a not seeing him perspective and doing the Drive show’,” she reveals.
“I had spent quite a good bit of my energy worrying about that and how I was going to handle it and would I be able to continue to present Drive in that scenario and obviously that’s no longer an issue for me.
“In a way it has been a very enlightening experience in terms of first of all worrying about stuff you’ve no control over or in the long or even medium term worrying about stuff. It has taught me quite a valuable lesson. You learn about it in mindfulness all the time but this is a real example of wasted energy worrying about stuff that, as it turns out, I didn’t need to worry about.”
Between the Lines is affording her the opportunity, which she rarely got on Drive, to really get her “teeth stuck in” to an issue with an invited guest.
However, she says she feels “frustration” at the early start – 8am - which is a deterrent to the aforementioned guests and also means a smaller audience.
She adds, “I do find it frustrating too because it’s on early and when we do something really good, that I know myself is really good, and I know the Eoghan Murphy interview was just good listening, I would love people to listen to it because I think they would be informed about where he was coming from and also they would hear him properly challenged on some aspects of the housing crisis that there is no time to challenge him on normally.”
Having the freedom to sail her own ship clearly appeals to her, but she admits she does miss former Drive co-host Chris, who is now Communicorp Group Political Editor and hosts his own two hour show On the Record with Chris Donohue on Sundays. As Drive survived just one year – maintaining an audience of 130,000 in the JNLRs year on year - they barely had time to properly bed in and there’s a sense she feels they had more to offer.
“I really do miss being on air with Chris,” she says. “We had and have a great relationship and it was building.”
However, while her radio airtime may have dramatically reduced, she has bagged her own politics show on TV3. It kicks off today at 4.30pm and will not, she says, be RTE’s “The Week In Politics three hours later”.
"There will be a profile interview with different people every week and we're going to bring slightly different voices to look at the week that was - people you wouldn't necessarily expect, not your pol corrs, not your politicians, not necessarily wackier, just a different perspective."
The presenter, who was named News Broadcaster of the Year at the IMRO Awards last weekend, concedes the show will not be dissimilar to RTE's Cutting Edge in that respect.
"Cutting Edge is showing what you can do with current affairs and it is on RTE," she says.
"I think Irish people - I don't know if we're different from other countries in this - but I certainly thing Irish people love a good row. They just love a good barney and that's what Cutting Edge is doing really well - bringing in these really strong opinions, just thrashing things out and that's what Vincent did so well, was really just let at it.
"So what if there's a little bit of shouting!"
Given both TV3 and RTE have a plethora of current affairs shows already up and running from the Tonight show and Pat Kenny on the former and Claire Byrne Live and Prime Time on the latter she says it is important her show has a point of difference.
"I don't necessarily want to be down on RTE but I think sometimes they're a little bit constricted in how they approach a topic," she tells Independent.ie.
"They can be very very straight down the line which is important for the national broadcaster to do; give an objective journalistic perspective.
"But I think TV3 and Newstalk and independent radio allow for a little bit more of your personality and your own views to come through as a broadcaster while also trying to be, and being perceived to be, fair and objective, and I think it's possible to do that.
"You can have a view that the Labour Party has really messed up on something and really go hard at them about that and give your view on that and then do the same for Fianna Fail. It doesn't meant you're pro one or the other.
"I think independent productions allow for a little bit more personality. That's just the nature of it."
The first show will see Sarah examine the fall-out from the budget and the clash of TDs and senators at last week’s Oireachtas committee on the 8th Amendment.
The Sunday Show with Sarah McInerney starts today at 4.30pm on TV3. Between the Lines with Sarah McInerney airs 8-9am, Saturdays on Newstalk.