Tuesday 25 June 2019

'Time and again I've seen lecherous men prey on women' - Claire Byrne on coping with a career, children and creeps

Between another new baby, new presenting duties and a big court case, broadcaster Claire Byrne has had a momentous year. She spoke to Donal Lynch about ambition, intervening in an Irish MeToo situation and why she won't put her children on social media

Claire Byrne. Photo: David Conachy
Claire Byrne. Photo: David Conachy
RTE's Claire Byrne
Claire Byrne and Gerry Scollan on their wedding day
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

You wouldn't guess that it's been "the toughest week in a long time" for Claire Byrne. Though a vomiting bug laid waste to her young household, the presenter seems as crisply poised and polished as ever, as she strolls through the spring sunlight toward the RTE canteen.

"Don't go by the hair and make-up", she assures me, brightly. "There hasn't been much sleep. It was carnage, to be honest, but the worst is over now.

"I might have felt like crawling under the duvet, but at the end of the day there is a programme with my name on it and, somehow you have to just keep going."

In a larger sense those have been words she has lived by for what has been a sometimes tumultuous year. Last summer she gave birth to her youngest daughter, Emma, but was back to work within 10 weeks, embracing the "small bit of chaos" that comes with working full-time with three small kids at home.

Then, this past month, she was back at work within hours of a much-reported defamation court case, taken by former Sinn Fein political manager Nicky Kehoe, in which the latter was awarded €3,500 - an unusually small award by the standards of the libel courts - for an accusation that was made in a radio programme, which Claire had hosted.

Given the jaw-dropping awards that media organisations reckon with in libel cases, the result, while not a win, perhaps restored a little sanity to the area of law from a journalistic perspective.

RTE's Claire Byrne
RTE's Claire Byrne

Still, the witness box was "a lonely place" she says. "There's nobody to coach you or give you clues, it's just you and your memory, it was a difficult enough experience."

Nevertheless, she went straight from the courtroom into work, and was on air again that evening.

Once the cameras stopped rolling that night, her relief at having gotten through the longest of days was palpable. But, as ever, the show had gone on.

It is perhaps this haste to get back to the grind that means she sometimes feels "everything in my career passes in a blur", but the sleepless nights with baby number three are sometimes an occasion for quiet reflection on all she has achieved.

At 42, she is one of the national broadcaster's most respected presenters, and top earners, one whose star somehow still seems in the ascendancy: in addition to fronting her own eponymous weekly current affairs show on RTE1, she was recently appointed to co-host News At One, where she shares presenting duties with Aine Lawlor and she also presented Saturday with Claire Byrne on RTE radio.

Her clinical professionalism and salty sense of humour help her shift studio tone as easily as Gay Byrne in his heyday and her calmly incisive interviewing style makes a welcome contrast to the shout-fest of other debate-based programmes.

When presenter Baz Ashwamy last month bashfully said that he was "no Claire Byrne" the inference was clear: she is the current gold standard of current affairs in Ireland.

"I actually think Baz was saying he's not quite as scary as me," she says, laughing.

"But, seriously, I don't think you need to be aggressive to work in current affairs. I try to keep at the forefront of my mind that your job, really, is to ask the question the person at home wants answered.

"Now if you're not getting an answer, then, yeah, you might need to get a little bit more aggressive. Sometimes you have to push, you don't have to be rude.

"Some presenters use it as a device, we see that in America a lot. But someone I would admire, like, say Anderson Cooper - there is no acting with him."

The shake-up at News At One was partly billed in the national press as a redressing of gender balance at the top in RTE - the symbolism of having two women at the helm was not lost on people - and, although she says she has never suffered gender-based discrimination, she welcomes the change in atmosphere that the last year has brought in.

"I was talking to a senior business leader from overseas who explained it all very well," she explains.

Claire Byrne and Gerry Scollan on their wedding day
Claire Byrne and Gerry Scollan on their wedding day

"In terms of men feeling they are going to be passed over for promotions and so on, the person said it's going to feel painful for a while, before we get to the place where we always should have been, where everything is 50:50.

"I believe that. I also think we need to stop using the term 'ambitious' for women as though it were something negative. Ambition is a positive thing. There are subtle behavioural shifts in terms of what people think they can say."

Our local version of Time's Up/ #MeToo was also a long time coming, she says, and adds that she has seen why they were needed.

"I am always suspicious of something that begins in Hollywood although we have had our homegrown versions of it. I have seen harassment.

"Lecherous men prey on women who think they can get away with it. I've seen that time and time again. The young ones, the ones just out of college, the ones who won't say anything. They'd never do it to someone like me who would just hit them a box. I have seen it going on from my early twenties right to the present day.

"I can remember incidents where I've said to someone that's not appropriate for that person to talk to you like that. I can remember one occasion where there was someone on the verge of being lecherous.

"I would have been more senior than the person who was being preyed upon, that might be a strong phrase, but it was certainly inappropriate.

"I did tell the person to go away and I'm quite pleased about that."

She adds: "Of course this isn't about policing banter. People know what they can say, it just takes a small bit of cop on."

Which is a quality she has always had in spades. Even as young journalist, she showed a kind of self-possession which belied her years.

She grew up on a farm near Mountrath, Co Laois, and says that, despite her parents' "traditional" outlook, they gave her the self-confidence to believe she could do anything she wanted for a living.

She was just 16 when she did her Leaving Cert and 23 when she got a job on Channel 103, a Jersey island radio station.

She had turned down a role at the BBC to take the job, her head turned, she once told me, at the prospect of the company car in Jersey. It's one of her few "little niggles" now when she looks back.

She adds: "I wish I knew earlier not to be in such a hurry. I would have been a little bit more measured.

"I took a particular job when another job would have been a slower path, but then I might have learned a bit more of the craft as opposed to being front of house and running around. But, yeah, I wanted a car, and that seemed important at the time."

In her twenties she met radio executive Richard Johnson and was married to him for three years. By the time that relationship ended, she had returned home, and she did stints at TV3 and Newstalk before landing a presenting role at RTE in 2010. Everything was going to plan professionally but by then - her mid thirties - she had resigned herself to not having children. The following December she met Microsoft executive Gerry Scollan in O'Donoghue's pub in Dublin city centre. The couple had a long engagement - they finally married in June 2016 and have three children together; Patrick born in October 2013; Jane, born in 2015; and baby Emma, born last July.

She's careful to emphasise that "Gerry does his share" but laughs heartily at the idea that inequalities in the way men and women approach childcare and housework have been eliminated.

"You know, I think it's not even really totally men's fault. My mother taught me how to be. I automatically do what she would have done. So that means the bulk of the cooking and the washing and so on.

"My husband takes the cue from me and my kids take the cue from me but I'm only perpetuating what my parents did. I have the central belief that that is my role.

"If I don't get a home-cooked meal on the table there is a little niggle there. I think, 'if they got their hot dinner I've done my job'.

She says that she is wary about putting her children's image up on social media.

"With my kids I don't think it's my right to tell their story. I don't put pictures of my kids up anywhere because even if you send pictures of them in say a Whatsapp group, it's published and at some stage you might have an 18-year-old turn around to you and say, 'why did you publish pictures of me?'

"I need to be very confident that I've made the right choices for my children. It's a difficult one, but I'm playing it safe."

She has moved down to Wicklow, where there is more room for her family, but tells me that for a while she feared being trapped in her Celtic Tiger-era mortgage - she bought in Sandymount in 2008, just as the market was beginning to cool from its white heat of the previous decade.

"Because I was on a decent salary I was able to survive. Whilst I bought at the top I was also able to get out by the skin of my teeth.

"I lost a bit of money on my house but I was able to get a place with a bit more space for my children.

"I did think that I was trapped, that I can never move. It might have influenced family size if we couldn't have moved." She says that it would have been "a profound regret" if they didn't have a garden. "I grew up on a farm, I was one of the wild children of the earth."

I wonder if, like Miriam O'Callaghan once said of herself, she was perturbed by the idea of someone taking her place while she was off the air having her own children, or whether she considered taking a longer period off.

"Not at all. I admire people who can be with kids all day long but I don't think that's for me. I tell my kids all the time, I'm going to work and I love going to work and I make sure they know. It is about setting an example for them too.

"I want them to see a woman working. When my daughter says I want to be a doctor or my son says he wants to be a fireman, I let them know a man can do any job and a woman can do any job."

The tiredness of new parenting is invisible on her, indeed even after the week of the vomiting bug, she seems incredibly fresh and rested.

"I'm probably lucky in that I inherited good skin from my mother," she says. "Other than that it's really just moisturiser and the odd facial."

It was reported last year that she had been "moonlighting" after she interviewed finance minister Paschal Donohoe at a private event in Dublin.

In a statement, RTE said that it had "already taken steps to ensure this does not happen again" and a spokesperson was quoted as saying they were "disappointed".

However, it has emerged this year that, despite being singled out for moonlighting by The Times and the station, Byrne was in fact refused leave to do outside work significantly more than any major other star at RTE. It did seem quite unfair. Understandably she is cagey on the subject but does concede: "It doesn't look fair.

"I think though as a result of that information coming into the public domain a new system has been put in place and I think from now on it will be a fairer system for everybody."

Despite the stresses of the Nicky Kehoe case, and the more general criticisms of our defamation laws, she says that she's not sure that reform is what's needed.

"Let's look it from the other side," she says. "How would we feel if when a comment that's incorrect is made about us we can't take a case? That mightn't be fair either. It works both ways. We need to be allowed robustly defend ourselves too. In terms of having my privacy invaded, for instance, I've also seen both sides of it."

She says she worries about the future of Irish journalism.

"The thing that bothers me is that people still think they shouldn't have to pay for it.

"People go online and complain that something is behind a paywall and you want to say: 'remember when you had to go to a shop and buy a newspaper?'

"It's not a new concept. Journalists can't work for free. I subscribe and pay for everything now, and that's how it should be. Standards will fall if we don't pay people."

The annual scrutiny over RTE salaries, she says is par for the course and adds that the public are entitled to know what she earns and, to an extent, entitled to think of themselves as her boss.

According to RTE salary figures released last year, and pertaining to 2015, Claire was on €201,500, making her the seventh highest earner. Above her were Ryan Tubridy (€495,000), Ray D'Arcy (€400,000), Joe Duffy (€389,988), Miriam O'Callaghan (€299,000), Marian Finucane (€295,000), and Sean O'Rourke (€290,113).

Claire says, "It's part of the deal that the salary is published. I have no control over it, but I do think the public do have a right to know what I earn. They also have a right to expect you to do your job properly."

Despite the endless bustle of her current schedule, she says baby Emma has been cause for some nocturnal moments of quiet reflection. "I'm always going but sometimes, when there are nights when I can't sleep, I do occasionally think of everything I've done in my career. I'm quite proud of everything I've achieved.

"I love going to work. My older kids are at that stage where they're out of the baby stage and they're so much fun to be with; this feels like a great time of life."

Claire Byrne is a presenter of 'News at One' on RTE Radio 1 and 'Claire Byrne Live', Monday nights on RTE One

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