Wednesday 18 September 2019

'One sordid, gross and offensive comment must have been thought up while he sat there scratching himself in his grey fading jocks. I wonder what makes people think it's acceptable to make comments like that?'

RTE current affairs presenter Claire Byrne on why she chose to press delete

Claire Byrne on the set of her RTE show.
Claire Byrne on the set of her RTE show.
Lorraine Higgins.

After a couple of years as a reporter in the Channel Islands, I came back to Ireland in 1999 and joined TV3. Suddenly, it dawned on me that if you work in national media as a television presenter, and if you are a woman, you are expected to pose for photographs, have your clothes, hair and make-up analysed and your life becomes an open book.

I have never been totally at ease with this. In the beginning, I gave interviews willingly and told perhaps too much of myself in those interviews.

My life went on to become more complicated and private parts of my life became public property. This did not sit well with me, I felt exposed and uncomfortable.

Part of how I dealt with it was by leaving the glare of the camera and joining Newstalk in 2006. Now I was a broadcaster behind a microphone, whose performance was not linked to how I looked or to interviews in the newspapers, but I was being judged for my work. It was a steep learning curve, but one that I have never regretted.

Now that I am back in the spotlight with RTE and fronting my own shows, it is easier because I am more grown up and able to deal with it. I know I still get judged on my clothes and my hair and my make-up, but I can cope with that because I know that I am good at my job and I know that my own integrity is where I draw my confidence from.

One of the places where we get judged nowadays is on social media and here's how I deal with that - I stay away from it.

I was on Twitter, and while I loved the discourse on the platform and the people that I 'met' there, the amount of abuse that came my way made it not worth it. I would come off air and check my feed and hashtags associated with the show and see what people were saying.There might be 20 comments complimenting the show and just one that said I was an idiot, who hadn't a clue what they were at, and that was the one that I would take home with me.

So then, as time went on, I was getting more personal messages of an abusive nature and I decided, life is complicated enough without inviting these people into my life, so I cut them off.

Now, I rely on the professional producers and editors that I work with to tell me if I did good or a bad job - after all, it's their role to make sure that the show is the best that it can be. So it's a decision I have made not to look for verification from online places.

I had two recent lapses in my 'don't look' strategy. The first came when it was revealed that I was expecting Jane. I made the mistake of looking at the comments at the end of the story on one of the national newspaper websites.

Most of the comments were lovely, from people wishing me well, but one made some sordid, gross and offensive comment which he must have thought - while he was sitting there scratching himself in his grey fading jocks - was funny. I let it go, but I wonder what makes people think it's acceptable to make comments like that about people?

The second time I had a look, I couldn't let it go. It was last October and I was in Holles Street having given birth to Jane and on my second day in hospital. I was getting bored, so I checked my Facebook feed and one of the national newspapers had posted an article about Jane's arrival.

Again, I made the mistake of looking at the comments at the end. Again, most of them were lovely. I came to one, though, that made my post-birth hormones psychotic. I'll paraphrase it here: 'I hope she takes the maximum amount of maternity leave or doesn't come back at all. She's the worst interviewer I have ever seen. Good riddance.' Luckily for me, his profile was visible and so I got to work. I sent him a message - a private message, because I didn't want to publicly shame him as he had tried to do to me.

I told him that I was in Holles Street with my new-born baby, reading his comments, and that while I could deal with him because I am an adult, I wondered what people like him are like. I wondered if he had a mother, a sister, a wife who he would like to be abused in a similar fashion while they were recovering from childbirth. After a while, he responded: 'I'm sorry my Facebook account was hacked.'

I sent him one last message saying I didn't come down in the last shower and I have a lovely baby to look after. I also told him that I would be back at work really soon and he could enjoy my return in just a couple of weeks.

I would love if all of these people, who think it's ok to have a go online, had to face the person they attack. I can guarantee you, they wouldn't be half as smart then.

So my message is that modern communication and social networks are wonderful but can be dangerous, particularly if you are in any way vulnerable... and should be used with caution.

This is an excerpt from a speech delivered recently at an Image Magazine Networking Breakfast

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