We drive one car which is pretty wrecked ... but I would have no problem accepting any cuts

Tonight she’ll do what everyone in the country would like to do – and put our Budget day Ministers on the spot. But Miriam O’Callaghan reveals to Kevin Doyle that she too realises that she has to suffer in the recession

Kevin Doyle

TONIGHT she'll grill the politicians who have inflicted the worst Budget in history -- but Miriam O'Callaghan says she won't be thinking about how it affects her. The mum-of-eight says she's "a very privileged RTE presenter" but wants to represent those who will suffer most from the cutbacks and tax hikes.

"I'm acutely aware that I earn a really good living, have eight kids and so I never think I am the man or woman in the street. I would be foolish or stupid to think that," she says.

O'Callaghan describes her Prime Time offices in Montrose as an "ivory tower".

In reality though, the glamorous presenter shares a tiny, cramped office with her boss.

As she strides through the offices, her team are eagerly working on the Budget programme. The anchorwoman tells the Herald that she's not in the least bit nervous -- despite a spitfire encounter with Brian Lenihan just last week. "It's not for the faint-hearted," she laughs.

Despite mixing current affairs with light entertainment, she says that she is first and foremost a hard journalist and always will be.

And for that reason, she believes, that no questions should be off limits, including ones about her family and job.

With today's Budget targeting top earners in semi-State companies and RTE, O'Callaghan can see the question coming but refuses to shy away. "I got into trouble myself a long time ago, I was first out when I was asked and I immediately said 'yes, I will take whatever cut I am asked to take'.

"But then that put loads of pressure on other presenters and I'm conscious of that.

"But if you're asking me would I step up to the mark, would I have any problem with that, then the answer to that is no. I genuinely don't have a problem," she says.

"I would have no problem accepting any cuts that people at the top have to take."

She is keen to stress that this isn't a call for others to do likewise, but adds: "It would be ridiculous for me, as Miriam O'Callaghan, to sit in the Budget studio and think 'oh my God, it's impacting on me'. I don't think like that. I've never thought like that." She says she would be "mortally embarrassed" if she found herself thinking about how it was affecting her.

"I would just not look at myself in the mirror again without feeling shame.

"Obviously, the people who earn the most should pay the most and that includes me. I have no problem with saying that."

During the economically good times -- what she calls the "roaring tiger" -- she never bought "a thousand homes and a thousand cars", adding: "We drive one car, which is pretty wrecked."

Asked what the politicians think of her, Miriam reveals: "I find at the moment that everybody moans at you and says you're being tough on everybody, so I think we must be getting something right."

Last week, Brian Lenihan took her to task during a heated Prime Time interview but she didn't waste a moment's thought on it afterwards.

"During it there was [some tension] but I have to give him credit, after it was over he was absolutely fine. The people around him weren't desperately happy, to be honest," she recalls.


"But he is actually very fine like that. He's one of the ministers you can give a robust interview to and he will also say at the end 'that's grand'.

"I always believe that if you ask somebody a tough question, they come back stronger than if you go in and totally soft-soap somebody. And also I have a responsibility. It is a public service broadcaster. I'm not up there to ask him about the weather but it's not for the faint-hearted, Prime Time, as a Cabinet minister said to me recently.

"We'd had another robust interview in studio and I'm actually not a mean person so in the end I said 'Jesus, I hope you're OK'. And he said 'look Miriam, when we sit around the Cabinet table we say who's on Prime Time tonight saying it's not for the faint-hearted'. When the camera rolls and it's live, you just go for it."

That's what Labour's Pat Rabbitte did on a recent panel with Minister Pat Carey and Miriam reveals that the politicians left the studio without speaking.

Rabbitte savaged the Fianna Fail TD, telling him he should be ashamed of himself in a TV moment that the presenter describes as "amazing". She adds: "Pat Rabbitte just went and it was an extraordinary moment of television. They didn't speak at the end of it. It's very rare. It's a tough business. There are 700,000 people watching, so there is no margin for error."

The former lawyer doesn't worry that some Prime Time guests would see her as lightweight because she has delved into entertainment.

"My background is quite serious and then obviously I spent quite a lot of time doing current affairs," she said.

"My background is as a serious journalist. Not an awful lot of presenters have done that. But there is another side to me as well. I do like talking about people's love lives as well.

"Chat shows are a doddle. It's just so nice, even though I shouldn't say that. I just go in and talk to people about their album or their music or their love life.

"Prime Time is like doing your finals every night. It really is. When I go in to interview Brian Lenihan, I need to know as much as he knows about the country's finances at that moment. That's hard work."

It's the sort of work that she would hate to see her own children take part in even though her daughter, Alannah McGurk, has done some modelling work.

"She's about to qualify as a barrister," the proud mother quickly jumps in at the mention of the modelling.

"I'd hate them to go into the media. I want them to get a sensible job."

In any case, Miriam says her eight children, aged from four to mid-20s, have "no interest" in her glittering TV career.


"The girls don't watch it because they just want to know why I don't do MTV," she laughs.

"The only time they were proud actually was the John Hume thing. That was really weird. Even my nine-year-old was interested."

And despite her years as a reporter on BBC's Newsnight, being a frontrunner for the Late Late Show post and having her own radio and TV shows, Miriam says gaining Hume the status of Ireland's Greatest is her proudest moment.

"If I gave up what I do now, I would leave it feeling proud of that one thing I did for John Hume. That meant so much to me.

"I don't feel guilty about giving grief to Government ministers, but John Hume I always had a conscience about. He worked hard and people like me gave him grief." During a quick photoshoot, she casually jokes about awards like Ireland's Sexiest Legs but notes that life as an anchorwoman can be difficult.

"Somebody actually wrote in to me last week after that interview with Brian Lenihan, it's so funny, saying 'I liked the interview but you wore that dress the week before'. I'm going, 'what, are these people who never recycled their clothes?'" she laughs.

"I'm known for dressing in High Street clothes. It's no big deal. I do not buy designer clothes."


She adds: "There aren't that many women who have survived in the media. I survived. I think Prime Time is me in a way. Ultimately, I'm quite a serious person.

"I love my job. With it comes responsibility. I love live television." While other people might panic, Miriam says: "I come into my element when it's live TV."

O'Callaghan attributes her success to her "strict" mother -- also called Miriam -- and her "very good upbringing" that wasn't moneyed but was focused on education.

"I worked my butt off and I'm not known as a slacker," she said. "My mother says, you're going to be working until you're 108 because the youngest fella is only four."

Miriam says her dream guest for a show would be her sister Anne, who died 15 years ago.

"I'd bring back my dead sister. She's so interesting. She was the most interesting person I ever met. She was only 32 when she died.

"She was incredibly beautiful but she wasn't aware. She was also really empathetic. It's unusual to be beautiful, clever and empathetic. She was all of those things. So she'd be my star guest. I'd have to say 'wait 'til I tell you what happened in past 15 years, you're not going to believe it'."

She will turn 50 next year and admits that a lot of her audience have grown up with her, but early retirement isn't an option, she says.

"Barbara Walters was interviewing Michelle and Barack [Obama] the other night and she's 82. She's still number one in the ratings. I'm a ratings obsessive. I'm only going to keep broadcasting as long as people keep watching me."