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Claire Byrne on sexism, competition from UTV and being 'as stubborn as an ass'

The broadcaster said she wanted to stick her two fingers up at people saying she should ‘go back to reading from an auto-cue with her blond hair’.

It has been a manic couple of weeks…the last time I was coming back to work was busy but now I’m coming back with two babies and a new show. It’s full on – things are going a hundred miles an hour.

CLAIRE BYRNE LIVE makes its debut on RTÉ One tonight and the programme’s eponymous presenter is relishing the challenge of getting people’s attention in the late-night current affairs slot.

TheJournal.ie sat down with the Laois woman – whose face you will have seen across bus shelter advertisements in the past seven days – as she rehearsed for the occasion to discuss how she pulled her own audience-driven show, despite previous failures in that market.

“We’re going to surprise people and it’s not going to be like anything you’ve seen before,” she said.

“You’ll have some voices talking in a context that you won’t have heard them talking about before. Our ambition is to bring people from all walks of life to discuss the issues of the day – and bring a little bit of glitz in the midst of current affairs.”

RTE Claire Byrne Claire Byrne Live Source: Andres Poveda

Creating a gender balance on television programmes has been a much-talked about issue over the last number of years, particularly with the advent of groups such as Women on Air. Although Byrne says she – and RTÉ – strive for balance, she is not a fan of positive discrimination.

Sexism in the industry 

“I don’t work as a man or a woman - I just work as a person in the industry. RTÉ is doing quite well… Any show I’ve ever worked on always strives for balance.

Other media organisations – if you don’t have a woman on from 7 o’clock in the morning until 7 o’clock at night – then you need to look at why that is.

“There is a problem with getting female guests sometimes. A man will always say yes and think about it later, while a woman will say no and then reconsider later. So there are possibly issues there outside the media’s control.

“When you encounter sexism – which we all have, I know I have. I just think [they are] neanderthals and I just get on with it. I ignore that person and I probably have very little respect for them.

It happens every now and again – someone will come up and instead of saying hello to you like a normal person they’ll wink, and it’s like ‘What was that about’.

“It really bugs me and I tend to ignore it and that person has to earn my respect afterwards because I have formed a view.”

‘Stubborn as an ass’

Claire says she always wanted to be a journalist, “I don’t really know why, but I stuck with my guns because I’m stubborn as an ass.”

unnamed (13) Source: barry mc call via RTÉ

Asked what she’s most proud of in her career, she says, “I’m most proud of making the transition to presenting Newstalk Breakfast at a time when the station was just going national. I had a huge challenge because I had just been working in television – this very glamorous world in TV3 as it was at the time.

We were all fake tan and fake eyelashes and makeup -  just of that era back in the early noughties and making that transition was tough because I had a big learning curve going into that programme and a lot was expected from me.

“I hope I did well but I’m proud of doing it and going for that challenge because there were easier options open to me at the time.”

And the biggest regret?

“I was working for the BBC when I was 23. I left the BBC and went back and worked for a radio station I had been working for because they offered me a job as a news editor and there was a car with the job.

So I was just like the magpie and I saw the shiny thing and I went for the shiny thing as opposed to staying with the BBC. I often wonder what would have happened if I had stayed with them because there was talk of a fast-track course… but I just saw the car.

“It was a Toyota Rav4…I wasn’t going to turn that down. I was 23 and they gave me a mobile phone at the weekends. So that sold it.”

Speaking about that other channel – UTV Ireland – the 39-year-old looks forward to the television wars.

“I think they’ll do well and I think there’s room for them. I also think about competition: bring it on. It gives you a bit of a kick and stops you getting too comfortable.”

She also thinks Chris Donoghue and Alison Comyn are doing a great job. Although she added that she’s not getting much time to look at TV these days.

Although, it’s not for time reasons that she doesn’t watch her own shows.

Byrne says she never looks back at anything she does — and that she never reads anything either. She won’t even read this, she confirms.

She says she also stopped looking at and using Twitter because she found she was using it for validation.

You come off thinking, ‘That was a good show and then you see three of four tweets that say it was crap or ‘I hated it and I hate Claire Byrne’. And that’s what you go home with.

“Having that ease of access to criticism that may not be valid, I think it can be dangerous… I don’t really need to hear the really bad stuff.”

‘If I look like crap my mother will tell me’ 

Speaking about when she started at Newstalk, she said, “I got a lot of that feedback on websites that I shouldn’t be looking at and it was really negative and quite hurtful and I regret even looking at it.

“I was trying to get a handle on my job and reading all that negative stuff wasn’t doing me any good at all.

I’ve now learned that if I look like crap my mother will tell me. If I sound like crap, my sister will tell me. And if it’s really bad, we’ll get audience feedback and that message will come through.

“There’s no point in me looking at the odd snide comment and taking that home with me.

I did want to stick my two fingers up at the people who were saying I should go back to reading from an auto-cue with my blond hair.

Asked if she now feels she has proven herself, she responds: “No, I’m always striving to do better.

“I have more to do. I have more to learn and I have more growing to do and I’m prepared to do it.”

‘I now come to work for a rest’

News consumers often remark that interviewers and presenters ask women more about work-family balance than they do men (see the Twitter storm last week during the Late Late Show). However, the mother of two says she is happy to talk about motherhood and doesn’t resent being asked about it at all.

It’s bloody hard…it’s harder than anything I have ever done in my career and it is more demanding physically and mentally and I now come to work for a rest and that’s the truth of it.

00142904 A pregnant Claire Byrne at RTE in 2013. Source: Mark Stedman via Photocall Ireland

“It’s just full on – 14 months and 14 weeks – it’s busy but at the same time it’s brilliant.

“The good thing is I had 20 years of absolute freedom in my adult life and then suddenly I have two babies. I don’t resent them in anyway because I’ve done everything and I’ve had all the great holidays and great times and I was ready for it.”

Claire Byrne Live airs at 10.35pm tonight. 

Read: Move over Pat… Claire Byrne is getting her own show on RTÉ One>

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