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'It's bigger than the crash': David McCullagh says Covid-19 makes the Six One more important than ever

The new co-host of the Six One chats Covid-19, commemorations and why journalism matters more than ever.

David McCullagh is the new co-host of the Six One alongside Caitriona Perry.
David McCullagh is the new co-host of the Six One alongside Caitriona Perry.
Image: RollingNews.ie

THE SIX ONE News isn’t going anywhere, says new co-host David McCullagh.

For years, the decline of media organisations around the world has been widely acknowledged. But the Covid-19 pandemic left newspapers and broadcasters reeling as advertising dissipated overnight. 

RTÉ, no stranger to difficult conversations about funding, has not been immune from this crisis. And given reports that even the BBC might one day see its news programmes move primarily online, are days numbered for the Six One?

McCullagh, who will start on the flagship news programme alongside Caitriona Perry on Monday, says he expects the Six One to be on Irish screens for at least another two decades.

Pushed back into public consciousness by dramatic speeches by taoisigh and key interviews about everything from the latest lockdown rules to GolfGate apologies, the programme is in rude health says the new presenter. 

“If you look at Tony Connelly’s interview with Phil Hogan last week. A very long chunk was played on the Six One, which a shorter programme wouldn’t have been able to accommodate. If you look at the previous week, Caitriona did a really good live interview with the taoiseach,” he says in an interview with TheJournal.ie.

“It’s a very important part of the media landscape,” he says. And in RTÉ, he adds, it’s the “beating heart of the newsroom”. 

So will it be here in 20 years?

“I’d be optimistic that we’ll still be trucking on in 10 years. And in 20 years, my successor will probably be telling your successor how much he or she is looking forward to picking up the new job on the Six One,” McCullagh says. 

The journalist and presenter steps into the role to fill the gap left by the death of Keelin Shanley, who passed away in February following an illness, leaving the position of permanent co-host open. 

McCullagh, who started as a journalist in 1989, has been on Prime Time for seven years, attracting fans for his incisive interviewing and his occasional air of scepticism. 

It’s a hint of a barely suppressed personality that has served him well as a broadcaster, although he’s less forthcoming about what he will bring to the Six One.

“What I can bring to it is probably for others to say. But hopefully I’ve picked up a few tricks during seven years on Prime Time. I just want to be part of the team.”

As for the strangeness of starting a new job in the middle of the pandemic, he’s apparently quite calm about it all.

“This is the biggest story we’ve had. How does it compare to the financial crash? Probably bigger. It’s a time when the news has never been more important and the role of RTÉ has never been more important. 

He is adamant that there’ll be a place for news and journalism for a long time to come. If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic has proven that more than ever. 

“In a crisis like this people really just want to turn on the telly or the radio or open a paper or log onto a website that that they know they’re going to get something accurate, something reliable,” he said. 

“Journalism in general has proved its worth over the last couple of months. Public service broadcasting as well, if I may say so. The audience figures over the last couple of months have been extraordinary and it shows people are turning to places they can trust.”

“People have been writing off the industry for so many years. I don’t know if you can have a positive from such an awful situation, but if you can maybe that’s one. 

NO FEE0360 Launch of David McCullagh book De Valera McCullagh has written several books on Irish history and politics. Source: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

RTÉ was widely praised for its early coverage of the pandemic. What does McCullagh put it down to?

“We had the structures. We had the resources in place and we had, I suppose, the ethos that our primary function in these times is to inform.”

“We thankfully still have resources around the country,” McCullagh says, pointing to the reporters and correspondents dotted across the island. 

“Things that maybe people have taken for granted over the years and thought perhaps weren’t as necessary as it used to be.”

He says “clear information” will be important in this latest, newer phase of the pandemic when rules and regulations become a bit more complex. 

But McCullagh has little truck with those who criticise the media for giving the government an easy ride on the pandemic or for joining in outrage at house parties while ignoring outbreaks in meat plants or direct provision centres. 

“I’m constantly amazed about the number of people on Twitter who will complain about the mainstream media, as they call it, failing to report things. And basing those things on reports in the mainstream media.”

Changes

RTÉ looks very different from when McCullagh started journalism. For one, there’s far more women reporting for and fronting programmes. He’ll be working closely with Perry, after co-presenting with Miriam O’Callaghan for several years. 

He says it does make a difference to journalism.

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“People with different experiences will come to an issue with different viewpoints. And the more different viewpoints you can get the healthier a debate around an issue is,” he says.

As for his own future, McCullagh is confident that he’ll still be at Montrose for a few more years. 

“I certainly have no plans to go anywhere,” he says. “It’s a question of how long they’ll put up with me, I guess. I’m very happy working for the organisation.”

The avid Bruce Springsteen fan says if he ever did move roles, he probably wouldn’t be challenging for a job playing records. 

“I’m not sure my music tastes would generate a very wide audience,” he says, although he admits he’d love to see The Boss take to the stage again once the pandemic ends. 

Making history

And if he ever does depart RTÉ, it’s likely that writing history books would dominate his energies.

The journalist, who fronted an election night re-enactment of the historic 1918 poll, is excited to cover the Decade of Centenaries – but admits that RTÉ will need to take “great care” in its approach. 

“These things can stir up emotions in surprising ways. The controversy over the commemoration of the RIC [Royal Irish Constabulary] shows that if a thing is presented in a particular way it can really annoy people. I think people were genuinely annoyed about that, whatever the intention might have been laudable enough.”

“There is still a level of dispute about what happened 100 years ago that can still lead to fairly heated exchanges. It’s worth looking at these things and worth examining them,” he says. “We need to approach it with care but certainly not shy away from exploring some of those difficult aspects.”

His books on Eamon De Valera, John A Costello and the first coalition government have all been highly praised. And while he declines to give any real comment on how this latest government is coping after a rocky few weeks and months, he does think that sometimes the amount of change in politics can be overstated. 

“Things are in many ways very different. But in some ways they’re kind of the same,” says McCullagh. 

Ultimately, it’s not a bad description of the Six One either. 

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