Cathal MacCoille on leaving RTÉ, ‘Morning Ireland’ and getting up in the middle of the night

The broadcaster reflects on his years spent presenting the first news of the day on RTÉ

 

Morning Ireland’s importance is obvious to all those who are lucky enough to work on a programme that registers with listeners in a way that no other programme does, lucky that is, apart from having to rise in the middle of the night.

That’s not a careless boast. Other programmes break news stories and cover subjects that draw a big reaction from listeners, but there’s an intimacy and force about the first news of the day.

Cathal Mac Coille of ‘Morning Ireland’ with colleagues after his last broadcast on RTÉ One. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Cathal Mac Coille of ‘Morning Ireland’ with colleagues after his last broadcast on RTÉ One. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

For example, the tone or apparent tone of a presenter’s question can please or infuriate listeners in a way that would pass with little or no comment later in the day.

During my 20 years on Morning Ireland, my alarm sounded at 4.23am. If I’d shaved before bedtime I set it for four minutes later. It always surprised me that this rising time question was the one listeners I met most often asked.

Their second most-asked question was equally basic, “When do you go bed?” The answer has three parts. Soon after 10, earlier some nights. A mid-day snooze is essential.

Work proper starts at 5am. Cycling across the city, I listened in (in one ear) to the Radio One news headlines, then the BBC World Service to be in RTÉ for a 5.30am meeting with my fellow presenter and our editor.

It is not the first meeting about the programme. The three of us have been in touch from home since the previous night’s telephone conference and after that by email, text and phone.

Unlike any other programme or newspaper, a morning news programme is the work of two teams: the work of the first team ends about seven hours before airtime, but that plan often changes because of breaking news or the morning papers.

Constant change

Changes are the norm. Proposed debates between a Minister and an Opposition TD often fall through because a Minister says no, as ministers in all governments often do. Separate interviews are often mutually acceptable.

My greatest dread is praise from a politician

But if a Minister says no to all options, all we can do, politically, is interview the Opposition TD, posing “Devil’s advocate” questions. Of course, that convinces some listeners of the presenter’s pro-Government bias. C’est la vie.

My greatest dread is praise from a politician. Mercifully, I heard it directly only once. “You gave yer man a great grilling,” a TD said to me as I walked into Leinster House a few years ago. “You did a great job, we all thought so.”

Cathal Mac Coille during his last broadcast on RTÉ One with Rachael English (right). Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Cathal Mac Coille during his last broadcast on RTÉ One with Rachael English (right). Photograph: Cyril Byrne

I shiver at the memory of that exchange. I respect politicians because they are elected and face re-election to keep their jobs. But a politician’s praise is the last thing I want to hear.

By 6am, it is time to check in with colleagues working away from base, as reporter Cian McCormack has been doing in recent days from the MSF Sea vessel Aquarius in the Mediterranean.

Working in the field satisfies. In 2009, I presented from Waterford Crystal when it closed. A year later I was in the city again for the opening of a smaller glass-making plant. The first programme gave listeners a vivid sense of the human effects of a business failure; the second of the first small step to recovery.

Breaking news

On a busy news morning, a third of the programme can be “up in the air” even after 7am. Anything can happen, and often does. A guest may be ready to be dropped at 6.30am, but on air less than an hour later. News values rule.

Some programmes change utterly overnight, for example after last year’s atrocity in Nice, or even later, as after the deaths of former Taoisigh Albert Reynolds and Garret Fitzgerald, which were confirmed shortly before 7am.

Sometimes, interviewees have to be called to be told that they are not coming on. It’s not a welcome call to get, particularly for those who have spread the word on social media about their scheduled appearance. Such postings are high risk.

One exceptionally unlucky interviewee arrived in early one day, stayed for nearly two hours, but was squeezed out by breaking news. He came in a day later only, again, to be cast aside.

We then recorded an interview with him for use on the following day’s programme. Sadly, the recording ended up in the “drop zone” too, and went unheard, except online. He was almost unbelievably reasonable and polite about it all.

Conspiracy theories about presence or absence have no basis in fact

Presenters move into studio by 6.50am, turn on computers, check microphones and the “talkback” system which enables editors to talk into presenters’ earphones. For obvious reasons we can’t talk back, so we use on-screen text messages.

If the need is urgent, eyebrows or arms are hurriedly raised. Sometimes “what’s next” is a hard question to answer. Guests go missing, forget their phone or get stuck in traffic. Conspiracy theories about presence or absence have no basis in fact.

Tragedy

Once we’re under way at 7am, presenters sometimes need to remember that we are bringing very bad overnight news to listeners who are hearing it for the first time. The Rescue 116 tragedy is a recent example.

Hard questions have to be asked, but sensitivity is essential. The programme after the Bataclan and other attacks in Paris in November 2015, in which 130 people were killed, demanded careful reporting of brutal events that understandably shocked.

Celebrating 25 years of ‘Morning Ireland’ are, from left, Cathal Mac Coille, Niall Martin, Áine Lawlor, Ben Kelly, Will Goodbody and Cathy Murray. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Celebrating 25 years of ‘Morning Ireland’ are, from left, Cathal Mac Coille, Niall Martin, Áine Lawlor, Ben Kelly, Will Goodbody and Cathy Murray. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Morning news faces unique challenges. Fact-checking and finding key people can be difficult. What may be clearly true and important by 10am can be factually uncertain while we are on the air. Caution is the only sensible response.

During the 8am news headlines, a presenter may get a chance to leave the studio, perhaps to chat with the editor about a major interview, or a word with a correspondent or interviewee in Morning Ireland’s waiting area.

Chats with any politicians present are usually matters of courtesy only, although I sometimes checked on their knowledge of or involvement in issues they’ll be talking about.

Some politicians, in all governments, invariably refuse invitations. Most of the others answer reasonable questions reasonably, while expressing a point of view many will disagree with.

Wasting time does not impress listeners, bar the most partisan

But some ministers, in all governments, avoid answering straight questions, often at great length, and sometimes by shamelessly talking down the clock. It’s still a mystery to me that they do not realise such tactics do them no good.

Wasting time does not impress listeners, bar the most partisan. For presenters, the challenge is to be persistent and challenging, not aggressive or rude. I confess I have failed that test on occasion.

A presenter’s obvious impatience with bluster and evasiveness is not a reliable indicator of bias, but it can sound that way.

Declining trust

One of the most depressing changes I have detected since starting to present Morning Ireland again in 2001 is the declining trust in politicians, often accompanied by anger.

During the worst of the economic crash, our challenging but courteous style of interviewing often infuriated many listeners who saw it as condoning nonsense or worse.

More recently, I’ve often been shocked by how little critical reaction a politician’s U-turn or evasive answer gets, even in the most poisonous corners of social media. It’s as if some people are either no longer shockable, or no longer care what politicians say.

By 8.15am, it is time for what most journalists regard as our “lead” interview. Inevitably, some interviewees do not welcome the questions put. Most will agree, I believe, that they are given a fair chance.

A minority blatantly dodge. Others just let themselves down, because they are nervous, tongue-tied, long-winded or plain pompous – a category that includes me on occasion. Most do better if given a second chance.

A mercifully small minority resort to clichés or jargon, often during the Business News. Perhaps they think “enhancing the optionality of our customer impact factor in Q3 and going forward” impresses. However, they have lost most of us.

Some people refuse almost all requests to appear, no matter how serious the questions arising about the bodies they represent.The no-show list includes ministers in every government and the chief executives of some major public bodies.

Worst of all are the banks. Their brazen refusal to answer questions deserves attention because they invariably hide when their ATMs stop functioning, when they are caught over-charging, or worse.

By 8.30am listeners might think the shape of the last half-hour would be clear. In fact, the opposite is sometimes the case, as the editor tells us they still have “a few balls in the air”.

Short notice

Sometimes late-maturing items come with a few minutes’ notice, or none at all. The only sensible response is to stick to the basics. What? Where? When? Who? How? That’s easier said than done, if the subject is complex and serious.

Rachael English had 15 minutes’ notice before then Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan revealed the 2010 bank bailout, before it was officially announced. It was a textbook example of a news-making interview, prepared hurriedly.

Listeners sometimes complain that interviews are too short. I understand the frustration. Some get extra time, but four to five minutes is the average in a programme with 30 segments. No other programme faces a stiffer challenge.

Work does not end at 9am. We meet immediately after the programme to assess what went well, or did not, and why, and also to start planning for the next day’s programme.

Later, presenters need to keep up to speed with breaking news, along with reading background material and briefs for the next day. Reading Dáil debates is an essential part of the job, as is listening to Leader’s Questions, or Dáil committees.

On a good day, breakfast in the RTÉ canteen follows by 9.30am. Breakfast may be later if there has been a serious problem on air or behind the scenes, or if the Director of News inquires why we didn’t cover a particular story.

Social media

By this stage, verdicts on what was said on the programme are all over Twitter and Facebook. Sometimes the criticisms are fair. More often, I believe they are completely daft.

Social media has wrought the biggest change in our news-gathering and contact with (only) a section of our audience in the two decades that I have spent on the programme.

It has helped us to find interesting people more quickly. It has helped listeners, too, to correct our mistakes, or to make a serious point within seconds. But it has had negative effects, too.

Cathal Mac Coille in the newsroom of RTÉ ‘Morning Ireland’ with colleagues after his last broadcast on RTÉ One. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Cathal Mac Coille in the newsroom of RTÉ ‘Morning Ireland’ with colleagues after his last broadcast on RTÉ One. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Falsehoods, insults and reactions to statements not even made on the programme travel far more widely than the truth. During the manhunt after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, some reports quickly identified suspects.

RTÉ held back, only to be told by one Boston tweeter that we were “hopeless, completely out of touch”, criticising our failure to report several “facts” that were later revealed as falsehoods.

Neither he nor others later congratulated us on well-founded caution. US academic Brendan Nyhan says, “fast and wrong beats slow and right” increasingly. Today, the potential for recycling error has increased.

We have good listeners

Sometimes, I think of a good question too late. Usually, listeners notice, and tweet or email to point it out. A good thing, too. Their points are not always easy reading, but they reassure me. Through the relentless fog of social media negativity comes a sharp ray of fair criticism. We have good listeners.

Cathal Mac Coille has retired from RTÉ.