As interviewers themselves, you have to believe that Drivetime dream team Sarah McInerney and Cormac Ó hEadhra appreciate the entertainment value of an awkward moment. And it doesn’t take long to arrive. When McInerney arrives a few minutes late, just as I’ve asked if Ó hEadhra ever feels in the shade of the effusive print reviews, adoring social media comments and magazine covers that are lavished on his partner, he (playfully?) demands that I ask the question again. “I want her to hear you say it.”
Out it comes. “‘Eclipsed’ is not a word that I would ever use to describe Cormac,” Sarah responds and moments later calls me “Declan”. My own eclipse is total.
It’s all good fun and, in truth, whatever about their relative profiles, both he and she have more than played their part in RTÉ’s weekday flagship afternoon radio programme since they were announced as co-hosts two years ago. Listenership was 212,000 in the latest quarterly JNLR figures.
McInerney recently picked up the Radio Moment of the Year award for her interview with Russian ambassador Yuri Filatov and Ó hEadhra, a barrister and fluent Gaelgoir, has been described as a “Rottweiler” for the bruising political interviews that make Drivetime such compelling listening.
I ask what evading tactics they notice from the politicians who squirm on their rack. “The classic is ‘I’ll come back to that in a minute but I have an important point to make’”, Ó hEadhra says. “Which is easy to deal with. But the other [tactic] is to straight out accuse the interviewer of something.” He cites an example of an interview with Sammy Wilson in which the DUP politician, when challenged on popular support for changes to the Northern Ireland protocol, asked Ó hEadhra: “Are you calling me a liar?”
Then there are the he walkouts — which he says ministers did during the IMF bailout period — or the tactic of simply taking their sweet old time in response. Ó hEadhra cites the example of a Fianna Fáil backbencher who, on a panel that the presenter hosted a number of years ago, simply waited five or six seconds while he gathered his thoughts live on air. “It sucked all of the passion out of the debate and was very effective in doing that,” he recalls.
The pair have their own slightly less obvious ways of dealing with difficult questions. When I ask whether politicians taking out libel actions against journalists — Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald is pursuing a defamation case against RTÉ over comments on another show — has a chilling effect on media, there is a moment of thought. “I think that’s above our pay grade, and that’s being brutally frank and honest with you. Unless they’re suing me, it’s not my baby,” Ó hEadhra responds.
McInerney is a bit more forthcoming. “I can’t speak for anybody else but anytime I have a Sinn Féin politician sitting in front of me, including Mary Lou McDonald, it [the defamation case] is not in the back of my mind in any way whatsoever. I can categorically say that I don’t feel I have to pull any punch or skate around anything that I wouldn’t normally for legal reasons.” She adds: “Look, it’s a really good question. But you have to know that we’re not allowed to express opinions on what politicians do.”
What about when they hear Catherine Martin, whose ministry covers the media, expressing concern about RTÉ’s finances, or the general debate about the broadcaster’s future?
“I view that through a purely professional prism,” Ó hEadhra says. “We’re in a weird position really, because we’re in between the public and RTÉ, so when people criticise RTÉ, we have to take that on board and say, ‘Is it fair?’ And then, if we ever have an RTÉ executive [in front of us], be ready to put those questions and interrogate them as well, which we’ve done on the programme.”
Do these issues affect morale? “I have worked in a lot of media organisations: the Sunday Tribune, the Sunday Times, Newstalk and now here. And probably a few different places in between,” ”, McInerney says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a media organisation where the morale is great, because I think there is always a sense in every media organisation that there’s not enough funding. It’s a theme in media but I don’t feel that it’s any worse at RTÉ than other places.”
Discussion of presenter salaries and scrutiny of their appearances and style have long been social media past-times. Does it irritate them that the state-funded nature of the broadcaster — and hence the publicly available information on salaries — makes people feel they are entitled to comment on these things?
“To be honest, I think it’s a position of privilege,” McInerney says. “I’m in a position of privilege and if there is stuff that I’d prefer wasn’t there, I think you take the good with the bad. Having been in Newstalk, there wasn’t anywhere near the public pressure, or in TV3, there wasn’t the profile or expectation or standards that I feel here. Because I think as a public broadcaster, you’re expected to act differently maybe or have certain different standards. ”
Does she think that she gets put under the microscope more because she is a woman? “Sometimes. Certainly with how I look and stuff, on the television side of things. I’m sure it’s not so much in radio. But definitely on TV, yeah. But that comes with it. This all comes with the job, really. You just get used to it.”
I wonder how they felt about the way former Today show presenter Seán O’Rourke was treated after Golfgate. A planned return to RTÉ was cancelled amid uproar over the infamous dinner in Clifden, which he attended. In the end, nobody was convicted of any crime in relation to the event in August 2020. The judge in the case of those who were prosecuted (which did not include O’Rourke) noted that “very good people lost very good jobs”.
Was he treated unfairly? “I have given that very little thought”, McInerney says. “When did that happen? Two or three years ago? It’s a long time.”
Is she still in touch with him? “Well, he was very kind to me when I was starting the Today show. He met with me and gave me some advice. But I would not have had a whole lot of communication with him before that. Do you get me? I wouldn’t have had a big long-term relationship with Seán O’Rourke in my professional life. So it wouldn’t be normal for me to be in communication with him apart from that.”
The Irish Mail on Sunday reported over the summer that McInerney was in line to fill Claire Byrne’s old Monday night television show. It was announced last week, however, that Katie Hannon would instead present a new current affairs programme in that slot. Had McInerney wanted it?
“Now, how to answer this one,” she begins. “No, it’s not something my hat was in the ring for. I was really happy to see Katie Hannon [was] doing it, and it’s not something that I wanted. I’m very happy doing Prime Time.”
As McInerney indicates, Drivetime isn’t its hosts’ only gig: she co-presents the aforementioned RTÉ One show and Ó hEadhra presents Saturday With Cormac Ó hEadhra on Radio 1. Does this kind of workload have a personal cost — do they ever feel burned out?
“Yeah, sometimes” McInerney says. “When you start in journalism, you quickly realise you’re never off in this job. It is really 24 hours, seven days a week. [If you don’t do that] you suddenly find yourself way behind. And that’s actually why I try to make a real effort as much as possible in the mornings to switch off. Because otherwise I’m working all day.”
Going to the gym “with music up to the max” helps, she says. “That and meditation and wine and negronis. My cocktail of choice.”
“Anybody who’s in current affairs, who’s doing it right, is going to feel burned out”, Ó hEadhra adds.
There has been a huge listener response, he tells me, to the lighter items on Drivetime — possibly a needful balm amid the seriousness of the political interviews — and it’s clear that both presenters have an instinct for banter and a playful chemistry together.
When McInerney tells me that one listener told her that she looked “like Brian May from Queen”, she had to Google the legendary guitarist and conceded that the listener “had a bit of a point”. “I think that’s grossly unfair to Brian May,” Ó hEadhra responds.
Minutes later she gets her own back. When I ask how she lets off steam, she deadpans: “I deadlift Cormac.”
Given this facility for lightness, I wonder if either has ever felt the lure of light entertainment. “No, I don’t think so”, McInerney responds.
“I like doing the lighter items on Drivetime but what I really enjoy is current affairs. That’s where my heart is. The Late Late is not on my bingo card.”