Honorary Conferrings Speeches Archive
- 02 Jun 2017
at Aula Maxima, UCC
OLLSCOIL na hÉIREANN
THE NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF IRELAND
TEXT OF THE INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS DELIVERED BY:
Professor CAROLINE FENNELL, Senior Vice President and Registrar in University College Cork, on 2 June 2017, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, on MIRIAM O’CALLAGHAN
Lord Mayor, Chancellor, President, Honorary Graduates, Cathaoirleach, Distinguished Guests, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Journalists, according to Time magazine founder Henry Ruce, “come as close as possible to the heart of the world”. Their task is to make the unsaid, said. That means side-stepping, or at this point leaping, the chimaera of social media and asking difficult questions. To be successful, they also need to painstakingly build the trust of individuals who have more to lose than gain through telling the truth. It is a delicate balance: to hold at once the empathy to build trust; and the fearlessness to step into the unsaid, risking criticism should circumstances dictate.
In a recent commencement speech at Wellesley College, Hilary Clinton told the graduates they were graduating at a time “when there is a fully fledged assault on truth and reason”. Clinton captures this vividly in a reference to those who would have us deny even those “things we have seen with our eyes. Like the size of crowds. And then defending themselves by talking about, quote – unquote, alternative facts.”
In part, of course, she is referencing November 2016, when the world discovered ‘post-truth’ in a flurry of tweets from a president-elect, and the fate of the media might well have been sealed in references to ‘the failing New York Times’, ‘fake media’, ‘enemy of the people’. In a world where social media dominates, the traditional press may be in danger of relegation – not just as voiceless bystanders, but as enemies of the truth – not just post-truth then but post-trust. Yet despite the backdrop and changing context for the traditional press and media, it remains strong: witness the New York Times 30% growth in online subscriptions in the days after the US presidential election in Nov 2016, and the Wall Street Journal’s 300% increase in new subscribers. Ireland is no different. During the Irish elections in February 2016, the national broadcaster had a viewership of 2.5 million of its election coverage over one weekend and RTE’s Primetime at its peak reaches just over 1 million viewers. These figures are the result of hard-earned trust built over decades. People care about news and media - indeed it is the life blood of our democracy.
In almost 30 years working in news media in Ireland and the UK, Miriam O’Callaghan has made an art out of holding that delicate balance between empathy and building trust, yet remaining fearless in asking what needs to be asked. And in so doing, she has become one of the most trusted broadcasters working in Irish media and one of the most popular public figures in the country.
Miriam O’Callaghan was born and raised in Foxrock, Dublin, in a family of five. Her mother, was a teacher from County Laois and her father, a senior civil servant, who grew up in County Kerry. She received her Bachelor of Civil Law from UCD in 1979 and Diploma in European Law in 1981. After UCD, she qualified as a solicitor at the age of 20 and moved to London. She discovered broadcasting when she was interviewed by the BBC for a legal story, applied for a researcher's job on Thames Television, and landed a role on This Is Your Life, presented by Eamonn Andrews. She moved into researching current affairs at Thames, and later trained as a BBC producer, earning a reputation as a talented and popular colleague. She worked on shows such as Kilroy before securing a role in front of the camera and ultimately moving to Newsnight. In 1993, she returned to Ireland to present RTE's authoritative economic and business programme Marketplace and continued to work on Newsnight and ITV on the debut series of Tonight with Sir Trevor McDonald. By 1996, RTE managed to secure her exclusive services as the anchor on Prime Time. Since then Miriam has handled the highest-profile programmes on our national broadcaster such as special budget and election coverage and has anchored the Leader's Debates in general elections.
She has been the recipient of many accolades and awards: Best TV Personality at the Irish Film and Television Awards in 2003; the PPI Radio Award in 2011 for best Speech Driven Magazine Programme (Miriam meets); and in 2012, the Mary Cummins Award for Outstanding Achievement in Media at the inaugural Irish ‘Women in Media’ conference. She is called upon repeatedly to act as patron of Irish charities – and is the patron of among others Cliona’s Foundation, Bumbleance and Make a Wish. Together with her husband, Steven Carson, she founded a television production company, Mint Productions, in 2000, and that company has itself won numerous awards and produced documentaries and series on diverse topics from Shergar to Bertie Ahern.
Miriam O’Callaghan’s influence in Irish media is exceptional. Her presence alone as the lead voice in three flagship national programmes is the exception rather than the rule.
In 1995, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action identified ‘women and the media’ as one of twelve critical areas of concern. By 2012, only two areas were outstanding: Human Rights for Women and Women in the Media. In 2015, the Institute for Future Media & Journalism at DCU published a report called ‘Hearing Women’s Voices’. In their research, the overall distribution of voices on Irish radio was just over one-quarter female, and three-quarters male.
There is a paragraph in Carol Gilligan’s important book In a Different Voice which is particularly appropriate here:
“As we have listened for centuries to the voices of men and the theories of development that their experience informs, so we have come more recently to notice not only the silence of women but the difficulty in hearing what they say when they speak…. The failure to see the different reality of women’s lives and to hear the differences in their voices stems in part from the assumption that there is a single mode of social experience and interpretation. By positing instead two different modes, we arrive at a more complex rendition of human experience which sees the truth of separation and attachment in the lives of women and men and recognizes how these truths are carried by different modes of language and thought” (at p173-4)
Decades of research have shown categorically how powerful the news media is in shaping the narrative of our society. Stories shape our very understanding of the world around us. We know from research by institutes like Nieman Reports than when women are given voice in our media that less than a quarter are engaged to speak of news or current affairs. Yet as they point out: “To best serve the public as watchdogs and truth tellers, news organisations need a broad array of voices and perspectives” (Nieman Reports (2014).
Miriam O’Callaghan is that important voice in Ireland - that of a woman tackling important questions in our world involving news, current affairs, social mores and moral crises. These include:
- · In 2011, her interview with then Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuiness during RTE’s presidential debate drew equal measures of criticism and praise for questioning McGuinness about a living history that is divisive and deeply controversial.
- · In 2013, her Prime Time interview with Praveen Halappanavar in 2013, husband of Savita Halappanavar, who died of septic shock at Galway University Hospital when she was 17 weeks pregnant, which won the Television News Category of the Justice Media Awards., as a “sensitive and insightful interview”, that “shed new light on the events that had unfolded in the hospital and the reasons why Praveen Halappanavar had expressed his refusal to take part in the HSE enquiry.”
- · In Nov 2015, her challenging interview with former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varafakis where she forthrightly asked him if he fought the right fight or was too arrogant in his approach.
- · And finally in January 2015, her range and approach allowed one of Ireland’s most high-profile politicians – and potential Taoiseach – to ‘come out’ during Miriam O’Callaghan’s Sunday morning radio programme, to share his sexuality with a nation.
In University College Cork all of that - and more - is why we are marking Miriam O’Callaghan’s contribution today. It is because of what she represents and because her contribution to Irish life and media is important to us and to the values that University College Cork espouses.
Moreover in her enormous contribution to broadcasting and the media, in Ireland and the UK, Miriam O’Callaghan has demonstrated empathy, conviction and independence of mind – the very qualities that we seek to engender in our students – as they are the seeds from which success – and trust – are grown.
Praehonorabilis Cancellarie, totaque universitas!
Praesento vobis hanc meam filiam, quam scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneam esse quae admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in utroque Jure, idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo totique Academiae.