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Breaking News and Shattering Ceilings

As the first woman to hold the role of Managing Director of News and Current Affairs at RTÉ, UCC alumna Deirdre McCarthy is a force to be reckoned with in the Irish media landscape. Here, Deirdre reflects on her college days, her lucky break into media, and the importance of being a role model for the next generation of journalists. In conversation with Marjorie Brennan.

20 Mar 2023

Deirdre McCarthy, Managing Director of News and Current Affairs at RTÉ

When Deirdre McCarthy was appointed Managing Director of News and Current Affairs at RTÉ last December, it was a milestone for her personally and for the organisation itself, with the Cork native and UCC graduate the first woman to hold the prestigious position. Deirdre says she was ‘thrilled’ to be given the role having carried it out in an interim capacity since the previous July, but there wasn’t much time to mull over it, given the responsibilities of the job. It is a full-on role, encompassing not only the channel’s news output across all platforms but also the investigations unit and current affairs programmes including shows such as Prime Time and Upfront with Katie Hannon.

‘It is a privilege to hold a role like this. I was thrilled when I was appointed, then once your name is announced, you hit the ground running and off you go,’ she says.

Deirdre has been with RTÉ for more than 25 years, in an impressively wide range of roles, working on shows including Morning Ireland and News at One, and leading the channel’s politics coverage. In hindsight, her new job would appear to be one that she has been preparing for since she began her studies at UCC, although she says she never had a clear career plan. Deirdre completed a degree in history and economics, graduating in 1992. She recalls her history studies, in particular, with fondness.

‘I remember there were about 80 of us down in Boole 2 ... we had some great lecturers – John A. Murphy, Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Joe Lee, Dermot Keogh, Jennifer O’Reilly. We were very lucky.’

McCarthy grew up in Douglas and attended Christ King Secondary School, where she was head girl and a member of the debating team. She also completed a Diploma in Elocution and Drama. At UCC, she continued to nurture her interests, joining the Philosoph debating society and the ‘Dramat’.

Luck and timing were also important when it came to her pursuing journalism as a career, with one part-time job at UCC playing an instrumental role.

‘In summer, for a couple of years, I did the tours around UCC, which I loved because it was that blend of history and performance.'

‘In summer, for a couple of years, I did the tours around UCC, which I loved because it was that blend of history and performance. Out of that grew the opportunity to do something for RTÉ Cork, a short radio documentary looking back on the previous decade when Ford, Verolme [dockyard] and Dunlop all closed and the economic impact that had on Cork. That gave me a great taste for radio … and I didn’t stop.’

Deirdre went on to work for RTÉ Radio Cork and is passionate about the importance of local and regional news, which gave her a grounding in the basic journalistic skills that continue to inform everything she does now.

‘You covered the local authorities, the district courts, the courts, you even covered the health boards. That is wonderful experience if you are starting out in journalism, you learn your trade very quickly. You learn how to write and report clearly and how to make discussions at meetings clear so that the public will understand it.’

Deirdre later went on to report from Cork for Nationwide, which was launched by Michael Ryan, the south-east correspondent at the time, and celebrates 30 years in existence this year: ‘That was huge experience, and also to be rooted in the regions and understand the importance of the regions to an organisation like RTÉ.’

After working in the newsroom in Cork, she moved to Dublin, working in a range of roles across politics, news and current affairs. Now she finds herself at the helm in an era when technological advancements pose huge challenges for news organisations globally. She says that issues such as disinformation are a priority but that the ‘old-school’ elements of journalism that she trained in remain the same.

‘At the core of what we do is public interest journalism that is accurate and fair. We are an all-island media company so we reflect all identities and viewpoints if we can. We do have huge challenges, every media company does – how do you hold on to what you have but also build on newer audience? For me, climate change is a priority, as is challenging disinformation. That is not just a challenge for RTÉ but for everyone. We have a big role to play there as a public service broadcaster.’

For Deirdre, it also means a great deal to be the first woman in her role – she says it is vital that young girls see women appointed to leadership positions: ‘It is certainly a very important part of the role that I see, that I would communicate where I’ve come from, how I’ve got to where I am and the people who have influenced me along the way. We have a large number of women in editorial and senior positions now in RTÉ … you can see where that glass ceiling has been broken but to be the first woman [in charge of] news and current affairs is a great privilege.’

'We have a large number of women in editorial and senior positions now in RTÉ … you can see where that glass ceiling has been broken ...'

As a mother of three, she also acknowledges the importance of workplaces being flexible and having family-friendly policies.

‘RTÉ is a great place to work, I have also been able to have my family, rear my three kids and come back to work and move on in my career. It is important for other women to see that is possible.’

Deirdre’s experience in UCC also serves as a reminder of a time when going on to third-level education was far from a given for many people. She says that being able to avail of financial support was crucial to her future.

‘I was the first at home to go to college, that was a big deal. My father had lost his job, it was tough at home, things were tight, so I felt very lucky and privileged to be able to avail of the third-level grant,’ she says.

Meanwhile, UCC is still a part of Deirdre’s life – her son Cathal is now doing a degree in anthropology at the university and is hugely enjoying student life, just as she did.

‘He chose UCC because it is the only one that does the full degree in anthropology. The college has really developed in its subjects and disciplines, it’s wonderful. I’m delighted to see that politics is a subject now, I would have loved to have done that. Cathal loves UCC and I’m delighted, it’s a lovely connection to have.’

For more alumni stories, visit the Alumni and Development website.

Photography: Maxwell Photography

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