- 10 Apr 19
A hard-nosed newsman who delights in asking the hard questions, DAVID McCULLAGH has become one of RTÉ’s leading current affairs lights. Trump, Brexit, drinking, misogony, Dev, Charlie, the Chuckle Brothers, internet trolls and Miriam O’Callaghan are all up for discussion as for once he’s the interviewee.
It’s a scary enough place on Saturday nights when all those Bridies, Pats and Marys are salivating over the money they’re about to get their paws on, but midweek with the lights off and props littering the floor, the Winning Streak studio is really putting the fear of God (and Marty Whelan) into me.
David McCullagh is walking the boy Ruiz and myself through it, in order to reach the less glitzy part of Television Centre, where for the past six years he’s co-presented RTÉ’s flagship Prime Time current affairs show.
While his Twitter feed demonstrates that he’s not without his critics – we’ll address that alleged shilling for George Soros and his New World Order cronies later – McCullagh is generally regarded as one of the national broadcaster’s sharper tools, who has little time for either guff or grandstanding.
At one point he quips “I’ve the face of Father Ted and the brain of Father Dougal.” In truth, however, he’s a journalistic heavyweight of the Orla Guerin/Andrew Marr/Mark Carruthers variety rather than a rolling newsman whose qualifications for the job are perfect teeth and an ability to read a teleprompter.
Many a public figure has fallen victim to his bullshit detector, which was turned all the way up to ‘11’ last November when he hosted the final Presidential debate. There were lots of memorable moments – Michael D. and Liadh Ní Riada bamboozling the others by talking in Irish, Gavin Duffy and Sean Gallagher throwing their toys at each other and Peter Casey offering his wife a Council of State job among them - but my favourite was when McCullagh appeared to toss his pen down in frustration at Joan Freeman trying to dodge a question about the €120,000 campaign loan she got from former Herbalife (ahem) President, Des Walsh.
STUART: So, was that Parker Knoll being flung to the floor a reaction to Ms. Freeman’s prevarication?
DAVID: I saw something about that, alright. I’m not sure if I just dropped it or if I put it down and it fell off the table, but it wasn’t a sign of frustration with anybody.
Ryan Tubridy quit Twitter last year because of the abuse he was receiving but you continue to tough it out. Is it a case of not letting the fucking eejits win?
I’ve had quite a bit of abuse, though not as much as female colleagues. There’s a definite misogynistic strain to a lot of the keyboard warrior stuff. After doing an interview with a government minister, I’d unwisely take a look at Twitter and it would be like, “Argh, easy ride you gave them.” And you might have kicked them around the studio for 20 minutes. Some people clearly won’t be satisfied unless you actually deck your interviewee, which I’m not going to do unless the provocation gets really extreme. What you have to bear in mind is that you’re not doing your job for a Twitter mob. You’re doing the job for the vast majority of people in the country, who are not on social media necessarily, and certainly aren’t shouting and roaring about perceived bias. What you’re trying to do is extract information and hold people to account as fairly and with as much balance as you possibly can.
Have you ever been hurt by the criticism?
If it’s not accompanied by a string of expletives, I’ve no problem with being told: “You made a balls of that!” but if there are expletives I make liberal use of the ‘block’ and ‘mute’ buttons. The important thing is “Don’t feed the trolls” because the worst thing you can do with a bully is let them know that they’re getting to you.
Social media hadn’t been invented when you got your first media gig in 1989 with the Evening Press. Do you come from a journalistic family?
No, not at all. I had my heart set on journalism from quite a young age, though. This is going to sound very nerdy, but I was fascinated by the three elections that Charlie Haughey and Garret FitzGerald fought in quick succession. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to ask them questions about it?” Reagan coming into office when I was 13 was a big moment. So after leaving Newpark Comprehensive in Blackrock, I went and did History and Politics at UCD. I wanted a job working for one of the national newspapers covering politics; broadcasting hadn’t entered my head at that stage.
So how did you get one?
I was three months into a journalism course in Rathmines when – bizarre story this! – my Dad was on a flight to London and found himself setting next to Eamon DeValera’s grandson, also named Eamon, who was running the Irish Press. A screw had come out of Eamon’s glasses, which, with him being an engineer and always carrying a small screwdriver, my Dad was able to fix. You wouldn’t be able to carry it onto an airplane now. Anyway, they got chatting and when Dad mentioned I was interested in journalism, Eamon said, “Tell him to write in”, which I did. No reply for a while. Then I got called for an interview, which resulted in a “please fuck off” letter. They had a change of heart, though, when one of the six journalists they did offer a job to drop out.
Rude question, but what was your starting salary?
Around £15,000, which was very good money for the time and a lot better than the £12 per shift plus tips I’d been getting as a waiter.
I’ve heard more stories about the Irish Press than all the other national newspapers combined.
And for once most of them are true! I was very star-struck being in the same building as Con Houlihan who was a legend, and wrote such beautiful prose about sport and literature and a whole host of other things. He was a lovely man, but you couldn’t understand a word he said. On top of having the thickest of Kerry accents, he was very self-conscious about his nose and held his hand over his face when he was talking. He was the only person in the place who wrote everything longhand. He was unimpressed with typewriters and even more unimpressed with computers when they eventually arrived in the building.
Con used to cash his pay cheque in Mulligan’s and then leave the money behind the bar to pay for his daily pints.
That’s right. I started at the tail end of that really macho, hard drinking culture, which sometimes spilled over into misogyny. But not on Con’s part, I hasten to add. People would sneak out to the pub when they were supposed to be working, which is completely unacceptable nowadays – and rightly so. People tell all these heroic stories about the amount they had to drink, but actually it was deeply unhealthy and quite sad in many ways. A couple of people in there were obviously ill.
There were a lot of older journalists trying it on with younger journalists.
The women in Burgh Quay were able to give as good as they got, but it certainly wouldn’t pass muster in these #MeToo times. Journalism nowadays is very tame in comparison. Which for the most part is a good thing. As are the quantum leaps in technology, which have occurred since then. You try to explain this to young people nowadays, but you’d be bashing it out on the typewriter and there’d be a copy boy ripping off each paragraph and running down to the typesetters. It was still hot metal in the late ‘80s. You could feel the printing presses thundering away. There were two mobile phones in the place the size of bricks, which had to be signed out. It was very All The President’s Men!
Was there that Fleet Street-style culture of editors shouting at reporters?
Yeah, but not in a really aggressive way; it was more high-tempo. Newsrooms tend not to be democracies and orders are given at volume. I certainly wouldn’t have felt that it was a bullying environment. In fact, it was a great place to start. I learned a lot from Johnny Wallace who was the Evening Press’ Political Correspondent. He had to take time off with heart problems, which is how I ended up being sent to the Dáil for the first time. I don’t know how to put it delicately but it’s an ill wind, you know? Johnny was a lovely man and had a great sense of the deeper forces at work in daily politics.
The relationship between Dáil correspondents and politicians can seem a bit cozy. What were the rules of engagement during your time in Leinster House?
(Laughs) Maybe a bit of Stockholm Syndrome crept in, but I was there for 12 years and never felt I got too close to a politician. I don’t see anything particularly wrong in journalists and politicians having a drink together, especially if it leads to you picking up a steer. But you can do that just as easily – and probably more productively – over a cup of coffee. The number one rule is if somebody says “off the record” you can use the information but not reveal the source. Every now and then you’d think, “You’re really trying to play me here.” But generally what you were being told was genuine.
Was there anybody you thought was going to be a complete bollocks but turned out to be a decent skin?
Ian Paisley could be very good company. Trouble is there were six different Paisleys – three of them being awful – and you never knew which was going to turn up. He was also a consummate constituency politician. It didn’t matter what religion you were, he’d look after you. I remember reading a thing in the state papers, about an Irish diplomat in London saying, “Paisley is not at all as hardline as he likes to let on. I think we could do business with him.” It was written in 1971, so it took quite some time for the real Ian Paisley to reveal himself.
What about the other part of the Chuckle Brothers double act?
Martin McGuinness was a genuinely warm man. Very personable. He was the sort of fella of whom you’d say, “Oh, I wouldn’t mind going for a pint with him. I’d say he’d be good company.” But then again, nobody had any doubts about his role in The Troubles. No more than Paisley, you have to respect the journey on which people have come. But you shouldn’t forget.
Gerry Adams was perceived as a sinister figure during The Troubles, but by the time he left the Dáil he’d taken on the mantle of elder statesman. Were people in Leinster House frightened of him at first?
I wouldn’t say frightened, but I don’t think anybody had any doubts about his real role in the Republican struggle. Once he got elected to the Dáil, the charismatic, charming side came out. He gets that sort of rock star treatment, much to the chagrin of other political figures. Oddly for somebody who had a great grasp of the minutiae of negotiations, Adams didn’t have a great grasp of economics. That got badly exposed when he was leading the general election campaign for the party down here.
What was the most seismic thing you witnessed in the Dáil?
Oh, the collapse of Brian Cowen’s government when the ministers all resigned and he tried to reappoint them. The only thing I can compare it to is the Brexit shambles going on across the water at the moment. The day she resigned, I interviewed Mary Harney for the Nine O’Clock News, got on the LUAS and before reaching my stop received three phone calls about different people who’d also resigned. I got to the end of the line, rang the wife and asked her to get the car ready to go. I drove to RTÉ at highly illegal speeds, ran up the stairs, ran into studio and sat down in the chair just as the late news intro jingle ended. The newsreader, Eileen Whelan, said, “So, David, what’s happened?” and I almost started hyperventilating.
That’s not the end of the story!
The next day it had turned into a complete disaster because the Greens on whom Cowen was depending to prop him up said, “No, we won’t play ball.” Nobody knew what was going on. The Tánaiste at the time, Mary Coughlan, was taking the order of business and had to say, “Er, well, could we have an adjournment for half-an-hour…” People were openly conspiring against the Taoiseach. Normally they’d have the decency to do it round the corner, but all the Fianna Fail TDs were milling around at the top of the stairs shouting, “This can’t go on, we’ve got to get rid of him!” It was the culmination of the bank guarantee and the IMF coming in. That whole period was extraordinary. The other standout moment was covering the Moriarty Tribunal the day that Charlie Haughey was revealed to have been a crook, basically, and on the take.
Have you ever thought of donning a flak jacket and getting your hands dirty?
Become a war correspondent? God, no! I’m a long-time coward and wouldn’t particularly want to get shot at. You need a certain set of skills to be able to do that. I’ve heard some of the stories colleagues have of wars – particularly Bosnia – and it’s pretty hardcore.
What’s the most harrowing story you’ve covered?
The Omagh bombing, no question. Myself and my wife Anne-Marie, who’s actually from the North, were walking along the Ramblas in Barcelona when we heard the news. It was after the Good Friday Agreement and ceasefire, so was totally unexpected. I was sent to cover the aftermath. The funerals just broke your heart. People were in a state of shock. I talked to one of the RUC officers in charge of the investigation. His son’s girlfriend had been injured in the bombing; it was really visceral. I remember interviewing some of the relatives of the people killed in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Twenty-five years later they were still fighting to get justice for their loved ones. It was still as raw as the day it happened. I did Drumcree three years in a row, which was about two years too many.
With Anne-Marie’s family being from Belfast, you must have crossed the border quite a bit during The Troubles.
I’ve family there too, so I remember as a very small kid coming home from visiting relatives in Keady and the car being stopped. You know, the lights and pulling over and soldiers with guns poking around. People from the South would go, “Oh my God, squaddies with rifles!” but people from the North just got used to it. You shouldn’t have to, but it becomes your day-to-day reality. We got married there in 1993 and some of my Dublin relatives were nervous about going up. I said, “The church is on the Lisburn Road where nothing ever happens. The reception’s in Belfast Castle. The hotel’s down the Newtownards Road. Two more very quiet areas. What can possibly go wrong?”
So something did, of course!
Well, this was the cue for the IRA launching a mortar attack from the car park of that church, which was next door to an RUC place; the evacuation of Belfast Castle on New Year’s Eve because of a bomb scare; and the hotel being blown up. The thing you always heard from people down here was, “It’s a pity we can’t saw off the North and tow it out into Atlantic.”
The second part of your Eamon De Valera biography came out last year.
I wrote it at the suggestion of my publisher, Fergal Toibin. I wouldn’t really have thought of it myself. Somebody asked me if it was a labour of love – well, it was a labour! Writing them took seven-and-a-half years.
People nowadays seem to have a pretty negative perception of Dev.
I think that’s probably unfair. First thing is, you have to judge somebody by the context of his or her time. A lot of people say, “Oh, confessional Catholic state, yada yada yada.” They don’t realise – that would have been the mindset of most people in this country. People now say the 1937 constitution was too Catholic. The criticism at the time was that it wasn’t Catholic enough. The people he replaced in government were, from the point of view of kow-towing to the Church, much worse than he was. You have to take him in the context of his time and what he wanted to achieve, which was asserting Irish sovereignty. He did that pretty successfully, I would have thought.
Would he recognise the modern day Fianna Fáil?
I don’t think there’s much about modern Irish life he’d recognise. He probably would recognise the modern Fianna Fáil because they’re following in the tradition he set, which was to try and win power.
He wouldn’t have been impressed with Micheál Martin campaigning to Repeal the 8th.
I imagine not.
Will their propping up of Fine Gael do long-term damage to the Fianna Fáil brand?
It’s a question I’ll be putting to Micheál Martin the next time I speak to him! I think he’s well aware of the lessons of history, which suggest you may not get an electoral reward for it. Just look at Alan Dukes and the Tallaght Strategy. It’s going to be challenging for them to try and derive benefit from it.
One former Taoiseach who polarises opinion the way Dev does is Charlie Haughey. How would you sum him up?
As a man of considerable brilliance, but even more considerable flaws. A brilliant Minister for Finance and a very effective manager of government. His decision to go into coalition with the Progressive Democrats in 1989 changed the face of Irish politics. I knew he did it out of self-interest, but that social partnership was still a major thing. Something else he doesn’t get much credit for is taking the first few steps of what became the peace process. And as Minister for Health, he gave every primary school kid in the country a free toothbrush, so thank you, Charlie. But – and it’s one of the biggest buts in Irish history – Haughey was a man whose ambition and avarice led to his downfall. It’s a fascinating story, Shakespearean in its scale.
Charlie would have loved the idea of a border poll. Do you think we’re going to get one soon?
I’m not entirely convinced that we are. And I’m not entirely convinced of the result if there was one. If Brexit goes really badly wrong, it might change minds in the North. But I can’t see it turning all those Unionists who, even though they’re being hurt by the economic outcome, into pro-united Ireland people overnight. Did you see that BBC breakfast show reporter? A couple of months ago he was saying, “Are we going to get a Brexit deal? I don’t know.” He went through a big long list and at the end went, “You might as well ask Mr. Blobby because he has as good an idea of all this stuff as I do.”
I didn’t think the likes of Boris Johnson, Kate Hoey, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg could be any more wilfully ignorant, but they’ve managed it with the stuff they’ve been saying recently about Ireland.
This “Why don’t you come and join us outside the European Union?” rhetoric is offensive in that they clearly haven’t thought, “Is there anything about the previous 800 years of having our economies closely entwined that would make the Republic of Ireland reluctant?” There’s a strong element of disdain that comes through. A BBC blog quoted an anonymous former minister as saying, “The Irish need to learn their place.” Actually, we have; it’s within the EU. Then there’s stuff like Karen Bradley admitting that she had no idea that people voted along mainly sectarian lines in Northern Ireland before she became Secretary for it, and the former Brexit Minister, Dominic Raab, saying he hadn’t read the Good Friday Agreement in its entirety. It’s not that long!
Did you think, “This is a campaigning masterstroke” when Trump started using the term “Fake News”?
I can’t remember any particularly strong feelings about it, but I know exactly what it’s designed to do, which is undermine impartial journalism and reporting. People say it in a jokey way, but it’s dangerous because it’s really feeding into that populist twisting of facts. That whole alternative reality where Mexico is going to pay for the border wall. No, they won’t – and it isn’t going to make a damn bit of difference to your immigration situation.
What are your thoughts on the architect of Fake News, Steve Bannon?
I think he’s dangerous. There’s that thing, “Oh, it couldn’t happen here.” People in America said, “It couldn’t happen here” – and then it did. People in Britain said, “It couldn’t happen here” – and then it did. People in Turkey said, “It couldn’t happen here” – and then it did. We have to be careful. We have to be very careful.
Time to come clean, McCullagh; aren’t you just a Soros Foundation puppet who’s being paid to subvert Irish democracy and make us all slaves to globalism (and unicorns)?
(Laughs) No. I wish some of the vast wealth that George Soros is supposedly bribing journalists with would come my way, though. Some of the Soros stuff is just so lunatic that you think, “Nobody could believe this.” But people do believe it. Some of the stuff around vaccinations is just unreal and yet people seem to believe it. On social media you get accused of being leftwing, rightwing, pro-Fianna Fáil, pro-Fine Gael. I’ve been called all those and more.
Returning to the presidential campaign, were you shocked by the surge in Peter Casey’s support after he made his Traveller comments?
It was surprising how he went from zero to hero in such a short space of time. What he said perhaps reflects what a certain proportion of people in Ireland feel, but he didn’t win the election. With Michael D. such an obvious front-runner and so many other candidates running, he had to generate a bit of noise and attract attention. I suspect the increase in Peter Casey’s vote had as much to do with him being seen as an outsider alternative to Michael D. as it did his Traveller comments.
Do you expect him to remain in frontline politics?
I’m not sure. We saw Sean Gallagher drop from 28.5% in 2011 to 6.4% last year. Dana got a seat in Europe but didn’t have a long-lasting presence. Declan Ganley as well. It’s difficult to know who has the staying power.
Last week saw the return of the broadcaster’s broadcaster, Alan Partridge. Have you ever matched his silver tongued-ness?
Unfortunately, yes. Doing a Q+A on Morning Ireland about the 2002 abortion vote, I meant to say, “The Taoiseach is determined to have a referendum on the abortion issue” but what I actually said was, “The Taoiseach is determined to have an abortion on the referendum issue.” Luckily, the interviewer was too polite to pick me up on it.
Is it possible for RTÉ to get back into profit or will it always be dependent on handouts?
(Laughs) That would be an ecumenical matter! The problem we have, as you know, is ad revenue. And Brexit isn’t helping. Just as we got over the recession, that hit us. It’s been tough but I think there’s a need – and will always be a need – for quality home-produced programming. RTÉ has an interesting place in Irish society. You can tell when we make a mess of something, how disappointed people are. If another broadcaster does something wrong, people will just throw their eyes up to the heaven. It’s very notable that when something huge happens, people come back to RTÉ. They believe they can trust us to give them a fair take on things.
There are clearly sections of Twitter who’d disagree with that and who get the majority of their news – fake or otherwise – from social media.
The problem with that is it creates echo chambers. You just keep getting your beliefs reinforced. Unlike TV and radio, which is regulated, there’s no onus on social media sites to be balanced or truthful.
Facebook has come in for a lot of criticism, not least from the British parliamentary committee that branded them “digital gangsters.” Fair comment?
I’ve given up on Facebook. It’s worrying when you see the likes of those fake anti-wrinkle cream ads that Miriam is threatening to sue them over.
Pat Kenny also had to clarify that, despite what you might have seen on various sites, he’s not flogging cut-price erectile dysfunction products.
Bryan Dobson as well. I had great pleasure in sending him a copy of one of them. Actually, it’s not funny because people are being misled. It’s extraordinary that a company would allow that to appear on the platform they provide, and only do something when someone stands up to them and threatens legal action. It’s beyond a joke. If you don’t stand up to it and force them to police themselves, people are going to believe this nonsense is true. The Miriam one said she’d left RTÉ. All you have to do is turn on the bloody television and there she is.
RTÉ Radio 1 gets criticised for being a bit of a boy’s club, but there’s a pretty good TV current affairs gender balance.
When Prime Time was three times a week, it was myself, Miriam O’Callaghan and Claire Byrne who are both consummate professionals. Claire has her own show now, which means that poor old Miriam, who’s great fun to work with, is saddled with me. She’s a very kind person as well. I was terrified starting out on Prime Time but her and Claire both showed me the ropes. Throughout my career, I’ve been very fortunate both in terms of the lucky breaks I’ve got and the people I’ve worked with.