Sarah McInerney: 'It’s important to let yourself get emotionally involved'

The new co-host of Prime Time on life lessons, a love of reading and how a misread syllabus led her to a life in journalism
Sarah McInerney: 'It’s important to let yourself get emotionally involved'

Sarah McInerney: "Radio 1 was the background to my life growing up — it still is, it’s on all the time in the kitchen."

On April 8 Sarah McInerney will take her place alongside Miriam O'Callaghan for the first time in her new gig as a co-host of RTÉ's flagship current affairs and investigative programme Prime Time.

Speaking to the ‘The Moments That Made Me', the weekend podcast from the Irish Examiner in association with Green & Black's McInerney says her skills as a radio and television journalist came about after a 'baptism of fire' with one of Ireland’s best-known and most-feared presenters: Vincent Browne.

McInerney worked as a television panellist with Browne on what was her first foray into the world of broadcast journalism and she says he taught her a lesson she will never forget.

“He taught me so much,” she tells Ciara McDonnell in ‘The Moments That Made Me'.

“What he taught me was 'don’t say anything unless you’re absolutely sure that you can back it up'. I remember very vividly one evening that I was on and I made a claim that I assumed was true, ‘most people like X’, something like that, and he said ‘how do you know?’ And I didn’t know, obviously. That was my perception of the world. And he kept at it, he didn’t let me go, he just hammered me."

“That was a lesson I will never forget and I didn’t forget any other time that I went into him after that. That’s invaluable, it’s a very basic tenet of journalism but, in terms of broadcast, it was invaluable to me. Broadcast is similar to print in that you just don’t say stuff you can’t back up.” 

McInerney speaks candidly about her journey into journalism and, surprisingly, how she ended up on that career path by accident after “an absolute mistaken misreading” of Dublin City University’s prospectus.

“I wanted to be a writer because I was a voracious reader of fiction growing up. I was constantly reading but it was only fiction, I had no interest in news,” she reveals.

“My parents would have the Irish Times or the Independent around the house all the time, Radio 1 was the background to my life growing up — it still is, it’s on all the time in the kitchen. It was there all the time but as a family, we never would have sat down and talked politics or news or anything like that. I had no interest in it.” 

Instead, McInerney preferred to get lost in the pages of a book. She says she wanted a career that would allow her to use her imagination and write fiction.

“I wanted to write fiction. I would get stuck into a writer and then I’d go to the library and I’d read everything that they had and be obsessed with them for a while and then I’d move on to the next one and do the same thing. I had a set of bookshelves and there were quite a few books that I keep going back to, I just read them again and again. Jane Austen and all that period and when I was younger it was Enid Blyton, Malory Towers and all that. That would have been the starting point.

“I went across every genre and just loved it all. Watership Down was the first ‘adult’ book I read when I was about 11 and I remember sitting outside school reading. I remember the principal coming along and looking at the book and saying ‘it’s a very adult book for you’. I remember getting this sense that there was a whole other world of books out there. All of that led me to want to write fiction and finding a job that would allow me to write. I suppose I just thought journalists write, don’t they?

“I looked at the syllabus for DCU and it had a Feature Writing module and I sort of misread that and took that to be ‘Fiction Writing’. I just don’t think I engaged with the whole thing that deeply because I was, certainly, a bit of a dreamer. I was floating through life in my own little world, happy. When it came to the college decision I didn’t give it any in-depth thought, I thought: ‘This will be fine’.” 

 Sarah McInerney will join Miriam O'Callaghan and Fran McNulty on Prime Time. Picture: Naoise Culhane / RTÉ.

Sarah McInerney will join Miriam O'Callaghan and Fran McNulty on Prime Time. Picture: Naoise Culhane / RTÉ.

However, McInerney says reality hit hard on her first day in college.

“I do remember on my first day in DCU we had a visiting lecturer, John Simpson from USA Today. John Simpson said you should be reading three newspapers a day and if you’re not you’re in the wrong course. I remember sitting there, gobsmacked. He said there’s a word beginning with C and if you don’t have that you have no place in this job. Of course, everyone else put up their hands and the answer was ‘curiosity’. Of course, you need curiosity to be a journalist and actually, I’m a very curious person, but none of it fit with my image of myself or what I wanted to do at the time."

“I spent the next four years waiting to finish the course so I could do something else. I wasn’t sure what that would be but I think I learned by osmosis as opposed to any deliberate attempt to learn anything that I was being taught because I was disengaged. But I did learn, as it turns out. I took it all in.” 

And take it all in she did. From her time in college, she earned a job in the Sunday Tribune newspaper as a news reporter and social diarist following her placement there.

“I was delighted. I was mostly covering everything but politics: education, health, crime, all the social issues. Politics was never an area I had any interest in working in. It wasn’t a conscious decision, I just never considered it.” 

It’s a theme, but the area she didn’t consider ended up being her next port of call. McInerney became a political reporter just as the country was transforming.

“The banks collapsed almost immediately after I’d been appointed political reporter [with the Sunday Times] so it was a very steep learning curve. But it was amazing, I loved it. As soon as I got into it, I loved it. Politics is about everything I had been doing up to then, but it’s at the centre of it. It’s about crime and social issues and health and justice."

“Everything in life is about politics, or the other way around, perhaps. It affects every aspect of our lives and I never really appreciated that until I got into it. Then you realise you’re at the centre of the country, you’re at the centre of all the decision making, you’re at the centre of everything that matters and that’s amazing to be covering that and asking questions of people and uncovering stories. I loved it.” 

McInerney’s skill at questioning soon earned her praise and attention and she moved from print to radio, first Newstalk and, most recently, RTÉ, and it can all be traced back to those days as a panelist with Vincent Browne, when McInerney realised another passion.

“I had never seen myself up to that point as being a broadcast journalist of any type. I had been print for 15 years at that stage. I had no interest in moving on from print until I did broadcast as a panelist,” she says.

“It’s just the immediacy of it that I loved, that the stories breaking, you’re right there, it’s happening, you’re asking the questions right away, you’re bringing news to people as it’s breaking. With print it’s slower, it’s more contemplative, it’s detailed, it’s different. I love them both but I really enjoy broadcast.” 

As well as her nighttime gig on Primetime, McInerney can be heard on RTÉ Radio One in the evenings presenting Drivetime — a job she loves but can find draining. It’s understandable when you consider the content she covers and her in-depth approach.

“On the one hand, I feel really privileged to be in the position and excited and happy to be in a position where I can ask the questions that I hope the listeners want asked or that I think perhaps they want asked or that I want asked, that I’m interested in.

“The first day that the Mother and Baby Homes report came out, we covered it extensively on the show and I went back to the kitchen that evening and sat down and my husband was saying ‘you’re very quiet’. It weighed on me but I think it weighed on everybody that went into it in any depth at all. It should weigh on all of us. When you’re going deep into stories like that, it’s very difficult to take yourself away from it. I don’t think, necessarily, you should."

“I think it’s important to let yourself get emotionally involved in stuff while maintaining your objectivity, which is not an easy balance but it can be done. I think if you don’t let yourself get into it, you don’t have the passion or the anger or the interest, really, to get the questions that people want asked. You have to connect with it.”

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