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Radio Ulster's Roisin McAuley: ‘I don’t see myself as an older woman’

Roisin McAuley is still breaking through the glass ceiling at the BBC after 34 years

By Una Brankin

A good strong mug of tea by the blazing coal fire in Roisin McAuley’s cosy living-room is most welcome after a long drive in the relentless rain and early darkness. The renowned journalist, having returned from southern England after 34 years, is renting a bungalow in south Belfast, while her new home in the east of the city is being modernised.

Given her vague limp as she greets me warmly at the door, the lack of stairs in the rental property is a distinct advantage.

The new Radio Ulster Sunday Sequence presenter has been recovering from the fracture of both Achilles tendons, inflicted by a fall when she missed a step on some stairs in a cinema in France — her home from home. Subsequently, she spent four-and-a-half months recuperating in a clinic in Bordeaux, writing her online blog between treatments.

“I couldn’t stand up and they couldn’t operate because the tear was so bad,” she explains. “The pain was terrible in the beginning — eight-and-a-half on the pain scale, as I told them — but it wore off very quickly. They believe in good pain medication in France.”

She looks softer now, with her ash-blonde hair, literally less fiery than in her red-headed days, but — my goodness — is she sharp. A stickler for detail, she has an old-school, quality-broadsheet approach to journalism, loathes the Daily Mail and obsessively polishes every sentence she writes: she'd be a great teacher.She's never far from the search engine on her laptop, checking facts and details constantly. Originally from Cookstown, Roisin is returning to broadcasting at an interesting juncture for BBC Northern Ireland. The first-ever woman to read the news at their Belfast studios, she has now helped stem the leak of female talent from the station by signing up for Sunday Sequence, which she presents on alternate weeks.

She replaces Wendy Austin, who, with her departure from Talkback, has left Karen Patterson as the only woman anchoring a news programme on Radio Ulster.

Former political correspondent Martina Purdy has left to become a nun, following the resignations of sports presenter Denise Watson, television news editor Angelina Fusco, reporter Natasha Sayee, weather forecaster Jackie McCann and newsreader Sarah Travers.

Roisin's appointment also bucks the insidious trend of ageism and sexism in broadcasting. It will be appreciated by fellow broadcaster Selina Scott, who famously railed against the BBC's role in creating a youth-obsessed society, in which anyone over 50 is considered redundant and of no value, and wherein "older women either treated as joke figures, or presenting themselves as caricature - Anne Robinson as Cruella de Vil, or Loose Women as gossiping harpies".

Apart from tinnitus and two hearing aids, however, age isn't an issue for the no-nonsense Ms McAuley, who is now in her early 60s.

"I don't think of myself as an older woman," she says, reasonably. "I think of myself as a journalist/broadcaster/writer. My abandoning a reporter career was not at all age-related - it was more to do with the fact that there were increasingly few serious current affairs documentary programmes and reality television was taking over.

"I decided it was a good time to write fiction. I'd be delighted to report/direct/produce documentaries for BBC NI if I'm asked."

By her body language, I'm on even shakier ground when I ask her about marriage in her 40s to former lawyer and now wine expert Richard Lee, whom she met on a walking holiday in France, a union from which she inherited two "wonderful" step-children of 14 and 16.

She stiffens slightly and the light in her eyes, when we spoke of music and BBC 4's Kathy Clugston, suddenly extinguishes. Professional to the utmost, however, she grits her teeth and bears it.

"Richard and I didn't speak much at all on that holiday, but I noticed him flirting with every woman there, which greatly amused me," she deadpans. "He'd stayed in touch with some friends of mine, so we met again later and found we had some shared interests (music and theatre). I took up golf after we were married.

"It was Richard's idea to move (from Reading) to Belfast. He likes the city, especially the civility, friendliness, vibrant cultural life, good food, wonderful surrounding hills and countryside."

She points to a wood carving of a fox in full flight, sculpted by Richard's son, Jake (32), Asia Editor with the Wall Street Journal. His sister, Josie (34), is a psychiatrist and talented artist, based in Bristol. There seems to have been an avalanche of articles recently on women choosing to be childless. Roisin is blase about not having given birth, counting her stepchildren, nieces and nephews among the most important people in her life.

"My attitude was, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, that's okay. I can't say it wouldn't have been nice, but I was in my 40s when I got married."

No near-misses before Richard?

"Men, you mean? No. He was the first I seriously considered marrying, although he wasn't the first serious relationship. Work always absorbed so much time and emotional energy."

As BBC Northern Ireland's first woman newsreader, Roisin was also aware of her minority status at Broadcasting House in the early 1970s.

"I was probably one of the few Catholics in the BBC when I joined. I didn't face religious discrimination in Northern Ireland, but I was aware of it," she says.

After writing features for various newspapers, Roisin scored another first when she became the inaugural Northern Ireland correspondent for the Cork Examiner, covering the 1974 Ulster Workers' Council strike and dictating copy from telephone boxes in the middle of riots.

She went on to report for the Examiner's London office before returning to the BBC to work on Spotlight, making memorable documentaries on the hunger strikes and their aftermath. Later, on The Interview series, also for BBC NI, she enjoyed leaving the Troubles aside temporarily to meet people from Northern Ireland who excelled in their chosen field, such as Seamus Heaney, the physicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the novelist Brian Moore, the concert pianist Barry Douglas and the footballer George Best.

She left Belfast in 1984 and began an illustrious, mostly freelance, career in London as a reporter, producer and director on documentary programmes, including Panorama, Newsnight and Brass Tacks.

Always a storyteller, Roisin wrote her first novel, Singing Bird, in the early-2000s, having already published a guide to Irish golf courses. The world rights to Singing Bird and the follow-up, Meeting Point, were sold at auction to Headline, who published them in 2004 and 2005. Her next two novels were sold to Time Warner Books UK in 2005, and she is now on her fifth, due for publication next year.

"When I started writing fiction, I thought the screenplay would be my natural format," she recalls. "I had worked as a television documentary maker, had read drama scripts for the BBC and had been consulted by the drama department about making a film based on a factual story. I didn't think at all about writing a novel.

"While the story of Singing Bird was taking shape in my head, I thought of it as a series of scenes, beginning with the telephone call from the character, Sister Monica. I could see that opening scene clearly in my mind."

Nuns featured early in Roisin's life. A middle child in a family of seven, including a set of twins and the late broadcaster and musician Tony McAuley, Roisin was educated by the Daughters of the Cross of Liege, a Belgian order founded by industrialists.

"They were good teachers and very egalitarian. When you got to sixth form, you took it in turns to be a prefect and there was no head girl, which I think was a good thing. We had no real careers advice, maybe also a good thing. Children are pushed too soon; too much structure and tests too young.

"I learned from months of research into education for Panorama there are four things that matter for a child's future: intelligence, parents, peers and schooling. If they have all four, they can lead the world. If they have three, they will be successful, if they have two they'll be okay, and if they have one, they will struggle."

So did Roisin have all four?

"Well, yes. I had very supportive parents. The peer group is very important, too. I had a very decent school - I was a boarder, so it wasn't my first time away from home when I went to Queen's in the late-60s."

A history student, Roisin didn't go on any of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association marches, co-led by her former Cookstown schoolmate Bernadette Devlin - "a great debater" - but wanted to report on such history-changing events for a living. Her childhood elocution lessons paid off handsomely when she applied for a job as a newsreader at the BBC, immediately after graduation.

"My mother wanted us to be articulate and to speak clearly, and to have good diction," she recalls. "Pronunciation is important - it still drives me mad when the English put the emphasis on the end of Roisin, rather than the beginning.

"I think being the dominant culture, the English are quite lazy about names. When they couldn't pronounce my name and suggested calling me Rosemary instead, I wouldn't stand for it at all. I said, 'No, you won't. My name is Roisin'."

As a weekly mass-goer, her new job with Sunday Sequence is particularly important to Roisin and she's looking forward to interviewing Dolores Hart, who played Elvis's sweetheart in King Creole and became a nun in later life.

Although she finds Martina Purdy's decision "astonishing" and never considered convent life herself, her faith seems strong.

"I'm a Catholic, and a critical one, too," she emphasises. "I'm also a doubter, a question-asker. What is most important to me is to live the examined life, to paraphrase Freud, I think it was, not that I'm a fan of his. All religious texts basically say the same thing: examine your conscience; be good to your neighbour. It all involves a quest for the meaning of life.

"At their best, religions provide a structure and a sense of community. The ritual of a funeral, especially, I think is a most important part of death and saying farewell."

Before I head back into the downpour, she insists on looking up that philosophical quote online - "The unexamined life is not worth living" - and discovers it's from Plato, quoting Socrates in his Apology.

With all that fact-checking, you can be assured her own life, so far, has been well thought-through and that her Sunday Sequence debates about the ethical and religious dimensions to current issues will be among the best researched in the history of BBC NI. Possibly ever.

Roisin McAuley presents Sunday Sequence this Sunday and every other Sunday on BBC Radio Ulster (8.30am-10.15am)

The fight for equality

  • Former newsreader Anna Ford became embroiled in the ageism row within television when she accused the BBC of “tokenism”. The former BBC and ITN broadcaster quit her job in April 2006, saying she didn’t want to be “shovelled off” into the “graveyard shift.”
  • In 2008, Selina Scott settled an age discrimination claim against Channel Five for a six-figure sum. The newsreader, who was 57 at the time, was the first high-profile female presenter to take action against a broadcaster, using new laws on age discrimination. It is thought she received around £250,000 from the broadcaster. Scott claimed she was approached to fill in for Natasha Kaplinsky while she was on maternity leave, a contract which would have netted her up to £500,000. But the deal was cancelled, Scott alleged, when a new head of programmes arrived who wanted younger faces presenting its flagship news bulletins. Five later apologised to Scott for the offence it had caused her and confirmed it had settled the case.
  •  Balbriggan-born former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly successfully sued the BBC for age discrimination when she was dropped from the programme in 2009. During the hearing, former BBC One Controller Jay Hunt was called as a witness, who O’Reilly accused of ageism, sexism and that she “hated women”.  In January 2011, the day after Hunt began working at Channel 4, O’Reilly’s claims for age discrimination and victimisation were upheld. Some time after the case, O’Reilly claimed dozens of older BBC women presenters had their careers saved as a result of her legal action.

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