Wednesday, May 14, 2014


I was really pleased to attend the inaugural ‘Women On Air’ conference this week in the magnificent surroundings of Dublin Castle.  Walking across the upper yard of one of Dublin’s most iconic locations on a sunny morning was just stunning.  As I carefully picked my way on the cobblestones I was vaguely aware of the centuries of history that was all around me;  ghosts of the British administration and laterally the whisperings that signified subterfuge and intrigue as Ireland pushed for independence.

There was no subterfuge however at the ‘Women on Air’ event which was officially opened by Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte, who didn’t annoy me at all with his speech.  He was followed by Margaret E Ward who outlined how ‘Women on Air’ came into being after a ‘debate’ on Twitter.  I was a silent witness to that debate back in 2010 and felt a frisson of excitement when Margaret along with former radio producer Helen McCormack decided to organise a seminar which was aimed at providing tips and support for women who wished to go on air. 

Back in 2010 I was a .... here we go again... housewife (I HATE THAT TERM – but all others are equally grating) buried deep in suburban Cabinteely.  However my children were 23, 11 and 9 and I was itching to get involved back in the world of work and had decided to attempt to pursue my passion of writing and talking!  I had done a few radio interviews before in my previous career as PRO for a national charity and it was a medium I found very comfortable.  I also passionately wanted to hear more women’s voices and more importantly women’s stories on air.

So taking my courage in both hands I sent a very timid tweet to Margaret E Ward asking if it might be possible to attend this planned seminar.  It was. 

The seminar took place on Tuesday 12th of October and was held in the National Library at 6:30pm.  I got there way too early and heading to the coffee shop for a coffee while I waited.  As I sat on my own in the empty cafe the voice in my head grew louder and louder saying “what the hell are you doing?”, “go home, you eejit, why on earth would you consider yourself part of this?”

As I walked towards the lecture theatre, I tried to counter the feeling of seasickness and terror.  There were lots of women milling about and they all seemed to know each other.  The voice in my head was now in a right panic.  “No-one knows you – turn around and leave before you make a show of yourself”.  I tried to keep my face looking calm and confident as I negotiated a place to sit when I suddenly saw one face that was familiar.  I had met writer Eleanor Fitzsimons just a week or so earlier at a book launch and we had chatted.  Thankfully she remembered me and I clung on to her like she was a life-raft in treacherous seas.

Later that evening I met Helen McCormack, who asked me if I would be willing to come into studio on a news review panel on the Tom McGuirk programme, which she produced on 4FM.

So on that night four years ago, I arrived into the city a bag of nerves, wondering what the hell I was doing.  But thanks to the support, encouragement and faith of just three women I went home wondering if it might actually be possible to pursue a new career in the media... or what Fiona Looney (bless her) calls my midlife crisis media career.
Women on Air has come a long way since October 2010 and I guess I have made some progress on the journey too.  Change is definitely in the air.  RTE Radio One seems to be leading the charge at the moment with rising numbers of women presenting programmes during the peak hours of 8am to 8pm. 

TV3 also have managed to attain a relatively good gender balance in their news and current affairs output – most noticeably on Vincent Browne’s programme.  Something I think they don’t get enough credit for.

During the first session of the Conference TV3’s Political Editor, Ursula Halligan, made the point about women on TV being constantly made feel that they have to fit a specific body type... young, pretty and very slim.  An image, she said, that was largely constructed by men but which was bought into by women.  Aine Lawlor referenced the excellent documentary by Kirsty Wark, ‘Blurred Lines’ and the amount of violent sexual threats that can be made against some women in media, something that another panellist, journalist Una Mulally knows all about.

It struck me that both issues have a connection to each other.  Because TV companies seem to be so reluctant to put older women or women who don’t fit the specific ‘TV type’ on air, broadcasters are actually feeding this view that all women must be attractive and specifically sexually attractive regardless of their qualifications or ability.  The most obvious example of this is that of Mary Beard, the respected academic in the UK, who received horrendous online abuse regarding appearance after a series she made, was aired on the BBC.

Perhaps when we have more balance in the physicality of the women we see on our screens – across body types, age etc we will see a decrease in the amount of abuse someone like Mary Beard receives.  It is much easier to bully the minority.

In broader terms we need to ensure as more and more women make it to air that we don’t follow the men and have airwaves that are almost entirely populated by middle class voices. 

Just as the women at that very first ‘Women On Air’ seminar were accepting of the interloper housewife from the suburbs, as more and more of us make it to air we must ensure that we are bringing diversity with us. 

Congratulations to Caroline Erskine – chairperson of Women On Air, Margaret E Ward and Helen McCormack the originators of the movement and all the current committee for a wonderful conference.  Onwards and upwards sisters.

Friday, May 9, 2014


Last night I managed to catch the last quarter of an excellent documentary on BBC2 presented by Kirsty Wark called – ‘Blurred Lines – A New Battle of the Sexes?’  In the programme Ms Wark asked whether the internet was now a place of hostility towards women as demonstrated by the level of abuse, much of it of a sexual nature, Professor Mary Beard received online after her appearance on Question Time.

What really resonated with me however was when Ms Wark spoke to three very young women about whether a level of sexual aggression from boys was a reality.  One of the young women described being at a recent party where many of the boys were groping and grabbing the girls as they wished.  Kirsty asked how the girls reacted, wondering did they not have the confidence to tell the boys to stop.  The young women replied that no, she didn’t think that many of the girls even realised that they were entitled to say stop or no.  She seemed to think that may of her peers just thought that was part of being a girl.  Kristy then asked the young women what their greatest fear was in this regard.  They all agreed that being sexually assaulted and it being filmed and photographed for social media was their greatest fear. 

I found this chilling and depressing but also it made me very angry. 

Earlier yesterday I had been trying to find out, for a friend (yes seriously) about an Australian ‘act’ called The Janoskians who are coming to Dublin and Belfast at the end of the summer.

The Janoskians are, according to Ticketmaster “... a group of five best friends who brew ‘social disturbance’ and capture it on camera and churn out infectious and incisive punked-out pop anthems”. 

I asked my own two teenage daughters about them and was told that yeah they are ‘hilarious’, that they do ‘prank videos’ on YouTube and that they can’t sing but that’s not a problem as they are auto tuned anyway!  Is Simon Cowell responsible for the death of music and talent?  But I digress... as usual.

It is very difficult to find any independent reviews of their shows online.  Google searches seem to churn up lots of PR related guff.  But there was one review which was posted on an Australian parenting and lifestyle website called  The reviewer Tara Lee, described as a mother from Sydney, begins by saying that she was expecting “gross pranks, silly skits, stunts where they harm each other or themselves.”  She was also expecting a level of cursing and swearing.  But says she “found it a little shocking when they came out and said to their audience “girls, shut the f*ck up!” — and warned parents there would be quite a lot of swearing and said that if we didn’t like it we could get our kid and “f*ck off”.

So far so very teenage I guess.  And we all know that teenagers love rebellion and shocking the rest of us.  But what didn’t shock as much as repulse me, was how they treated their fans – mostly young girls (they are a good looking group). 

Tara goes on to say.. “at Q&A time, when asked about what their favourite body part was, one boy said that while he liked a good tit, he preferred arse and commented on how many great arses there were at the meet and greet.  Then it progressed to how the Sydney girls were sexy bitches, corrected by another on-stage star to “sexy SLUTS”. This prompted cheers from the audience, who seemed to think this was a good thing”.

You can read the full review here and if you have a few hours to spare you can go on to read the comments where the fans respond to Ms Lee.  Suffice to say that their loyalty is unwavering just like One Directioners and Beliebers before that.   The clever use of social media by The Janoskians is a huge part of keeping their fans ‘loyal’.  “They love us and care for us... they tweet us all the time saying that” the fans say.   Oh dear.

But seriously when did it become OK for a bunch of guys call young girls ‘sluts’ and reduce them to lumps of meat commenting on the tits and ass quality of the audience.  But for me the far more worrying element of all this is that the girls think this is quite OK and even love it.

One hundred years after the women’s movement began to make serious strides we have produced a generation of well educated girls who think that this is OK?  Or do they?  Or are they like the trio that Kirsty Wark spoke to who are in fear of someday being abused sexually and the event being posted online?  Either way it’s an appalling vista.

Parents have to step up to the plate and we have to up our game.  I have written before about the power of online porn and the fact that saying “I have parental block on my computers at home” will protect your children.  It won’t.  We just can no longer protect our children from sexually explicit content online.  In order to combat its messages we must change our conversations around sex.  No longer is the conversation merely about the birds and bees and joy of sex and committed relationships but also must now include talk about oral sex, threesomes and the like.  I am not for one second saying this is an easy conversation to have with a 13 or 14 year old.  It’s not but we have to ‘woman’ up and do it.

In ten days or so that other paragon of all that’s wrong with pop culture, Miley Cyrus rides into town for her concert in the O2.  According to a review of her London shows by another mother, Annabel Cole (Irish Daily Mail 9th May) who took her 14 year old daughter, along with Miley’s crotch, ass and tongue being a huge part of her show, she also encourages our children to “make out with each other and use lots of tongue”.  She apparently also extolled the virtue of smoking saying “I smoked for three years and I loved it but weed is much better than smoking.... this show is nearly over and I will be stoned very shortly.”  There were children as young as nine in the audience. 

So parents it’s time we wised up.  Its take our heads out of the sand.  Miley Cyrus has long ago left her Hannah Montana days behind her and The Janoskians may not be quite as hilarious as the PR says. 

But more importantly it is time for us to ensure our daughters have the courage to understand that they do not have to be sexually available all the time.  We must help them find their voices to shout NO.  And we must make absolutely sure that our boys understand exactly what consent is.

And we must do this against the barrage of pop culture with icons way cooler than we ever were spreading messages that are exactly the opposite.