Prime-time couple
Sunday, July 03, 2005 - By Susan Mitchell
RTE's decision to screen the documentary on disgraced former taoiseach Charles Haughey in summertime disappointed the producers of the four-part series. Summer, after all, is the silly season when television ratings usually dip to an all-time low.

But, with more damaging revelations about Haughey emerging at the Moriarty Tribunal, the timing could not have been more opportune. The series has propelled Miriam O'Callaghan and her husband and business partner, Steve Carson, into the spotlight.

Carson and O'Callaghan are the executive producers and directors of Mint Productions, which produced the Haughey series, which concludes tomorrow night.

O'Callaghan, who is better known as the anchor for RTE's current affairs programme, Prime Time, was a relative unknown a decade ago. Now on a salary of more than €144,432, she is one of the national broadcaster's top earners.

RTE insiders believe she is being groomed to take over as host of The Late Late Show when Pat Kenny eventually steps down.

O'Callaghan is ubiquitous and, with her new chat show, Saturday Night With Miriam, starting next weekend, O'Callaghan is likely to generate even more newspaper headlines.

The public would appear to love the glamorous mother-of-seven; O'Callaghan was voted Best Television Personality at the 2003 Irish Film and Television Awards.

She has recently opened her private life to the public and has spoken of her immaturity in her first marriage, her battle to conceive, her IVF treatment and the loss of her younger sister, Anne. In short, O'Callaghan is far from being media shy and the public can relate to her.

Critics have argued she is not a political heavyweight.

Some of her colleagues and former colleagues privately wonder if her interviews show the sort of depth that, say, Brian Farrell, and even Pat Kenny brought first to Today Tonight and subsequently Prime Time.

Many at RTE acknowledge that, while Prime Time's success is indisputable, politics remains a weak point for O'Callaghan.

“I would say she is actually not all that interested in politics,” said one source.

“She would not have the sort of intellectual interest in it as Brian Farrell, she doesn't read the books and the articles. She's interested in people, rather than politics.”

Few, if any, of her colleagues have a bad word to say about her personally. A former RTE producer said: “She is a good person. She is bright, capable and ambitious. She's a popular figure and is very easy to work with.”

O'Callaghan grew up in Foxrock, south Dublin, with two sisters and a brother.

Her father, Jerry, who came from Kerry, worked as a civil servant for the Department of Energy. Her mother, also Miriam, is a retired school teacher, originally from Laois. O'Callaghan has maintained close ties with Kerry and often holidays in the Kingdom with her family, as she did as a child.

O'Callaghan's sister, Dr Margaret O'Callaghan, described her as a “classic second child. She was very responsible, not as giddy as we [Margaret and Anne] were and always looked out for our brother Jim. She wasn't a complete mouse, but she was very studious and quite a demure dresser until she turned 18.”

According to her sister, Miriam was a good netball player at school and she has maintained close friendships with her school and college friends.

The O'Callaghan family had a keen interest in politics and the clan's political allegiance was to Fianna Fáil.

O'Callaghan's brother, Jim, ran in the local elections in Rathmines for the party and is thought to be one of the candidates up for Eoin Ryan's seat in the next general election. Her sister, Anne, worked for Fianna Fáil; Margaret lectures in politics at Queen's University in Belfast.

O'Callaghan was educated by the Sisters of Charity in Milltown, south Dublin, and studied law at UCD before spending a year at Blackhall Place and working for a short time at a Dublin legal firm. She met her first husband, broadcaster and journalist Tom McGurk, while she was working as a solicitor in 1980. The pair married three years later when she was 23 years old.

O'Callaghan moved to London with McGurk and secured a job as a researcher for ITV's This is Your Life.

She later moved to BBC's flagship news programme Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman. “Newsnight is very hard to crack. Her rise was pretty meteoric. She is very bright and very driven. I sometimes feel that is overlooked,” said Margaret.

McGurk and O'Callaghan had four daughters, but separated in 1996 after 13 years of marriage. In a recent interview she described her marriage breakdown as her “great failure in life'‘.

McGurk has never spoken publicly about the split.

He said he wanted to protect the private lives of their children, but disputed the version of their marriage that has been circulated in the press.

O'Callaghan returned to Ireland in 1993 to present Marketplace for RTE. She tried to juggle working with the BBC at the same time, but she ended up working for RTE exclusively and moved into the Prime Time slot in 1996.Carson, a BBC-trained producer/director, met O'Callaghan in the mid-1990s when they worked on Newsnight for the BBC. They didn't get off to a great start.

Asked to do a television item on the famine, O'Callaghan baulked when Carson suggested they start filming in Enniskillen; she felt they should have begun filming in the Republic.

Carson and O'Callaghan have alluded to the initial tension between them. It soon dissipated; Carson said O'Callaghan was one of the first people he opened up to about his mother's death.

O'Callaghan's life was undergoing great change when she met Carson. She has repeatedly described 1995 as her “annus horribilis'‘. Her father died eight weeks after her sister Anne died of cancer. She described Anne's death as “the most devastating experience'' of her life.

“It changed me utterly. I became a different person. I was so overcome and distraught about her death. I always get upset,” she said in a newspaper interview two years ago.

Carson had also been scarred by cancer. The youngest of three children, he was born in Belfast in 1968. He was raised in east Belfast and celebrated his first birthday on the day British troops arrived in the North.

“I grew up during the Troubles. Like a lot of people of my generation, I emigrated. I still feel a bit uneasy about the way my generation left Northern Ireland to its own devices. That's one of the reasons we have a company in Belfast as well [as in Dublin],’'Carson said.

Carson, who studied history and politics at Manchester University before joining the BBC, started out with the British national broadcaster working on children's programmes.

He remembered his first posting - with veteran journalist Janet Street Porter - as his boss as “a baptism of fire'‘.

He moved to London in 1992 and landed a job in current affairs.

Describing himself as an “unremarkable student'‘, Carson said his confidence soared after successive promotions. He rose through the ranks, becoming the BBC's producer in the US during the 1996 presidential election.

Carson's father, Tom, was a features journalist with the Belfast Telegraph. His mother worked briefly as a secretary with the BBC in Belfast.

“My mother had an interesting background. Her father was a post office worker who had married a Catholic girl in the 1920s when you really didn't do that in Belfast. She and my Dad were founding members of the Alliance Party.

“She was the first Alliance party minister of Belfast elected in 1973,” said Carson.

His mother died of cancer just before she took the seat.

Carson was five years old.

He said the affects of the loss became all the more apparent when he had children with O'Callaghan.

“I resigned in 1997 to come here [Dublin] to be with Miriam. I had been freelancing here on Prime Time and also for Panorama [on the BBC].The commuting was tough and there weren't many people doing it back then,” said Carson.

Carson, who set up Mint with O'Callaghan in 2000, clearly enjoys the film industry.

“I would say my dad and people who know me are quietly surprised that I run my own business.”

Referring to the fact that he is not a natural boss, he said: “I am one of mother nature's employees.”

Running a company has also left him with a lot of “grey hair'‘, he joked.

“It is totally insecure. I pay myself a lot less than I'd get paid as a freelancer at RTE,” he said.

“Miriam doesn't take a salary at all. Mint basically survives on her free time and goodwill, and on me taking a comparatively low salary.”

Mint has largely focused on issues with a historical and political slant.

The company has produced documentaries on the racehorse Shergar, Padraig Pearse and the 1974 Ulster Workers' Strike. It has also produced documentaries on infertility and pop legend Dickie Rock.

Mint's offices are just a short stroll from the couple's home in Rathmines on the southside of Dublin. Carson said the “shortest commute in Dublin'‘ is one of the upsides of his career.

“My accountant tells me the dry cleaners here in Rathmines makes more money than we do. The only way to make money is to cut corners on screen,” said Carson.

Carson and O'Callaghan are not regulars on Dublin's social scene. They socialise with a few close friends from RTE, including the head of television, Noel Curran.

“We are the most boring people on earth. Our ideal night is to sit in, get a curry and watch the Late Late,” said Carson.

O'Callaghan and Carson have three sons together. All seven children share their five-bedroom home, though O'Callaghan shares custody of the girls with McGurk.

She employs two nannies to help her run the busy household, which her mother dubs “Heuston Station'‘.

The couple were on full alert in recent weeks. In the days running up to the first episode of the Haughey documentary, the Moriarty Tribunal announced that it was to resume public sittings. It had discovered a previously-unknown meeting between Ben Dunne and the then chairman of the Revenue Commissioners, Seamus Parceir, following a trawl through Revenue documents.

The documentary series made headlines as soon as it hit television screens. Some commentators claimed Mint ceded too much control to Haughey and those close to him.

Critics have said the series is too soft and failed to ask probing questions of its subject and his allies.

“It should have been much tougher. It should have included much more on how Haughey made his money.

“RTE raced through his early accumulation of wealth. At the very least, what was mentioned should have been discussed at greater length,” said one critic.

Others believe Mint has produced a balanced series. Another critic said: “The programme-makers have worked hard to provide balance.”

It has been reported that a number of former government ministers, including former PD leader Des O'Malley, claimed they had been duped into making the documentary; they thought they were contributing to a documentary about Fianna Fáil.

Carson and O'Callaghan rejected the claims. The claims were also rubbished by former government press secretary PJ Mara.

“They [Mint] seemed very straightforward,’' Mara said.

“They told me it was a documentary about Haughey. I said I would participate.

“There was no hassle. I found them to be very straightforward people.”

Carson said: “There are so many alpha male journalists in the Irish media who use the personal pronoun in every other sentence and feel that people need to be beaten over the head with their opinion.

“There was criticism over PJ Mara saying he [Haughey] didn't live ostentatiously, that Haughey just had a big house and an island. Some felt PJ should have been attacked. The point is that the viewer should be allowed to draw the obvious inference, that PJ's comment was frankly ridiculous.”

The Haughey documentary has dominated commentaries and conversations at dinner tables across the country; about 35 per cent of all adult viewers tuned in for the third episode.

With the series set to conclude tomorrow and O'Callaghan's ten-part chatshow about to start five days later, Irish broadcasting's golden couple can expect plenty more limelight.