WHEN she decided to leave Twitter, broadcaster Claire Byrne explained that it was something she had been thinking about for some time.
THE number of hurtful and vicious tweets that she received following the news of her engagement merely speeded up the process. But as one of her many Twitter followers – she had over 40,000 at the last count – I wish she'd reconsider.
It's not that I believe she hasn't given the matter some thought, more that as an opinionated media-savvy woman, she and her ilk are sorely needed on social media.
As one of our very few high-profile female TV and radio broadcasters, she stands out in an increasingly sparse landscape. Over the past decade, women who wanted to work in television increasingly migrated into the softer end of the medium.
Byrne is unusual in that she held firm to the notion of working on the more serious stuff. Her move from TV3 to Newstalk was the complete opposite of
the 'telly babe' trajectory. And it won her many admirers.
But the problem for women who become heavy-hitters, in media terms, is that the scrutiny gets both personal and sometimes downright nasty. Most of the time, they, like their male counterparts, are protected from the text and email abuse by the people around them. Being told you're a 'plonker' or a 'twat' while you're live on air would dent even the most confident persona.
But that's the milder end of the commentary. There is an increasing trend to see media folk as the repository of all the audience's frustrations. Having worked with both male and female presenters, the latter seem to inspire a far higher level of abuse. If the presenter goes in hard on the interviewee she is seen as a screeching harpy. If she is gentle in her questioning, she is an airhead.
Even in the safer confines of lifestyle programming, a woman presenter is watched with an intensity that borders on the Taliban-esque. If she samples food, she is like 'a pig at a trough', as one caller texted. A sip of wine and she is 'drinking the licence fee', another fumed. But it is her appearance and her sexuality that will drive viewers to bring out the heavy guns in their insult arsenal. One day, while sitting in the control room, I was handed print-outs of incredibly abusive texts.
The particular presenter's crime was that her knees were showing. Callers could not concentrate on the interview as she was 'displaying herself for the men' as one disgusted texter put it. A hint of cleavage, on another occasion, was likened to a 'monkey in heat'. When the same show carried an item on erectile dysfunction, one mother-of-seven (no irony there), who texted in, threatened to make a formal complaint. What we saw as educational, she judged an attempt at day-time titillation by a woman desperate for male attention.
The dearth of female experts on TV or radio panel shows has been put down to many reasons, from good old-fashioned sexism, to fear of confrontation, to simple lack of time. Most women are working both inside and outside the home, so a trip to a TV or radio studio may just be one commitment too many to make in a busy day.
But, interestingly, when women who had done radio and TV were surveyed some of them gave the simple reason that they did not like the level of scrutiny. They felt that they were being judged about their physical appearance and what they said at a far more critical level than the men appearing beside them.
Where, in the past, they might not have known how the public viewed them, now they can find out instantly on Twitter how they are viewed. It's often not a pretty sight.
The absence of intelligent 'bolshie' women front-of-house in broadcasting might be attributed to what can be termed the 'talking dog' phenomenon. If you tell people your dog can talk they say, "How cute, what does it say?" Then you have them meet the dog, and he wants to talk about politics. Their reaction changes, "I preferred it when he was just a dog, this seems unnatural, who wants to listen to a dog's opinions anyway, what would a dog know about anything?"
The fewer women we have on TV or radio discussing current affairs the greater the belief that they shouldn't be there in the first place. When women are on panel discussions, they carry huge expectations with them, and will anxiously ask as they leave studio, "was that OK?" More than one male panellist, on the other hand, has bent my ear to tell me that I had too many people on the panel – in other words they didn't get enough air-time.
Show me a female current affairs presenter and I will show you a swot. They don't just read the briefs they are given, they will cram up on background information, and feel they almost need to have a degree in the subject area before they go on air. Women who want to stay at the top believe that they have to be on top of their game all the time and in every situation.
One female current affairs presenter once described to me her daily routine before a programme. It was, she said flatly, like doing the Leaving Cert every day, five days a week. Their deep-seated fear is the "she doesn't know what she's talking about" comment, so if anything women over-prepare.
Contrast that with a different wannabe, a young male presenter I once worked with who had absolutely no interest in reading the day's newspapers. "Just tell me what's in them," he would blithely say minutes to airtime as I worked up a sweat.
My then editor was sanguine. "You can make him read the papers," he advised me, "but you can't make him want to read the papers." Needless to say, the said ingenue soon decided that presenting current affairs was not his forte. He went on to have a great career elsewhere, though.
A young woman in a similar bind would never have offered herself for a show which she was not suitable for in the first place. But then she might never have gotten on air either. Here's a little secret: men don't know it all. They're just better at making what they do know seem terribly important. Similarly they inhabit the social media space as to the manor born.
Rather than take online abuse on the chin, they will sometimes confront it head-on. Or they will take the robust view that it comes with the territory.
High-profile Twitter quitters, on the other hand, usually leave because the level of abuse has become such that it far outweighs the positive affect of being able to talk directly to their fans. It's ironic that the very thing that helped Twitter to grow – being able to access the famous directly – is now proving its Achilles heel.
Younger teens are signing up to Twitter in their droves because they can communicate with bands, such as One Direction, or singers like Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Lady Gaga. But they are also using it to express opinions, to criticise celebrities, and to attack other teens.
Recent high-profile rape cases involving minors in the US saw both victims and their assailants being subject to trial by Twitter. Whether they like it or not, the famous can influence their followers – both in terms of being role models and their behaviour.
When he was involved in a Twitter spat with a fan, comedian Dara O Briain was quick to call a halt to others becoming involved, saying that he could fight his own battles.
Actor Charlie Sheen conversely asked his followers to show their disapproval of a school which he felt had mishandled a bullying issue involving one of his young daughters. Sheen urged people to "if you have a rotted (sic) egg a roll of toilet paper or some dog shit; I urge u to deliver it with 'extreme prejudice'". No prizes for guessing which was the more mature response.
The direct contact Twitter allows puts a premium on the influence of those with tens of thousands of followers. This is why having people such as Claire Byrne on Twitter is so important. Working in current affairs tends to put a straitjacket on both men and women, but, in particular, it inhibits women from expressing their personalities.
High-profile performers such as Vincent Browne aside, it's difficult to convey a sense of who you are when you might be accused of bias on air. Social media is one of the few ways that presenters can banter with the public, and get a sense of what's happening on the ground.
It's also a chance for a younger audience to engage with politics by following someone they admire. Let's face it, wouldn't you rather see a 13-year-old take on board the comments and opinions of hard-working Byrne than be influenced by the tweets of vacuous celebs and their ilk. So, come back Claire, don't let the 'nasties' have it all their own way.
One UK academic, Clare Hardaker, who spent nine years studying trolls, has good advice. Trolls set out to deliberately upset and provoke and they can be defeated.
Her conclusion is that once you identify that that's what the intent is and don't respond, then you psyche them out – which is the very thing they are trying to do to you in the first place...