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Mark Carruthers: Confessions of a political anorak

When he enters the political-interview ring, there are no holds barred for Mark Carruthers. The north's very own Jeremy Paxman tells Joanne Sweeney that he even takes his works home with him – but that there, he doesn't always emerge the winner

Journalist and broadcaster Mark Carruthers at Stormont earlier this week Picture: Hugh Russell

MARK Carruthers makes no apology for annoying politicians of whatever hue when hosting BBC Northern Ireland’s current affairs programmes. After all, it's the self-confessed political anorak's job to pose tough questions, and if feathers inevitably get ruffled in the process, so be it.

“There is no point in someone coming on to a television studio and being soft soaped, or not being asked difficult questions," he tells me.

“Some [interviewees] have been very angry with me,” he admits, adding: “I make no apology for it, because that’s my job."

But the presenter, whose colourful striped socks now have their own Twitter account, always does his job with grace and fairness.

He says building relationships with the politicians who can sometimes drive the rest of us crazy comes with the territory – it is essential, in fact.

“Because I have been doing this job for a while, you get to know people and part of the job is to get to know people and understand what makes them tick and to persuade them, if they have got something to say,” says Carruthers.

“So I have to build relationships with people and I work hard at that and I’m often in the company of politicians. But I think they know that when it comes to Thursday night or a Sunday morning, I have a job to do."

Hailing from a farming background in Limavady, the 51-year-old is at this stage regarded in Northern Ireland as a “veteran broadcaster”. He has spent most of his working life at BBC Northern Ireland, which he joined in 1989, two years after graduating with a masters in Irish Politics. Since then he has presented countless radio and television programmes.

Currently he helms a string of political shows on TV including Sunday Politics, Stormont Today and the weekly programme The View. In recent years his commitments have also included Good Morning Ulster, Let’s Talk, Spotlight and BBC Newsline.

"There’s an unwritten rule where I would be perfectly civil to people beforehand, even people I don’t know particularly well, or might not like very much, but when you get into the studio, I have to do my job. And my job is to ask the questions without fear or favour. Afterwards I will be perfectly civil again," he says.

“Sometimes politicians don’t like it and they can a bit crotchety afterwards when they feel I’ve been too tough.”

Already known for his tenacity, Carruthers did his own version of Jeremy Paxman earlier this year when he asked NI21 MLA Basil McCrea 10 times if he had sex with a young female party worker, as had been alleged. (While Mr McCrea denied that there had been anything “criminal” or any “wrongdoing” on his part, he refused to answer Carruthers directly on whether he had consensual sex with the woman involved.)

And while he admits that he sometimes get frustrated with Northern Ireland politics, he still finds it endlessly fascinating.

“I never get bored with politics. It’s a sad fact that I’m an anorak and no issue, from the minutiae of life up at Stormont, no matter how small, will not get me interested or excited. I just think it’s really interesting and the more you get involved and the more you know, then you can spot a little nuance that’s quite interesting and seems to be at odds with what someone has said before or what a party position is.”

And it’s not only politicians who get annoyed with him either.

“I’m not a fool,” he says, “and I know that some people watching will get mad with me. When I finish the programme and look at my phone, I know exactly what people think of me. It’s obvious from Twitter if I’m giving one person from a particular party a hard time over something: people who share that view will generally get annoyed with me.”

“But if you do the same thing for every politician and every party and you got it across the board, hopefully people will see that you are actually genuinely do not have an agenda. It used to bother me but it doesn’t any more.”

Something politicians might delight in hearing is that at home in south Belfast with his wife Allison and three adult children Andrew (23), James (21) and Kirsty (19), he doesn’t get a look-in and can often be browbeaten by his offspring.

“I have a very political family, I’m afraid and it’s probably my fault," Carruthers confesses. “Sometimes we have to stop as it ends up getting a bit heated. The three kids are very interested in politics, as is my wife, so we talk about it a lot. But sometimes we have to agree to park it and get on with other subjects.

“They like to joust with me and each other. It’s quite good fun but gone are the times that when I spoke, my word was law and everybody accepted that I was right. That’s long gone.

“I just end up being the referee at home. That’s what really annoys me as I do that for my job, I get paid for it but I don’t want to do that around the kitchen table.”

There’s more to Mark Carruthers that his profession of course; he’s an ardent supporter of the theatre in Northern Ireland, most famously as the former chairman of the Lyric theatre, in which capacity he was instrumental in raising the £18.5 million required for its rebuild. He was one of the founders of the Belfast-based Tinderbox Theatre Company and was awarded an OBE for his services to drama in 2011.

He once starred alongside actor Jimmy Nesbitt, an old schoolmate at 'Coleraine Inst' who remains a friend of the family, in a production of Oliver in the Riverside Theatre, Coleraine.

His collection of interviews with leading writers, actors, journalists and politicians, Alternative Ulsters – Conversations on Identity, was published in 2013; he is also the co-editor, with Stephen Douds, of the book Stepping Stones: The Arts in Ulster 1971-2001.

 

:: The View is on Thursdays on BBC One NI at 10.45pm.

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