The risks of journalism

As my wife and I settled down to sleep last night we were enchanted by a rare and precious form of excitement. The Easter break was upon us and we were just days away from a long-anticipated family holiday. More immediately, our son, a constant presence in our routine, was having a sleepover at his grandparents’ house. With no work commitments on Friday we were in the most unusual but welcome of situations.

‘Do you know,’ I said as I rested my head on the pillow, ‘that tomorrow morning we can lie in for as long as we want?’

But, as ever, circumstance was to intervene.

I woke early this morning, earlier than usual when being roused by my son. For a moment I was confused, even afraid. Then I realised something strange was happening with my phone. A solitary message was unlikely to wake me but the prolonged buzz of the mobile beside my pillow was enough to disturb my slumber. I checked the phone and, sure enough, there were multiple messages sent through a range of different apps and social media accounts from friends. While the exact wording may have differed the central message was uniform.

Lyra McKee has been shot dead in Derry.

I stared in confusion. At first I think my brain believed that two different messages had been mistakenly combined as one. I knew that there had been trouble the night before in the Creggan. Perhaps some poor innocent had been murdered. And then there must be a separate message about Lyra.

But as I read variations on the same text over and over the truth inevitably descended. I gently shook my wife awake and told her.

We got on with the day. We had breakfast, collected our boy and tried to make the most of the sun as a family. But nothing was quite as bright as it had seemed before, as if a thin layer of dust now covered everything.

To be clear, I did not know Lyra McKee very well. When I worked in daily newspapers I met her occasionally. We were Facebook friends and occasionally she would make a kind remark about something I had written. Once she asked for my help with a project she was working on in the area of mental health.

Recently I received another message from her. She knew that I was trying to write a book and she was making contact to offer any support or assistance she could give in getting it published. It was a selfless gesture entirely, it seems, in keeping with the nature of the person.

And now she was dead. I knew that I was feeling shock because a person I was acquainted with had been killed. But the sense of trauma was undoubtedly deepened by the fact that it was a journalist who had been murdered. My wife did not know Lyra at all but shared my feeling of gloom.

This was a journalist shot dead while doing her job, doing something that almost everyone who works in that trade here over the years will be familiar with.

One of the tragic ironies is that the first ever death of a journalist at a public order situation here has occurred at a time when that form of street violence is comparatively uncommon. That’s not to diminish the very real fears that it could return, that is always a fine line. The merest nudge in the wrong political or social direction could easily see a return of widespread unrest. 

There is no absolutely safe way for a journalist to cover a riot. No matter where you stand, or who you know, there is always an element of risk when dealing with large, volatile crowds intent on causing damage and harm.

While I was never hurt myself I have witnessed in distant years lines of heavily armoured police officers standing just yards in front of me being scattered like skittles by the force of missiles raining down on them. On another occasion I had to pull a female colleague (later to become my wife) off a roof as petrol bombs flew over her head during a republican riot at a flashpoint. We were also chased out of the Woodvale area once by an angry loyalist masked mob after we had witnessed them hijacking a double decker bus and setting it on fire (we had a strange form of courtship). As I was covering the rioting that followed the rerouting of the Whiterock parade in 2005 my trusty Renault Clio was completely destroyed in a petrol bomb attack.

But, in truth, I only truly became concerned about the human cost of covering riot situations when I later was appointed as a news editor and became responsible for sending other young journalists onto the streets to observe violence.

I sent my wife to the Ardoyne during one difficult Twelfth of July parade and she returned later with a large cut and bruise on her head after being attacked with a stepladder that a rioter had stolen from a photographer.

During the flag protests late in 2012 a young journalist asked me to be allowed to cover one of the demonstrations. I agreed, despite knowing that violence was likely, and sent him off with a warning to keep his distance and to be careful. Later in the evening he was manhandled and pushed off his feet by protestors. He fled on foot and returned to the office in tears. Two nights later he asked to be sent back out. This time I refused.

What was consistent then and now was the determination of the reporters to be able to understand, to tell the story. Even in the face of potential threats, intimidation, injury or even death.

In modern society the reputation of journalism as a profession has often taken a battering. Sometimes that is the fault of the journalists themselves, but more often it is caused by forces outside of their control. The job is poorly paid, the hours can be crippling to any hope of a work/life balance and reporters are set up to be regularly sneered at and mocked on social media.

But, when practiced by someone who truly understands the art, there remains a core nobility to the job. At its best the selfless struggle to provide a vital public service in the face of ever steeper odds and occasional danger can become a form of heroism.

Lyra McKee personified that nobility and heroism as well as anyone I have ever met.

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