The Guest Blog

Guest post by Julian Oliver, Board Member of EURACTIV.

For 30 years, I was ashamed to admit that I came from Belfast. On a lonely beach in Indonesia in the mid-1970s, when asked, I told a local that I came from Ireland. As quick as a flash he took a stick drew a rough outline of Ireland with a border in the sand and pointed ‘Which part you come from – North or South?”. It was impossible to escape The Troubles even on the other side of the world.

This past month, as the news broke that someone had been shot in Derry/Londonderry I feared that we might be returning to those bleak years. While any death is one too many, the obituaries of Lyra McKee demonstrate that while we have lost an investigative journalist of outstanding quality, there is a larger wave of revulsion against the callous and clichéd so-called dissident republicans, which bodes well for the future of the province.

While few of us, even from Northern Ireland, had heard of Lyra before she died, her life story is an inspiration that deserves to be celebrated and as a model.

Born in 1990, the youngest of six children, in one of the most dangerous areas of North Belfast towards the end of The Troubles, one of her mother’s earliest memories is a child who always asked why? She had reading and learning difficulties until a teacher introduced her to Roald Dahl. By age 11 she had discovered that she was lesbian, which added an extra pressure in the still closeted atmosphere of North Belfast.

The following paragraphs are largely extracts from a piece by Roy Greenslade of The Observer published on 28 April 2019.

She persevered with her passion for journalism, she gave up on a conventional media studies course at Queen’s University Belfast. Not for her a diet of balance and objectivity, she subsequently enrolled on a part-time distance learning MA at Birmingham City. She also benefited from a bursary and the university’s acceptance of “credit for prior experiential learning”, recognition of the value of knowledge gained from previous work. Her university tutor, Paul Bradshaw, wrote of her having “a passion for journalism” and “a talent for inspiring people”. Those characteristics were evident in a videoed talk she gave to a 2014 Polis journalism conference.

What emerged even more clearly was McKee’s will to succeed against the odds. If you want to be a journalist, she said, stick at it, citing a friend who told her: “Brick walls aren’t there to keep you out. They’re there to see how badly you want it.”

Undeterred by the fact that unpaid work placements did not lead to staff jobs, McKee illustrated an unrelenting ambition to make a living out of being an investigative journalist. She said: “Newspapers think I’m a brat, that I haven’t paid my dues.” The reverse was true.

To give herself a public platform, McKee launched a blog in which she reported on a range of subjects, from the removal of funding for a rape crisis centre to examples of low-level local government corruption. She then exposed the poor performance of a Northern Ireland government department in attracting inward investment.

Her journalistic breakthrough was her investigation into the disturbing numbers of children who had taken their own lives in the years after the peace process had taken hold. “Ceasefire babies”, originally written for an online scientific outlet, Mosaic, was later published by the Atlantic magazine, and then by the Belfast Telegraph, Private Eye and BuzzFeed.

McKee’s work was recognised with a Sky News young journalist award and by her being listed by Forbes magazine as one of the 30 most inspiring European media voices of 2016. The citation noted her “passion to dig into topics that others don’t care about”.

Meanwhile, she pursued an investigation that became something of an obsession: the belief that the 1981 killing by the IRA of a Unionist politician, Robert Bradford, was not as it seemed. It was the cost of reporting that story which prompted McKee to appeal for money through the US crowd-funding site, Beacon Reader, resulting in 200 people offering $6,000 (£4,500) within three weeks. Her initial book, Angels With Blue Faces, was published by Beacon before it closed in 2016.

As the priest at McKee’s funeral noted, one of her main character traits was “determined doggedness”, and she went on looking into Bradford’s murder in order to present a fuller, more detailed account. “She tirelessly pursued the truth,” said her friend, Tina Calder, owner of Excalibur Press, who received the final text of McKee’s new and expanded version of the book just a week before her death.

The fact that McKee accomplished so much is the really fascinating aspect of her journalistic career. It also taught her about the reality of traditional media outlets, about the relationship between reporter and audience. “Newspapers think of markets,” she said. “I know my readers, as collaborators … I meet them. I have coffee with them … They are a network … Paying for journalism is an act of love. You have to have a personal relationship with them.”

She recognised the practical difficulties involved in working outside big media. In the days when she ran her own website, she said: “When young people ask me, ‘How do I become an investigative journalist?’, my reply is, ‘Become an entrepreneur.’”

The enduring lesson of Lyra McKee’s life is that an individual can make a difference. The enduring lesson of her death is that journalists determined to act as witnesses to history, running towards the sound of gunfire, take the ultimate risk. That is why we should salute a 29-year-old woman whose life was cut cruelly short.

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