Read Time:5 Minute, 32 Second


Leona O’Neill and Chris Lindsay

Maverick House, £14.99

 

Review by Neil Mackay

ONE of my first friends in journalism, after I entered the profession fresh out of university in 1991, was a mild-mannered sub-editor in a Belfast paper who I’ll call Gerry. We got on great in the office. He taught me a lot. But whenever I asked if he fancied a drink after work he’d refuse. Gerry always went straight from the office to his car, then home.

I asked the editor what was up. Gerry, he said, was abducted by the Shankill Butchers – the loyalist death squad that kidnapped, tortured and murdered Catholics. He managed to escape, but a decade later still couldn’t walk the streets. “Don’t mention it though,” the boss said. “Nobody talks about it, especially Gerry.”

Nobody talks about it. Until recently, that deadly phrase could have been tattooed on the body of journalism. It’s only in the last decade that the terrible machismo which defined journalism has began to dry up and disappear, like a scab dropping off a wound. I know. I was as infected by that machismo as anyone. It nearly killed me.

When I started my career, the bottom line was that if you wanted to get on, you put yourself in harm’s way. There was no consideration by management of the danger – both physical and psychological – that journalists went through in pursuit of news. The response to violence and fear was to turn it all into a witty tale, an after-dinner joke. “Wait till you hear what happened to me …” Rather than seek counselling, or admit our weaknesses, we’d simply “man up” – another fatal phrase – and go back out for more.

Breaking: Trauma in the Newsroom, a new collection of essays by well-known journalists detailing the damage they’ve experienced as frontline reporters from Belfast to Baghdad, seeks to draw a line under this sorry culture of casual brutalisation.

Journalists are witnesses to horrors that most citizens never see. We’re also often victims of violence. Breaking is edited by my old friend Chris Lindsay, a Belfast BBC producer who I mentored when he was starting out, and Leona O’Neill, a brave, campaigning journalist who wants our profession to study its soul.

Chris was badly injured in a bomb attack in Belfast. Leona was standing beside the young reporter Lyra McKee when a terrorist murdered her, then subjected to a monstrous cycle of online intimidation.

Chris asked if I’d contribute to Breaking. I’ve written about the violence I experienced as a reporter covering “The Troubles’” – the most disgraceful euphemism in the history of conflict. The worst of it for me was a kidnapping, then being subjected to a mock execution by a loyalist gunman. There was plenty of other terrible violence, which often ended on a hospital trolley. For years – like an idiot – I treated this as some badge of honour. It wasn’t. It had messed me up. It led to stupid, dangerous self-destructive behaviour in a misguided attempt to dull what was wrong with me. And what was wrong with me was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a matter eventually resolved by a psychologist who helped me redirect the course of my life.

The stories in Breaking chill the blood: reporters who’ve been shot, had their children threatened with rape, who’ve witnessed genocide in Myanmar, mass murder in Belfast, mountains of dead rotting in the sun after the 2004 tsunami.

So many of the writers – many whom I know – made the same damaging error I made early in my career. They thought: “How can I feel pain, how can I need help, when I’ve seen people lying dead in the street? I lived, therefore I’m fine. To say otherwise would be weak.” One writer sums this up neatly when he identifies the absurdity of the “hierarchy of pain”. It’s not weak to admit you’ve been hurt. In truth, it’s brave. I wish I’d known that decades ago.

Another writer dreaded his colleagues seeing him cry, even though tears would have helped him. Instead he became like a camera, “the polished glass blank and pitiless”. To witness horror is to imbibe horror, and imbibing horror corrodes the soul.

For the writer Claire Allan “there was no big moment but there were tens of little moments that chipped away at my mental health”.

Breaking’s co-editor, Leona O’Neill,was struck, as her life imploded, by a friend who asked her: “Are you alright?” Nobody had put that simple human question to her. She existed “in reporter mode”, a facade that had to fall. Leona ended up paying a trauma counsellor just to cry in his office.

Josh Mainka, who covered wars around the world, once considered jumping in front of an Edinburgh train. Heartbreakingly, he talks of how journalists feel “shame for not being the person you were”: how trauma changes you, but you can’t talk about it honestly. Everyone – every single writer – speaks of “blocking out” what they saw or what happened to them.

As the well-known TV reporter David Blevins says: “We broke the news, and the news broke us.” Blevins dodged death so often he believes a guardian angel watches out for him.

The final essayist in Breaking is Martin Dillon, who inspired me to become a reporter. Martin is a legendary investigative journalist. He brought the Shankill Butchers – those monsters who ruined my friend Gerry’s life – to public attention. Decades later, Martin still hears screams in his nightmares. In one dreadful dream, he once told me, he’s running to save the life of a young man who the Butchers are about to abduct and murder. But he never catches up with him.

Journalism will always be dangerous. To record history, some must inevitably put themselves in harm’s way. But the profession, thankfully, has changed. We now acknowledge we’re just weak humans capable of suffering, that there’s no shame in fear or admitting that witnessing or experiencing violence does irreparable damage. Trauma in newsrooms will continue as long as newsrooms exists, but at least we recognise that trauma now. That is an important journey for journalism. Empathy is the key skill for any journalist, but how can you empathise with others unless you first empathise with yourself?

How different might my friend Gerry’s life have been if our profession had encouraged him to speak of his pain? We might have gone for that drink.




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