Lyra McKee – a dogged activist who broke through the class barrier
For those of us who knew nothing of Lyra McKee, the journalist who was shot dead by dissident republicans in Derry, the discovery of her life story was a revelation. Unsurprisingly, most of the media reaction concentrated on how her murder may create the climate for change in . But her experiences also cast light on modern journalism, providing lessons we should take to heart.
At the personal level, the way she overcame a tough start was surely admirable. She coped with a hearing and speech impediment which delayed her ability to read and write. She also had to act as the primary carer for her disabled mother.
Then, aware from the age of 11 that she was gay, she faced up to the challenges it presented in a largely unsympathetic society.
She also had to deal with the inbuilt bias against working-class entrants to journalism. As : “Journalists from working-class backgrounds without tertiary education are an endangered species.”
Too few publishers are willing to employ them.
Although McKee did study for an MA in journalism (having earlier quit an undergraduate degree course), she was able to do so only because Birmingham City University offered a part-time distance learning option. She also benefited from a bursary and the university’s acceptance of “credit for prior experiential learning”, a recognition of the value of knowledge gained from previous work.
In , her university tutor, Paul Bradshaw, wrote of her having “a passion for journalism” and “a talent for inspiring people”. Those characteristics were evident in .
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.”
And she certainly wanted it badly. At a university careers fair, she asked a Northern Ireland newspaper executive if the organisation was hiring investigative reporters. McKee recalled: “She laughed at me and said, ‘no’, they didn’t hire those people any more … it was an excess of the past.”
McKee’s said her own response was “a stubborn refusal to accept that”. Why? Because, as she said so often, “I love journalism.”
That simple statement may sound naive to the practitioners of a trade known too often, and sadly, for its cynicism. But it reminds us all of the specialness of our jobs, of the public service we perform.
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 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”. She added to her portfolio with another excellent piece for Mosaic concerning the brain damage suffered by boxers.
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-based crowdfunding 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.’”
But there is another factor to consider in assessing the value of McKee’s form of journalism: she was a political and social activist. She campaigned, among other things, for peace, for gay rights, and for social justice.
Inevitably, these informed what she chose to investigate. This kind of journalistic commitment runs counter to traditional media training, with its emphasis on neutrality and objectivity.
Media organisations that scorn lone operators with an agenda treat “activist” as a dirty word. They choose to overlook clear evidence down the years that all journalism is influenced by the viewpoints of those who write it, broadcast it and publish it.
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.