Lyra McKee, and why I split up with the News Letter

I had the great pleasure last night of watching Alison Millar’s documentary, Lyra, about the life and death of journalist Lyra McKee. It’s a tremendous portrait of a committed young woman, killed in the middle of doing her job just before Easter in 2019. The showing was presented by the UK mission to the EU and the Northern Ireland representation in Brussels, as part of the Brussels Irish Film Festival, and Alison Millar was on hand to answer questions both formally and informally. The film is beautiful and I strongly recommend it. Here’s a trailer:

I did not know Lyra McKee myself – she was six years old when I left Northern Ireland – but inevitably we had a lot of mutual friends (38 according to Facebook, I’m sure a lot more in reality), all of whom seem to remember her fondly. She first hit my radar screen in 2013, when she began her research into the murder of Robert Bradford, nineteen years before she was born. This particularly fascinated me because he was our local MP, and he and the caretaker for his office were killed just ten minutes’ walk from our home. Her book was eventually published, available here, an extract here.

In July 2019, three months after Lyra’s death, the News Letter, one of the main Belfast news outlets, ran a front page story revealing that the royalties from the book were going to a non-profit organisation, one of whose directors was a former paramilitary. The article evoked a furious response from Lyra McKee’s publisher and family. I too felt that this was a crappy piece of journalism. A former paramilitary being associated with a non-profit organisation is hardly news and not really interesting, and it was barely relevant to Lyra McKee’s work. The News Letter subsequently successfully defended a libel case, with the defence that the article was true (or at least, that the points complained of in the article were true). But what is true is not always right, even without considering the innuendo in the piece.

Over the previous few years I had written a few pages of political analysis for the News Letter in advance of each election in Northern Ireland, often featuring on the front page of the newspaper’s election specials. But I felt very uncomfortable about what they were now putting on the front page. I wrote to the then editor, saying that in my view the article was “sensationalist and did not serve the public interest. I am very disappointed. I thought you were better than that.” Consequently, I permanently severed my relationship with the newspaper. I am all in favour of being part of a broad spectrum of voices, but only if I can feel confident in the ethical values underlying the editorial choices being made.

I haven’t discussed any of this in public previously because fundamentally it’s not really about me. But I had the chance to tell the brief story last night to Alison Millar, and now that I’ve ticked that box I may as well go public here.