AFTER all these years, after the countless war zones he has reported from, Fergal Keane’s experience of working for this newspaper is still firmly etched in his memory.
Limerick, he noted in his address in the University of Limerick, was a battleground of a different sort – particularly as a Corkman covering rugby fixtures in the Treaty City.
In fact, he joked that it was probably good preparation for being a war correspondent.
A news reporter and rugby correspondent with this newspaper in the early 1980s, he said: “I have deep affection for Limerick, and you won’t find many people from Cork admitting that. It was the place that gave me my start as a journalist.”
The Limerick Leader, he said, “was immense fun but there was probably too much drink”, in a nod to the different working culture at the time.
“Having a desk, a phone and a typewriter was not a right but a privilege to which a cub reporter aspired,” he said.
He said he remains grateful to the paper for helping to imbue in him three of the main prerequisites to be a journalist – developing a brass neck, standing up for yourself, and getting the facts right. “The challenges that I faced in Limerick 35 years ago are the same challenges I’m facing now, except on a different scale.”
After moving on from the Leader, to the now defunct Irish Press, to RTE and the BBC in 1989, he was awarded an OBE by the Queen for services to journalism in 1996.
‘Did he have any qualms in accepting this honour?’ he was asked by a young student in the audience. “No,” he replied, “Would you have?” ‘I’d like to think I might have said ‘No’,’ said the student, before he trailed off, amid laughter, and was praised by Keane for his honesty.
Throughout it all, he said one of the great lessons he has learned throughout his distinguished career is “your own fallibility” - and the importance of having a good editor or boss behind him.
“You can have the best story in the world but if you don’t have the people to back you it’s a really lonely place.” He also praised former Limerick Leader editor Brendan Halligan as one of the best journalists he ever met, and someone he “always knew would have my back”.
“It has been incredibly enriching [my career], but it has also had its fair share of mistakes.
“Along with all the plaudits and the awards, you have to add some humility into the mix. You are not God, too many people in the media think they are,” he told the audience in an address organised by UL’s journalism department.
And inspite of all the bloodshed he was witnessed, ‘seeing the very worst of what humanity can do, and also the best, he said he remains an optimist.
But he was not here to weave a nostalgic yarn about the good ’oul days in Limerick, or give students an impression of war reporting through a rose-tinted lens. There were more pressing matters to address - and they were not confined to Jeremy Clarkson’s role in the BBC, which he was quick to tell Joe Nash, the host of Limerick Today on Live 95FM, earlier on that day.
“To be quite honest with you I spend my life covering conflicts in which men, women and children are blown to pieces or are shot dead, die of starvation or struggle every single day of their lives. I really couldn’t care less about Jeremy Clarkson.”
“There has been over the last 20 to 30 years an increasing preoccupation in the media with celebrity - whether it’s One Direction or whether it’s Jeremy Clarkson.
“Of course there is a serious issue at the heart of the Jeremy Clarkson case – no employer anywhere in the world can stand over a physical and verbal assault on any of their employees by another employee. Nobody could or should tolerate it. But I believe there are much more important things which we need to focus on,” he said.
In a wide-ranging talk, entitled The Struggle for Reason, Keane primarily wished to address “the greatest challenge we face in journalism today – the battle for reason in a world overwhelmed by propaganda, gross simplification, powerful lobby groups and armies of internet trolls.”
“My belief [is] that the obligation to fact, complexity, nuance and context has never been more vital – rigour and more rigour are required.”
The great challenge, he said, “has arisen out of something wonderful – the explosion of sources of information”, but the age of information also come with increased propaganda and hate speech, including ideologies propelled by IS to people all over the world.
On the other hand, he said there is a huge positive side to ‘new media’, such as people in Africa who previously didn’t have the means to tell their own stories. In terms of war reporting, it is no longer the case, he said, of the ‘white man in chinos’ going off to Africa with a “set of assumptions and too little information”, broadcasting his or her views to a largely white audience back home, while the indigenous population will never hear or see the broadcast. Now, he said, “you will be torn apart on the internet if you don’t get it right”.
Keane, who has nearly 32,000 followers on Twitter, said the “amount of tip-offs I get as a result of social media is phenomenal.” But, he added, with some delight: “One of the great joys of my adult life is using the block button on Twitter,” particularly for “bores” or people pushing their own agenda.
“I’m a great believer in the block button and the mute button – you never ever engage with these people, the greatest mistake you can make is to start answering them back. It really just adds fuel to the fire.”
He urged young journalists, many of whom were fervently taking notes at the top of the class, to “challenge your own bias, the way you see the world.
“No human being is free of bias, but the idea that there’s an institutional bias simply isn’t the case. My life would be a lot easier if there was a set of instructions handed down from above.”
Asked when a reporter should call it a day on a certain story and decide that ‘it’s done’, he said this is something which reporters, and war correspondents do far too often; ‘we hit things in spots and the treatment is far too periodic’, he admitted.
Wars may technically end, but young girls continue to be raped, and poverty and social justices continue, he said.
“A story doesn’t go away,” even though the reporter has left the scene.