Aengus Fanning produced the most compelling cocktail of news ever served up by any Irish newspaper editor. He floored the competition over twenty years. Competitors, foreign and national, came and went, but the Sunday Independent---Aengus’ unique publication-- saw them off one by one.
While a litany of rivals collapsed, the Sunday Independent remained the flagship of the group, its circulation boomed, consistently catching the mood of the Irish people long before all others.
How did Aengus do it?
His strong character was part of the reason. He was brave to the point bravado. He challenged all the accepted norms . More than twenty years ago he blazed a trail in his utter fearlessness in confronting all the undisturbed pillars of Irish life. Whether it was the Catholic church, Fianna Fail or the IRA. Aengus took the Sunday Independent into areas where others feared to tread. He had no time for the tyranny of modern political correctness . He regarded it as dull.
Dullness was not tolerated on Aengus’ pages. He himself had a staggeringly low boredom threshold. He insisted on a newspaper that did not numb the brains of its readers. Entertainment , like truth, was a vital ingredient. Newspapers did not need to be boring. He promoted crusading journalism, tapping into the public pulse.
Under Aengus Fanning the Sunday Independent developed a special relationship with the people of Ireland. Aengus unashamedly made the newspaper itself part of the agenda. People bought it, recognising not only that its content would be electrifying and readable, but that its views were important, that politicians took heed of its stance and that it was a prisoner of no party or politician.
Aengus’ genius in picking staff who reflected his heretical attitude to the establishment was part of the reason for his success. He encouraged us to be subversive in tone. He told us all to write for the reader, not for those we met in the pub. He sought out flair. He was dismissive of the cramped style that he felt schools of journalism imposed on those with media ambitions. He had little time for the marketing managers , the focus groups with their scientific conclusions about the elements necessary to sell a Sunday paper. He relied on instinct. And his own were second to none.
The Sunday Independent was always an unpredictable place to work under Aengus. Famous for its rows, its strong characters and its ultra- colourful incidents , the atmosphere inside the hothouse was sensed by its readers. There was sometimes a whiff of sulphur about the product, reflecting the healthy conflict that was regularly behind the production of the week’s paper. It was invariably clear that huge bundles of energy had gone into a single article, often inspired by the editor’s anger at an injustice, or fury at a hypocrisy that was hindering commercial or social progress.
Aengus was often angry. He never courted popularity. He was volatile. Harsh words were sometimes spoken. I had many rows with him , often expecting the subsequent encounter to be awkward or to receive my P45. Quite the opposite happened . He had invariably forgotten the last verbal explosions . He simply regarded them as the last edition’s business. He moved from one week’s paper to the next with his eye solely focussed on the next week’s edition . We were all instruments in his life’s passion , the Sunday Independent.
Not that he lacked outside interests. A top class GAA player in his youth, with characteristic unpredictability he loved cricket and was a jazz enthusiast.
There can few more stimulating places to work in Ireland than the Sunday Independent. There is no more successful newspaper in Ireland than his creation. Ann and his children can be proud of his legacy.
Shane Ross is an Independent TD. He is a former business editor of the Sunday Independent and is currently a columnist with the newspaper.