Monday 16 September 2019

Campbell Spray: 'A warrior against injustice and a seeker of truth: farewell to my old friend Grant'

Grant McKee, who died this month, was more than a journalist: he was a hero, writes Campbell Spray

Grant McKee helped free the Guildford Four
Grant McKee helped free the Guildford Four

Campbell Spray

The brilliant journalist and TV producer Grant McKee was remembered at a Quaker service in York last Wednesday. He had died on April 7 from cancer at a far too early 67. I couldn't get over for the service which was held between 12 and 1. At that time I fell silent at my desk in Dublin but so wanted to stand up and break the silence in the Quaker tradition and proclaim what Grant meant to me and the world. Rather I held him, as suggested by his family, in my thoughts.

He had been a friend as well as a trusted colleague, brilliant in his passion, prose and knowledge. He was also an awful lot of fun with a very special mischievous streak.

However, my time with him means very little compared to the incredible, almost super heroic work he did in changing injustices - many that had been perpetrated on Irish citizens and their descendants in the UK.

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He had no axe to grind but a purely and massively inquiring mind and the drive, expertise and passion for righting past wrongs mainly through his groundbreaking broadcasting.

While many of us took refuge in our pints and inaction by thinking they "must have been guilty of something", Grant in his documentaries for Yorkshire TV and Channel 4 found that the opposite was the truth. The British state and its legal apparatus, perhaps in a heightened state of anxiety and confusion, had done grievous wrongs.

As Ros Franey reminded us in her wonderful Guardian obituary last week, Grant led the media campaign to free the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, convicted in connection with the bombing of pubs in Guildford and Woolwich in 1974 in one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British legal history.

As head of documentaries at Yorkshire Television, Grant was later to oversee programmes that won Bafta, Emmy and Prix Italia awards, but it was his involvement with documentaries about the pub bombings that established him as a leading filmmaker.

These were neglected cases until, for Yorkshire Television's First Tuesday strand, Grant made the films Aunt Annie's Bomb Factory (1984), The Guildford Time Bomb (1986) and A Case That Won't Go Away (1987), and - with Chris Mullin for Channel 4 - Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1986), about the Guildford and Birmingham bombs. The last atrocity only being finally played out in the coroner's court in the past few weeks.

It seems almost of another time but as Ros, who worked on the documentaries and co-authored a book with him, wrote in The Guardian, "along with public pressure, the new evidence this work uncovered led Douglas Hurd, the home secretary, to announce a fresh appeal for the Guildford Four in 1989. But the Crown threw in the towel without hearing it.

"The police had concealed the existence of an alibi for Gerard Conlon, and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane, clearly disgusted at the humiliation of the legal system, grudgingly overturned the convictions. In due course, all four and the Maguire Seven were wholly exonerated with formal apologies from PM Tony Blair."

I met Grant when we were both working on the Yorkshire Post, the county's "national newspaper" which had broken the story of the British abdication crisis in 1936 and was still at almost the height of its power in the late 1970s. We immediately clicked and had similar backgrounds in that we had been brought up abroad and in the West Country and both our fathers had served at the same rank in parts of the Royal Navy. We both left the paper in 1979; him to begin his career in documentaries, me to a life on Irish national newspapers.

The Oxford-educated Grant was part of a golden generation of reporters and feature writers who developed their careers at the Yorkshire Post around that time but I am sure Paul Vallely, mightily honoured biographer of Bob Geldof and a brilliant writer on religion, ethics, Africa and development issues, The Guardian's Angela Singer, Jonathan Margolis of The Daily Mail and Financial Times, Christopher Monckton, Mick Hickling, Roger Ratcliffe, Geoffrey Lean, Annie Simpson and many, many others would say that Grant was the best and most passionate.

Grant made films in the Middle East, central America and on the terrible Ethiopian famine of 1984, going undercover behind enemy lines in the civil war for The Unofficial Famine, a film in which he and the production team took particular pride.

Eventually Grant left his top jobs in the major networks but stayed in Yorkshire as a freelance executive producer, preferring to return to films and filmmakers. I began to lose touch with his career but according to Ros Franey, he oversaw more than 120 documentaries on BBC and Channel 4, developing especially close relations with Ed Coulthard's Blast! Films and Sue Bourne's Wellpark Productions.

For Blast!, he helped Penny Woolcock overcome Channel 4's resistance to Tina Goes Shopping (1999), her revolutionary film in which criminal enterprise on an estate in Leeds is acted out by the tenants. His last film was Bourne's acclaimed A Time to Live (2017), which explored positive ways of dealing with impending death, particularly from cancer.

He got massively involved in the life of the Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes, serving on the management of the RNLI station and writing its official history. He also was a driving force behind the Staithes arts and heritage festival.

He had married the restaurant critic Jill Turton in 1991 and as a lover of travel and good food he spent many happy times as her dining companion on a fairly rigorous circuit around the UK. She survives him along with their daughter Eleanor.

My good friend Tony Phillips, also a former colleague and friend of Grant's, faxed the order sheet which was handed out at the memorial meeting. In her welcoming note, Jill wrote: "When Grant was given a terminal diagnosis he handled it with typical equanimity, saying he had a great life. No regrets. Today Elle and I hang on to that thought and remember proudly his career marked by decency, honesty and integrity and a home life filled with love and laughter.

"He gave us so much: cleverness, kindness, fairness and a savage wit. He wrote beautifully, behaved decently and pricked pomposity and we loved him for it."

Elle added that she "will do my best to live a life just as big and kind as his. I'll continue to take photos of crusty old doors in foreign cities, just like he did and I will burst with pride when I tell all those who will never get to meet him, the important things he did".

Like the man Grant was, a cremation took place quickly and privately, before the memorial meeting last Wednesday.

Everybody lost so much when Grant died but his legacy means freedom for so many and an ideal for people to aspire to. Few can ever have that on their monument. So often we journalists, as much as we like to call ourselves professionals, are mere journeymen. Grant McKee was different.

I treasure the times we had together. I wish there had been more of them. He wouldn't have stayed silent at his desk like I did. To the cause of injustice, he was an international hero.

At the end of his packed memorial service everybody shook hands in the Quaker tradition. Bless him for the giving of his gifts.

Sunday Independent

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