Friday 20 September 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'Out of the darkness, a shot from the past'

In the troubled journalism business, a talented woman was doing her job when the old fantasies took her life, writes Gene Kerrigan

She might have been a hairdresser or an accountant, a nurse or a factory worker, and the personal tragedy would be as deep. Her family would be as hopelessly cast down, her partner as deeply distraught, her friends as bereft.

Lyra McKee chose to live as a writer and journalist - in a world where it's getting more difficult to earn a living as such. And that adds a public aspect to her killing.

Brexit, and the consequences of casual, reckless decisions by British politicians has opened possibilities for the "one more push" brigade. The only people unaware of the dreadful possibilities appear to be Her Majesty's ministers.

The Reuters report on the killing said that an "off-duty journalist" was killed, which upset some. It's meaningless.

Anyone who's ever tried to establish a presence as a freelance knows how that works. Something happens in your community, so you turn up. You may get a story, you may get background for something you do later.

Mostly, though, you're responding to an inbuilt urge to be there. To see it, whatever it is. You're a person trying to make a living, but you're also a professional witness.

You respond to such events as instinctively as a birdwatcher responds to a chirp from behind a hedge.

Ninety per cent of the time, it turns out to be just another scrap of experience adding to knowledge of how things work. But the line between on duty and off isn't a hard border.

Lyra McKee's killer is supposedly associated with "dissident republicanism", a leftover.

The troubles arose from the inability of an openly sectarian state to govern any more, without bloody suppression of civil rights. When one regime falters, alternatives arise and people kill, in a "one last push" effort.

Politicians made continuous moral demands that the Provos must stop their killing. But, conflict emerged from structural instability, which made moral demands futile. The conflict would only end when there was on offer a form of stability acceptable to the various forces.

The Belfast Agreement, based as it was along sectarian lines, would perpetuate differences, but it was the least contentious option available.

Despite the fact that it freezes the sectarian forces in place, rather than achieves a settlement between them, the Belfast Agreement was an advance. The killing stopped - or most of it.

It's worrying that many British politicians recently appeared to regard the agreement with less respect than they give a used tissue. Their casualness offered hope to the gunmen. One more push...

So, last Thursday evening, in Creggan, Lyra McKee was there to observe and record, to learn and to understand.

"Derry tonight. Absolute madness", she tweeted, as the night became alive with the sounds of armoured cars and the flames of petrol bombs.

Journalists from various aspects of the trade, of various ages and experiences, all spoke well of her. Her published work shows concern, perception and talent. Her subjects were the vulnerable. She was one of the many young journalists who display skills that allow them to find a market while doing serious, necessary, enlightening work.

These are tough times in the journalism business. Internet giants have plundered the old media for material and overrun its advertising base.

The response has been cost cuts, and the punters notice the effects.

Social media chortles at the predicament of the "dead tree media", and calls for its early death.

Ten minutes after the last of us depart, the lights will begin going out on Twitter, as perhaps 90pc of social media's material originates in, or is a response to, traditional media.

The old media is riven with faults.

At its worst, there is bias, complacency, laziness, conservatism, a tendency to punch down and kiss up. At its best it digs out scandals, explains difficult developments, entertains and serves a democratic function, without which the politicians would run riot.

In a debate some time back I read the remarks of one young genius with faith in the future.

We're clued in, he said, we network, the old media has nothing to offer. "If it's important we'll find out about it."

Oh, yes, indeed you will. The Zuckerbergs will serve you up to whoever pays most to fill your head with their version of the facts.

For all its faults - and I'm aware of them from the point of view of a perpetrator as well as an observer - the old media retains a sense of stubborn independence not visible in anything that might replace it.

And, yes, I know the old taunts. The reality of media ownership in the hands of the wealthy is chastening. They also control food, shelter and much of the health business, you might have noticed.

And it isn't about admiring journalists whose views we share - I've read some brilliant revelations from journalists who have also written, in my view, the usual old conservative crap.

Lyra McKee was part of the generation of young journalists trying to find economically viable ways to do the old job in rapidly changing circumstances.

And that meant when something happened she went to see what the noise was about.

And, on Thursday night, down the road, a loser - masked and hooded - peeked out from the wrong side of history, a gun in his hand, and let fly a few shots.

They see themselves as the cutting edge of a blade that's 800 years wide. In truth, they are remnants, cast-offs from the forces of history that are now some miles down the road.

From 1916 to 1922, from 1969 to 1994, structural instability unleashed forces that would play themselves out. It soon became obvious armed force wouldn't achieve anything, but it took years to turn that realisation into a formal ceasefire.

The society within which the "dissident republicans" exist is not vigorously seeking radical change. And lacking that, no amount of shooting will do anything other than kill.

The stability of the Belfast Agreement robs the killers of the wider support that can grow when a regime is crumbling and the future is uncertain. Without that instability they're just emotionally tied to the gun, firing random shots so they can fool themselves they're at one with the heroes of old.

First they killed her, then they lied about it.

They would cancel Monday's 1916 commemoration, they said, "as a mark of respect for the tragic and accidental killing of Lyra McKee".

Two lies.

It wasn't accidental. They weren't aiming specifically at Lyra McKee, just at all humans in her vicinity.

The video from last Thursday night shows the killer fired some shots in the general direction of the police. He might have killed a police officer, a civilian or a child standing at the window of a house. He killed Lyra McKee.

Anyone other than a dead cop, well, you were "defending the people". You can blame police heavy-handedness, state oppression or Sinn Fein betraying the cause.

The second lie is more telling, the one that says the commemoration was cancelled as a mark of respect. It suggests the local reaction to the murder was such they were forced to cancel.

And that threatens the credibility of the Real IRA (or, as some call it, the New IRA, or as others call it, the Pretend IRA).

Lyra McKee was analysing the past and fighting new battles, then she stood within shooting distance of someone with an emotional longing for the simplicities of the gun.

Another decent, useful person has been snuffed out to feed the old, dying fantasies.

Sunday Independent

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