In Belfast, the worst of the bombing and burning was over by the time I tipped into the BBC newsroom in 1984. On bad days, I was never the news editor’s first choice for the really tough stories, even though I kept a black overcoat handy (“You never know when you’ll need to go to a funeral–or doorstep a family holding a wake”). I’d be sent to cover the circus, or the theft of a stroller, or a bumper potato crop when Bill Neely and David Shukman and other superstars would be knee deep in rubble, or ducking low-flying bin lids on bleak backstreet corners in the East and West of the city.
The ace reporters must have been having a day off the time that Graham McKenzie sent me to Oldpark. A particularly loony loyalist had thoughtfully called us to let us know he was planning a raid on a Republican housing estate, determined to rip down any Irish flag he found flying there. At the time, it was illegal for Irish tricolors to fly in the North of the island which was, and remains, under British rule. Arriving on the outskirts of the riot, I was quickly apprehended–and upbraided– by a young British soldier. “You can’t go over there dressed like that” he said, using his gun to gesture to my punk-inspired pvc overcoat. “Someone throws a petrol bomb and that’ll melt and stick. You’ll be wearing that coat for life” I stayed put and reported from the fringes of the fray.
My news reporting career began in the final days of film. A handsome black-Irish editor would take the roll of “fillum” delivered straight from the processing bath and spool it out by the yard. “How long will you need to talk?” he’d say and I’d count the words on the script I’d written in the backseat of the camera man’s car on the way back to Ormeau Avenue. “About 40 seconds before the interview and maybe another 20 afterwards”. I knew to allow a second to say every three words. (“Remember, if you’re saying the year, spell it out–Nineteen. Sixty. Eight. That’ll take you a second” ). Arthur would purse his lips and pull a length of picture. “That should do you” he’d say and stick the required lengths of film together with a sort of scotch tape. If the story was late I’d have to read the commentary live on the Inside Ulster studio floor and pray the pictures wouldn’t run out before I delivered my closing line. Nothing Graham McKenzie hated more than words echoing over an empty black screen, but no-one ever suggested that I should go “on camera”.
News editor McKenzie was hard to please, and easy to exasperate. ” Houses are evacuated, not people” he’d caution “If they’re evacuating people in Ardoyne (not the Ardoyne, never ever THE Ardoyne), it’s a very different story than the one I sent you out to get” Woe betide the reporter whose subject and verb did not agree. God help the ingenue in charge of graphics when spelling mistakes crept on screen.
He had a sharp tongue and short fuse, but Graham was remarkably insouciant about all the terrible things he’d seen and dealt with as a journalist in Northern Ireland–and all the ridiculous things that seemed to happen as a matter of course in and around a hard-drinking newsroom. Hard to imagine now the level of alcohol that was routinely consumed at work –as on the day we had to walk DUP leader Ian Paisley (“Reverend in writing, Mr. or Dr. when you’re speaking to him”) around the long way in case he bumped into an early-shift reporter who had fallen over drunk in the elevator and had been left to ride up and down, slumped in a corner. Surely these days BBC mandarins no longer have chauffeurs paid for by the public purse, but on the day my ancient Beetle broke down on the Whiterock Road, the Controller’s limo was dispatched to the Black Mountain to give me a tow. There were many, many incidents that would end in harassment headlines today. I will draw a veil and must stress that the noble news editor was never involved.
On the day I went to Oldpark in my oilskin, I seem to remember that a local doctor who was also a City Hall councillor called the BBC to complain about my interpretation of events. “Graham’ll not be pleased with you” said my friend who ran the autocue “and you’ll hear all about it” And I did. We always did. He was, in the Belfast phrase “not behind the door “.
These days, when I have my own reputation for impatient tongue-clicking, sharp retorts and impossibly high standards I think of Graham often. I know he’s not well. I hope he knows how glad I am of everything he taught me, and how much I loved to come to work in his newsroom. Above all, now that he must spend his days in and out of hospital, I hope he’s not evacuated.