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The Search for Reason: A Talk by Fergal Keane, BBC Foreign Correspondent

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  • Mr Keane stressed the importance of regional news and praised his time with the Limerick Leader over 30 years ago when he first entered the field of journalism.

  • He sought to differentiate between the role of a journalist and the role of others in society.

  • Mr Keane advised journalists entering the field for the first time to be careful not to allow pressure from others lead to making mistakes that could “destroy your career or wreck the lives of others.”

  • A questions and answers session following Mr Keane’s lecture covered a variety of topics such as counselling for journalists and the issue of mental health.

  • Following a number of queries from the audience he explained that in his opinion, Islamic State is not the greatest danger to world security as many would have the public believe

  • Mr Keane touched on other topics such as the 1916 Commemorations and the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris (feel free to use whatever works best for your design)

“as young journalists I would appeal to you when you go into this profession the first thing you do is you challenge your own bias, you challenge the way you see the world.”

Fergal Keane at UL

By Tomás Heneghan

 

BBC’s Foreign Correspondent, Fergal Keane gave a lecture last month to students, staff and members of the public at the University of Limerick.

 

Mr Keane’s talk was part of Journalism@UL’s Current Issues in Irish Media seminar serious and was entitled “The Search for Reason.”

 

During his two hour speech to an audience of 200 people, Mr Keane stressed the importance of regional news and praised his time with the Limerick Leader over 30 years ago when he first entered the field of journalism. He told the crowd: “I have deep affection for Limerick…It was the place that gave me my start as a journalist.”

 

Of his decades-long experience Mr Keane said: “I’ve covered over the last three and plus decade’s wars in every continent, in many many countries. I have seen the very worst of what humanity can do and I’ve also been privileged to see the best.

 

“I’m still surprised by that. I still get the huge thrill from going out to do my job. I really do. I love doing what I do. There are times when it exhausts me but I never feel anything less than privileged when I go out to tell people’s stories.”

 

He also stressed what he called the “primacy of fact,” saying: “I was taught that when you reported on a local newspaper, you really had to get it right because you walked out the door and you met the people you were reporting on.

 

“It’s a crucial bond that exists between somebody who is reporting local and their audience, in a way that doesn’t if you’re working for the BBC, if you’re working for RTE in Dublin, if you’re working for a national newspaper. Very rarely will you bump into the people later whom you’ve written stories about or broadcast about.”

 

“Facts were sacrosanct. Clear English was sacrosanct,” he added.

 

Mr Keane recalled one story he covered while working for the Limerick Leader in the 1980s. It involved the banning of Nigerian students from a Limerick nightclub.

 

He said he had a sense of being under a “great deal of pressure” for story to go away, however he said his editor stayed with the piece despite potential adverse effects on advertising for the publication and told him: “By all means go after people whom you think may have done something wrong, do it…but be sure you get it right.”

 

During his lecture Mr Keane also sought to differentiate between the role of a journalist and the role of others in society. He said: “Whether I was reporting in South Africa, Rwanda, in the middle east, my job is not to be a cheerleader for any political cause or any group. It is not to be an enemy of any particular group or political cause.”

 

“Often I think the only valuable advice I can give anyone is if you think you know the Middle East situation, if you think that the Israelis are a shower of whatever and everybody else is victims or the other way around, leave all that at the door. That’s not you’re job as a journalist. Leave that to people who want to carry placards and want to carry flags. That’s not what you’re about.”

 

“Other people can make what they will of the facts that you present and simply by reporting the facts it’s enough. You don’t have to carry a flag.”

 

He also praised the growth of other media forms, especially through the internet, saying “We need mavericks, we need outsiders. It’s one of the great things that’s happened with the growth of websites, independent political websites, and even websites which take a particular political view is that they challenge the establishment journalistic consensus. That’s hugely valuable.”

 

On the issue of perceived media bias, he explained: “No human being is free of bias, no institution from time to time is free of bias, we’re human…We are prone to err and prone to bias. But the idea that there is a kind of institutionalised bias, that directions are handed down from above which we slavishly follow in relation to political parties, it simply isn’t the case. I wish it was that simple. My life would be a lot easier if I had a set of instructions about how to behave.”

 

The “flip side” to media accountability through the growth of independent internet news sites, Mr Keane said, was the growing power of “internet trolls.”

 

“No matter how rigorous you try to be in the way you present the narrative, you will still have people who watch it and say ‘You hate Israel, you’re an enemy of the Jewish state’ or ‘You guys just pay no attention to the Palestinians and what they suffer,’” he explained.

 

“The people who bombard us with tweets, who organise lobbies against us are not really interested -in fact are definitely not interested – in an unvarnished narrative of truth. No, what they are interested in is you becoming part of their narrative in the story that you report confirming their bias. And as young journalists I would appeal to you when you go into this profession the first thing you do is you challenge your own bias, you challenge the way you see the world.”

 

Mr Keane also advised journalists entering the field for the first time to be careful not to allow pressure from others lead to making mistakes that could “destroy your career or wreck the lives of others.” He added: “It’s about the facts that you can verify and you have got to be militant about that.”

 

He pointed out to the crowd that the challenges he faced as a journalist at the beginning of his career were largely the same as those he continued to face at present. He explained that a journalist just needs to say to themselves: “‘Where ever these facts take me, I’m willing to go, whoever it offends, whatever it does to my career, I’m willing to follow these facts’ and sometimes you won’t always live up to that, sometimes you will be afraid, sometimes you will back off but keep coming back, keep fighting.”

 

A questions and answers session following Mr Keane’s lecture covered a variety of topics such as counselling for journalists and the issue of mental health. On this issue Mr Keane said: “You need to be able to feel for your fellow human beings, otherwise suffering is meaningless to you, it’s just a commodity to be put on the evening news and if you ever get to that stage, then I think you are in real trouble.

 

“20 years ago I think you just didn’t pay any attention to [mental health]. I think journalists tended to retreat into alcohol or drugs and left early and faded away and became miserable and unhappy people. There’s much more awareness nowadays, as there is right across the whole field of psychiatric medicine, of the need not to accept that people will suffer their entire lifetime from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder.”

 

He also stressed the need for “awareness” and “lifting the stigma that surrounds people being able to publicly admit ‘I am depressed, I am suffering from a disorder of one kind or another.’ It’s not just within the BBC, but society as a whole has changed dramatically.”

 

A number of queries from audience members related to the rise of Islamic State. To this Mr Keane explained: “We were surprised by the rise of IS but we shouldn’t have been, we should not have been surprised by the rise of IS if we had watched what was happening…IS are not the first people to go and destroy graven images, as they thought. Look at Henry the Eighth’s England. Look at Europe during the Thirty Years War. One of my big areas is for god’s sake send reporters out there who have some knowledge of history, it’s essential.”

 

He explained that in his opinion Islamic State is not the greatest danger to world security as many would have the public believe. “I think there are two huge dangers to international security at the moment. One is the Shia-Sunni conflict, of which Islamic State are a part, they wouldn’t have happened without that conflict.

 

“And then if you come to the fracture line in Eastern Europe, this conflict that we imagined had been settled, of which had merely been in thermo-frost, has reemerged. Conflict that doesn’t go back just to the Cold War, it doesn’t go back to the Second or First World War, it goes back to the 19th century. So all kinds of forces are stirring at the moment and I don’t know where they lead.”

 

“Despite being an optimist about humanity, I am more concerned now about international security than I have ever been in my life, not because of what I can predict but what I can’t predict, because of the possibility of mischance, of somebody making the wrong statement, making a miscalculation which then leads to an escalating conflict,” he added.

 

Mr Keane said that the many conflicts currently taking place throughout the world merely reflect the fact that “conflict is complex.” He explained: “Alliances and interests change…I think one of the great faults that we have as journalists is the assumption there’s a solution to everything, there isn’t. There is not. Certainly there isn’t a solution that people in the world would be willing to bare. International affairs are messy and complex; they’re full of grey areas.”

 

On 1916 commemorations next year he said: “It’s in the nature of politicians and political parties to appropriate history. They’ll do it next year, they’ve always done it, it’s what I expect, it’s like cats chasing mice, that’s what they do. The more difficult and different question arises as to how should the Government – a government which represents all of the people, as distinct from a coalition of political parties representing people who specifically voted for them.

 

“The one person I’d like to hear more from because I really respect his view so much – I respect his analysis of history and I respect the depth of his intellect – is our president, Michael D. Higgins. I think there’s a voice of conscience.

 

“We don’t have to be Republican. We don’t have to be Revisionist. Let’s just say what happened. There’s enough documentary evidence. We’ve enough excellent historians now who have moved beyond that very reductive debate about Revisionism and Republicanism. Let’s commemorate events, let’s remember what happened.

 

“We’ve got to have a version of Irish history and a vision of Irish history and of Irish culture that is inclusive and that allows room for us to see things as [the Northern Irish Protestants] saw it.

 

“It’s a hugely emotionally complex question, 1916. Everybody’s parents or grandparents or great-grandparents weren’t out in the Rising – Most of the country stayed at home. And it’s their stories too. They’re the people who’s ancestors fought on the other side. It’s their story too.

 

“The history wars are ended and I think we’re able, we’re mature enough, to look back, not dispassionately – you can’t be dispassionate about the birth of a nation – but you can be reasoned, you can apply reason.”

 

On the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris Mr Keane said: “I think the great crisis is and has been, and if you look at particularly a country like France, the crisis of integration of refugees.

 

“French society did not integrate these people, it shoved them out into the boundary and it created a separate world, where people weren’t given a sense that they belonged in French society. And eventually this blows back and yes, you get that instability. Trying to argue about the question of migration assumes an absolute right or wrong and there isn’t. There is what societies can bare and each society has a different point.”

 

He added: “I was very struck during the Charlie Hebdo affair, when I went to interview a Muslim woman who condemned what had happened but says ‘I can’t say Je Suis Charlie because it’s an insult to the Prophet, so I condemn the killing, that’s wrong, but it was an insult to the Prophet.’ And she would only be interviewed by us at the very back of a building where nobody else could see because she wanted to wear her veil. She said ‘If I wear my veil in public, people are going to abuse me.’

 

“The only long-term solution to it is it’s patient, it’s time-consuming, it’s resource-consuming, but is in resolving those conflicts because people will keep coming, many will drown on the way but many more will make it and they will keep arriving on our shores.

 

“And if you think you can build a wall around Europe, good luck to you, it is not going to happen. What humanity shows is it’s incredible resourceful, people will always find a way around a blockage that you put in front of it. We did it ourselves, don’t expect anybody to be any different.”

 

Speaking to An Focal after the event Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Professor Tom Lodge praised the lecture, saying: “What I liked about what Fergal had to say was the way that he started off in Limerick and he kept on bringing all these complicated, difficult issues that are global and international back to the everyday issues that every journalist, where ever they are going to be working, is going to confront whether it’s on your doorstep here in Limerick or anywhere else in the world. I thought it was a great talk.”

 

“[Students] were able to listen and interact tonight to one of the greatest modern journalists to have come out of Ireland. That has got to be inspirational for them and inspirational for us. Fergal is the latest in a succession of fantastic speakers that the school has accommodated and welcomed and I hope there will be many more.”

 

Mr Keane spoke to An Focal about the importance of “inner-strength” in a journalist to withstand both implicit and explicit pressure. He explained: “We are all vulnerable, it doesn’t matter if you’re young, whatever age you’re at you are vulnerable to that kind of pressure. And stepping back from it and having the guts say ‘No, I’m not going to do that’ is absolutely critical because you get yourself into no end of trouble by not doing it.”

 

He said one the key issues for any journalist starting out in the area now was to get a “first foot on the ladder” especially with the push for free labour amongst many media organisations.

 

“It’s very hard for me to say to people ‘Don’t do that’ if it’s your only way in. I suppose the only advice I can ever give is just try and get something published because once you have, you have something to show people and never give up.

 

“If you really want to be a journalist, the same tenacity that will carry you into a job eventually is the tenacity that will take your career far. It’s the tenacity that will keep you knocking on doors to get the answers that you need. It’s the tenacity that will keep you going in very difficult moments, in difficult places.”

 

Lecturer in journalism at the University of Limerick and freelance journalist, Kathryn Hayes said she believed young journalists present at the talk by Mr Keane learned “an awful lot.”

 

She added: “I think he is inspiring and he has had such a career but what I probably admire most of all about tonight is his humility and I think we saw it here a few weeks ago with Bryan Dobson as well. At the end of the day, I think he said it at one point, he’s not god and that he’s doing a job.

 

“I think great credit to Mary Dundon who has been trying to get him for a long time. It’s great for young students of journalism to see somebody of his caliber, of his experience, to speak and to speak so personally and this is such an intimate setting almost here tonight and he has such an honest delivery and I imagine ye learned a lot from him. It probably shows what this programme here in UL is about – Access to people actively working in industry who can share their experience.”

 

Other speakers in the Current Issues in Irish Media seminar series this year have included RTÉ’s Bryan Dobson and Joe Little, Online News Editor of the Irish Times, David Labanyi and many others.

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