Anne Harris: I had no training as a journalist. All I had was a ferocious curiosity and a couple of days freedom

Freelance journalist and former editor of ‘The Sunday Independent’ remembers her start in media as part of the Story Times episode of The Women’s Podcast

31/05/2016...features...Ann Harris pictured during the Womens Podcast held in The Irish Times tonight.

31/05/2016...features...Ann Harris pictured during the Womens Podcast held in The Irish Times tonight.

 

I must confess to a frisson when I see myself described as freelance journalist. Until last year, I had for thirty years, been an editor. An editor’s work is visionary and facilitating of other journalists. Commissioning, however, is often only the beginning , especially where the obstacles to publication are great.

Such a story was Elaine Byrne’s “Lowry Tapes.” A great many people did not want to see that story published (of itself the very definition of a good news story) and it often seemed as if it would never see light of day. It is a story of which I am very proud. But as editor I can only claim guardianship rights.

Before I was an editor I was a freelance journalist. I decided to trawl those years for scoops and cautionary tales. I had imagined that, like losing your virginity, the first publication, while momentous would, on reflection, prove disappointing : its very achievement the end in itself.

I was surprised, therefore to discover that my first published story was replete with issues that still resonate today: foreign direct investment and the right to unionise; women and conflicting attitudes in the workplace .

I was barely twenty, with a small baby, in another city, not my own. It would be at least another year before Mary Kenny erupted into Dublin and at least another two before feminism knocked on the door of Ireland. Isolation was a reality. My mother arrived from Cork to take the baby for a few days.

“You need a break,” she said.

What I needed was something which gave me a sense of self worth.

An epic industrial dispute about the right to unionise had been rumbling desultorily for five years between EI, the Irish subsidiary of American giant General Electric and the ITGWU at the bright new industrial dawn of Shannon Free Airport Development Company.

That strike now threatened the whole project, eleven per cent of our exports, even Shannon airport itself.

But what interested me was that most of the strikers were women.

I had no training as a journalist. All I had was a ferocious curiosity and a couple of days freedom. And I had done my research, which pointed to a culture clash between the Irish constitutional right to freedom of association (unionisation) and an American management style which was extraordinarily paternalistic. EI’s supervision extended to the women’s accommodation and “morals” - provided that they didn’t join a union.

I got a train and a bus to Shannon. I talked to women, both on the picket and passing the picket lines, shop stewards and union officials, the Shannon Free Airport Development Company and EI management. Information I had a-plenty - but the story? Where was the story?

Suddenly , before my eyes, a drama worthy of Arthur Miller unfolded. The princesses of paternalism - 130 non-union women – had a hissy fit. The bus which drove them the ten minutes walk to work failed to show, so they threw a lightning strike. The great EI management, on whom all irony was lost, prostrated themselves, begging the women to go back to work, giving in to the women’s every whim.

The EI dispute was eventually resolved. But if you ask me it was at that moment it dawned on EI management that it might be better do deal with courageous women fighting for their rights than capricious women intent on exploiting what they saw as a weakness.

Arising out of this, people might like to know how it became my first published story. I came home, wrote furiously for the whole of the following day. At 7pm I took a bus to Burgh Quay where the Irish press was based. I asked to know where the editor’s office was. I was shown it.

I knocked on this door, went into a sort of outer room in which sat a secretary who was a sort of Pretorian guard, to keep people like me out and to make sure that nobody got near the editor. His name was John Horgan.

And he wanted to know my business. I told him. I saidthis is all coming to a head it’s terribly important. He said Ok and he took the sheets into Tim Pat Coogan in the inner sanctum. A few minutes later he came out and said, he’ll see you now. I went in, saw Tim Pat Coogan, he questioned me on it.

One of the golden rules of journalism is Audi alteram partem, hear the other side. I’d heard every side. The article was falling down with information.

He said he would publish it and said “just bring me in any other idea you have.” And that was that.

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