Intuitive editor whose dash of flair wooed many readers


Aengus Fanning:AENGUS FANNING, who has died aged 69 of cancer, took the pulse of the Irish newspaper reading public early in the 1980s and decided that what it needed at weekends was a dash of flair, lively opinionated columnists, and a break from the diet of disasters and woeful economic news offered by the daily papers. He took over the Sunday Independenteditorship from Michael Hand in 1984, and set about casting off its reputation as a slightly more ponderous version of the daily Irish Independent.

Hugely helped by his deputy Anne Harris’s flair and experience from her time as a magazine editor, he developed a style of journalism in which the reporter often became an integral part of the story. Readers were regularly invited to share the lives – and sometimes the loves – of those who wrote for the paper.

For an editor, he was an unusually familiar face in the paper – he wrote more often under his own name than most editors, and his pieces were often illustrated with a large photograph of himself and his interview subject.

He championed opinion and feature writers who could seize readers’ attention, irrespective of their viewpoints. The longevity of many writers on the paper was clear evidence of his loyalty to them.

Some people complained that, particularly in the early years, his paper had something spiteful and nasty every week for the sake of creating a stir; others defended its courage in breaking from mainstream political correctness. Most just enjoyed it as a readable Sunday newspaper that incorporated the frivolous and the serious in a compelling and entertaining mix.

Libel lawyers became a great deal more involved, both in suing and defending the Sunday Independent. But hundreds of thousands of readers liked it; some even liked to hate it, but they bought it anyway.

Readership rose to more than one million in the late 1990s. Notwithstanding a shrinking market, it continues to be Ireland’s best-selling newspaper with a circulation of 255,800 per week.

His detractors, and there were many, described his paper as a “broadsheet tabloid”, deriding it for offering Conor Cruise O’Brien or historian Ronan Fanning alongside gossip columnist Terry Keane and contrarian Eamon Dunphy.

But what some saw as flaws could also be seen as strengths. Under Fanning, the Sunday Independentdelved into unexpected corners of Irish life. It developed its own style of campaigning journalism. And many of its regular contributors and specialists were among the best in their fields in Irish journalism.

The mix of forthright news, strong, often highly personalised, opinion, gossip, sexy lifestyle features, fashion and in-depth sports coverage proved to be highly successful and the paper’s circulation overtook both previous best-sellers, the Sunday Pressand Sunday World.

Born in Tralee in 1942, he was one of six children of Arnold P Fanning, a teacher, and his wife Clara (née Connell). He was educated locally by the Christian Brothers and studied commerce at UCC. He cut his journalistic teeth at the Midland Tribune, owned by his uncle, and joined the Irish Independent as a reporter in 1969. He worked as agriculture correspondent before becoming news analysis editor in 1982.

As editor Fanning grew accustomed to controversy. Early on he was in trouble over a “world exclusive interview” with Bishop Eamon Casey which was, in fact, an “amalgamation” of taped telephone conversations with an unnamed woman and a five-minute conversation between writer Gordon Thomas and the bishop on a street in Cuernavaca, Mexico; this, Fanning initially said, was a “legitimate journalistic exercise”. Bishop Casey had fled his diocese the previous year when Annie Murphy revealed that he had fathered her son. Later a Sunday Independenteditorial admitted: “We now accept that errors were made in pursuit of the story and in its subsequent presentation in this newspaper.”

After crime correspondent Veronica Guerin was murdered in 1996, there were suggestions she had been unnecessarily exposed to risk. Her brother Jimmy said that the Sunday Independenthad taken more care to “protect the circulation of the newspaper than they did to protect Veronica”.

Fanning insisted that the journalist’s personal safety was a priority for himself and his colleagues. He had asked her to switch to political writing, but while she expressed interest, she was not ready to move. If he had ordered her to quit covering crime he was certain that she would have gone to another paper.

Veronica Guerin’s mother, Bernie Guerin, this week said she would remember Fanning “with affection and respect for him as a journalist”. She said that after her daughter’s death, he remained a friend of hers. “I couldn’t speak highly enough of him.”

In October 2005, Fanning apologised for the pain and distress caused by his paper’s coverage of the circumstances of the death in Moscow of Liam Lawlor.

The paper had wrongly suggested that a woman travelling with the former Fianna Fáil TD when their car crashed was a prostitute. It was an “honest mistake”, he said.

He regularly maintained that the paper’s critics ignored the major stories it broke, including the “Kerry Babies” saga and the Fr Brendan Smyth affair.

He defended the Sunday Independent’s coverage of the Northern peace process. Those who viewed with mingled admiration and amusement his other coups were appalled by the hostility the paper showed towards John Hume’s efforts to bring about a lasting IRA ceasefire.

Fanning said the process was the “right thing to do”, but had to be held up to scrutiny.

More recently, he maintained that the paper’s “unique relationship” with Bertie Ahern did not preclude “plenty of criticism”.

A former inter-county Gaelic footballer on the Kerry minor team, rugby player and cricketer, he liked to swim daily.

An accomplished clarinettist, he was a jazz aficionado and also enjoyed opera and theatre. He was largely responsible for the production of Ronnie Drew’s final album The Last Session.

Aengus Fanning was mercurial, with a temper which calmed down as quickly as it flared up. He did not bear grudges and most colleagues felt warmly towards him.

He gave every impression of enjoying being Aengus Fanning, boulevardier and successful editor, walking around Dublin as if he owned it, with long flowing locks and scarf, and many of his vividly scabrous anecdotes have become part of Dublin’s journalistic lore.

The rakish BMW convertible he drove for many years suited his personality. His dislike for parking restrictions, particularly near his favourite coffee stop in Blackrock, was remembered with much amusement at his funeral.

Predeceased by his first wife Mary O’Brien, he is survived by his wife Anne Harris, sons Dion, Evan and Stephen and stepdaughters Constance and Nancy.

Aengus Fanning: born April 22nd, 1942; died January 17th, 2012