Friday, September 26, 2008

Garbhan Downey's scoop on journalism and crime fiction

Garbhan Downey, a subject of discussion here in recent days, weighs in on journalism, fiction, the constraints of the first, and the freedoms of the second:

"I think you've a good point about fiction being the second draft of history. I worked as a reporter and newspaper editor for 15 years, and the main reason I started writing fiction was to tell the stories (and voice opinion) I could never print as a working hack. All heavily disguised, he added (not entirely truthfully). About 70 percent of my short-story collection Off Broadway derived from unprintable stories I'd garnered as a hack — as did the central plot of my latest, Yours Confidentially — though in fairness, I made my land developers a lot more crooked and murderous.

"Also, I don't think the public have any idea how scared and over-regulated journalism has become — so much so that the editor is now de-facto third in line in dictating newspaper content, after the lawyers and the advertisers.”

I’d referred Downey to my interview with Matt Rees, who had similar thoughts about the freedom fiction gave him to tell stories he could not tell as a reporter. Here’s Downey on that subject:

“I identify a lot with what he said. One of the worst things about being a journalist covering atrocities is that often you feel your reportage is cheapening the pain of the people affected. That you are pandering to your public and/or your employer by capitalising on someone else's misery. A large part of that is because of the unspoken strictures that media owners place on you as a witness. You are expected to sanitise brutality into handy clichés, and categorise and quantify pain to such a degree that the extinguishing of life fits into a five-word headline or a five-second soundbite. (No blame on the copy-editors!) Anybody who's ever had to doorstep a grieving relative and ask them to describe what their loss means, into a mike, knows what I mean. (Could you give me your name and title till I test the sound levels ... ?)

"Peculiarly, and I don't know if Matt Rees finds this, there are even two or three incidents I was unlucky enough to come across regarding the unearthing and murdering of informers in the North that I could never talk about in fiction, even now, because I wouldn't want to dishonour the dead or their families. These stories/events tend to be so sordid, sad and personal that to re-tell them for any form of profit — even critical approval — would seem like a betrayal. If it allows families to salvage a tiny bit of dignity, then what harm that a big-shot reporter keeps his mouth shut about a few dirty little secrets? There were days, honest to God, that I had to go home and shower at lunchtime just to get the grime off me.

"The late eighties and early nineties were not pleasant in the North.

"Any wonder I packed in the day job and started writing comedy?"
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Fascinating! Especially on Garban Downey's perspective. "...the editor is now de-facto third in line...after the lawyers and the advertisers."
Where's our freedom of the press while so much is squelched. And yet understand Matt Rees' pov.
Quite the exasperating condundrum.

September 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, he had much tof interest to say, and he said it well. I wonder how the situation in the UK and Ireland compares to that in the U.S. At least in the U.K., I believe, there are or were boards of standards for journalists, to which complaints could be brought. Perhaps Downey had that sort of board in mind when he complained that journalism being over-regulated. I can more easily relate to his accusation of fear.

September 26, 2008  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Great to see more posts on Garbhan and his work. It's whet my appetite for On Broadway.


September 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps you'll have fun guessing which 70 percent of Off Broadway is based on stories he couldn't print when he was a reporter.

Running Mates and, I suspect, his other work as well would make fine collateral and maybe even primary reading in a political science course. It's full of little pointers on how Irish politics works in theory and in practice, and I have enjoyed these. Downey thanks a political science professor from Galway in the acknowledgements, so perhaps the book has already found its way into the classroom.

October 30, 2008  

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