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The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media spacer The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media
Geoff Martin Interview
by Richard West
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Geoff Martin has worked as a journalist and editor for the Ballymena Guardian, a number of papers in England and was the editor of the Newsletter from 1990 to 2003. He spoke to Richard West at the offices of Ham and High in Swiss Cottage where he is now editor.
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My first experience of working with newspapers was when I was still at school. I had an English teacher called Daniel Flemming who was a contributor for one of the local newspapers in Ballymena and he would offer me odd little things to do. I would go along and write up an event and it would appear in the newspaper. Of course he would get paid for the work and pass the money on, it was very handy pocket money for a teenager still at school. My father was a very keen pigeon fancier and actually wrote for a publication called The British Homing World and I remember he would write his article on Saturday evening and I would take his bicycle and go off and pop it in the post-box. So the whole thing from how copy is originated and ends up in publication is something I remember from a very early age. The first job I had I was working on a summer job at Antrim County Council, because of this contact I'd had at school with the local newspaper I was almost an unofficial press officer for the council. So, I was getting quite a lot of stuff in the local paper and one night out of the blue the editor of the paper, Maurice O'Neill, rang up and said did I want a job? It only took me about ten seconds to decide.
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There are a lot of stories I remember, sometimes for the wrong reasons. I remember there was a farmer from up around the Glens whose excuse for a speeding fine, I thought, was going home for sex. That's how I wrote it, but of course but it actually turned out to be potato sacks! But that was spotted before I actually got into the newspaper. I also reported on a shooting of a man who was my next-door neighbour, a man who was killed in a random shooting in a pub. He was much older than me but he got me into the local football team. He was a great friend as well as a neighbour who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and I ended up reporting on him being killed by terrorists.
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I had a fairly sheltered upbringing in a happy little village where there was no community tension. In the house I grew up in there was never any sectarianism and I think that stood me in good stead, that there was always two sides to a story. The Ballymena Guardian was in its infancy in those days, I joined it when it was six months old and there was a conscious decision to make it a cross community newspaper. I was sports editor then and we took what might have been seen a controversial decision, to include about two pages of Gaelic football, which for a paper in the so called Proddy heartland of mid Antrim might have been a surprising one, but we were aware that wanted circulation in the Glens of Antrim. You still find weekly newspapers in Northern Ireland in areas where there is a lot of Gaelic sport going on who don't report it.
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There were only four of us and I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent there but I decided to come over to England, then I went abroad for a while. I went to Canada and America for the best part of a year and then came back and took up sports editor of the Berks and Bucks Observer which was a large expanding weekly in the home counties and over time became the editor in chief. So I lived there as editor and then the Newsletter job came up and I think if you come from Northern Ireland and a paper like the Newsletter is always coming in your door the opportunity tendered isn't one you'd turn down easily.
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RW: What's the difference between being a reporter and being in an editorial or management position?
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Well I would still say that most reporters, and I can say this from experience, only have an idea of what editing is. Until you're actually in that position it's very difficult to see the amount of time you spend on reader issues, the amount of time you spend on management issues and human resource issues. You can spend an awful lot of time fighting editorial's corner in an increasingly competitive environment. You have to push the paper's profile in a community because the worst thing you can do is sit in an ivory tower. At the Newsletter I went along to a Northern Ireland Office briefing over dinner one night and they told me that they hadn't seen a Newsletter Editor at a briefing for three or four years. It's very easy to be swamped by paperwork. I had fifty staff at the Newsletter and you do like to have a personal relationship with each and every one of them.
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RW: What state was the Newsletter in when you arrived there?
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I suppose the general feeling at the time was that it had months to live. It had just been sold by the family who had owned it for many years, the Henderson family, and there were some things done by the new owners that I don't think were the right thing to do. You look for vital signs of a paper's involvement and relevance to a community; the letters pages are a good indicator and when I got there the only letters I could see in the newspaper were letters from politicians who will always write you letters because they want to get their name in your paper. It didn't seem like there was any interaction with the readers. The Newsletter is seen as being very much pro union but it didn't know where it was and the pro union community didn't know where it was. I thought if the Newsletter could be seen to be trying to lead unionism at a difficult time and to throw some new thinking into the mix in a way that politicians were frightened to do then its relevance could be restored. I think that did happen in the nineties. I think in the eighties there was a lot of evidence of reactionary journalism in the Newsletter but not a lot of new thinking and in those days the unionist community was crying out for new thinking.
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RW: The Ballymena Guardian was a consciously non sectarian newspaper, the Newsletter has an identifiable Protestant readership, was that ever something that you wanted to try to change?
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Well, a reader is a reader is a reader and I don't think the Newsletter should be anything else than Pro-union because of its history and the way that the media is carved up in Northern Ireland. Whether you want it or not your paper will be pigeonholed in one of those categories. What I wanted to do was make it more progressive and to defend the union, not from some traditional, historical, loyalist, royalist perspective but from a common sense perspective and what we started to do was argue the case that Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom was actually in the interests of all the people in Northern Ireland.
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RW: What's your relationship with advertising?
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Well it varies, for instance in the Newsletter, the advertising revenue was a significant portion of revenue for the paper, but so was the circulation revenue, so it was very important that we never took any decisions that would affect that. And that was important to the bean counters as well, not only the journalists. When you take a paper like the Ham and High where our income from circulation is just a small percentage of the paper's income you do have to fight editorial's corner, but you don't often hear advertising people nowadays saying 'we pay your wages' which used to be said. There is a recognition that the lifeblood of a newspaper is in its journalism.
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RW: Do you think the Unionist Community is unfairly characterised by the rest of the media?
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I think very much so, because I think the Unionists were just expected to just buy the ticket and not complain, other people were shaping their future and really that if they said 'No', well they were seen as being intransigent. I don't think they do themselves any favours because of the old siege mentality but there was a lot of spin and an awful lot of lack of understanding of the Northern Ireland community; I mean the whole community. Nationalism is 40 - 45 % and in no other circumstances would that be seen as an oppressed minority. Any community that can say we got 40% of the vote they're not political paraplegics, they can stand on their own two feet and fight their own battles. That may have been true at one time, but certainly it hasn't been true even in the lifetime of people that have been brought up there, gone through university and are now professional people earning a living. Unionists have been just as disempowered as they have been since the fall of Stormont. The only thing that used to unite Unionism for many years was the opportunity to condemn IRA violence. The whole picture changed when the IRA violence was taken out of the equation. Unionism for quite a while ran around like a bit of a headless chicken. After the ceasefire, it didn't really know where to go or what to do.
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RW: Are there are equally difficult questions to be asked of Loyalism as there were being asked of Republicans?
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After the Greysteel massacre and we ran a front page editorial saying that the people who are doing this in the name of God and Ulster are just murderers and that they don't have the support of the community and that they should stop the killing. So we did talk to Loyalists and in fact I had as many hairy moments with the Loyalist paramilitary organisations as I ever did with the Republican side. That was before there were people like David Ervine or Gary McMichael articulating the Loyalist point of view.
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RW: There is still a difference between the Newsletter and the Irish News in the way it reports paramilitary activity.
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Yes, you know if I was talking to people in Northern Ireland, I would say buy both papers because sometimes when you are reporting ordinary things it can be amusing. I took a decision as well during the time I was at the Newsletter that we would no longer report claims by paramilitaries as to why they had shot someone, you know 'alleged drug dealer'. Unless for some reason we knew it to be true. I was a bit disappointed that the rest of the Northern Ireland media didn't come in behind that. We had a good relationship with the Irish News and we were often asked about this, we would refer to 'terrorists' and they to 'paramilitaries'. I don't think it matters a lot to people who are burying their loved ones how you refer to them. Actually I did work the phrase 'the north' and 'the north of Ireland' into a couple of Newsletter editorials just to see if people were as sensitive about it as we were. Nobody had a coronary over that when they saw it first thing in the morning. I think the newspapers are sometimes a wee bit more sensitive about the language they use than the readers are but it's right to be over-sensitive. There have been incidents where political negotiations have floundered because of careless reporting. Not I have to say by the Newsletter or the Irish News.
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RW: In all the cases you refer to yourselves and the Irish News against the Telegraph.
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Well it's a sort of a commercial thing it's a case of the morning market against the evening market. It's poor relations because the Belfast Telegraph had a budget that was equal to the Irish News editorial budget, the Newsletter editorial budget and half a million pounds. There's a bit of an affinity between the morning newspapers that you wouldn't expect and sometimes we bailed them out when technology didn't work and sometimes they bailed us out so there was a good professional relationship. I think the two morning newspapers did take it upon themselves to try to provide a bit of leadership in the respective communities in Northern Ireland, and I don't think the Telegraph really was in a position to do that.
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RW: What about the relationship with politicians, how did those change?
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Well I think the Newsletter always had an reputation of being edited by The Ulster Unionist Party. In fact the editor who had preceded me had been on the staff on the Ulster Unionist Party. I always tried to keep my distance from politicians during my entire journalistic career and I did the same thing when I went to Belfast. On occasions the relationship I had with Ian Paisley was very good and he's actually come up to me on occasions and said 'That said it as we would see it blah, blah, blah' on occasions it was very bad, the same with the Ulster Unionist Party, I had David Trimble accusing me of trying to wreck a politicians career, I've had him incandescent with rage in my office. You know the way he gets a bit red around the gills. I've also had him saying that at one stage his continued leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party depended on the guidance or the line that the Newsletter was taking. I've always felt more comfortable having a working relationship with politicians of any background but do I want to be going to the pub for a pint with them? Not if I can help it. Sinn Fein tried to seduce you with charm, the SDLP had their methods, the DUP tried to bully you into submission and the Ulster Unionist Party come at it from a different perspective, but they all try to get you on board.
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RW: People talk about PR and spin over the last 7 or 5 years. Did you notice a change in the way things are done?
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The big spin machine when Blair came in, it was all about building up perceptions, 'hearts and minds' which hadn't been attempted before. There's a sort of scary Orwelian thing about that. I have to say that when it came to the reality, Peter Mandleson, the Sultan of Spin came to Northern Ireland as Secretary of State for a while I don't think any of the editors there would say they were spun to.
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RW: But the Issue for journalism is how transparent everything is?
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There was an awful lot more briefing going on, some incredibly conveniently well timed leaks of documents and all that type of thing. We lapped it up because journalists want people to talk to them on the quiet to get that little nugget of information. I am sure that we in the media have been used sometimes and exploited, but I think on the whole the media in Northern Ireland has done a very good job of maintaining its credibility. There wasn't a lot of spin about in the Anglo Irish Agreement because Maggie Thatcher was just straight up and straight down whether you liked her or not. I often thought in another lifetime she might have been a member of the DUP! Once the idea of a sophisticated settlement came about, we saw the explosion in the number of political parties. You saw everything geared towards the way the assembly was set up with a 108 members. Was that right? I think if Northern Ireland had been a normal society it would have been ridiculous, but you look at our record. We can't claim to be a normal society.
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