Don’t let newspapers go without putting up a fight

Clodagh Finn marks the anniversary of the birth, in Cork, of one of the first female journalists on Fleet Street and considers the enduring importance of the written word

Clodagh Finn marks the anniversary of the birth, in Cork, of one of the first female journalists on Fleet Street and considers the enduring importance of the written word.

THE woman I like to think of as the first lady of the press was born in Cork, more than 150 years ago this week.

Clotilde Graves came into the world on June 3, 1863, at Buttevant barracks, in north Cork. By the time she was 17, she was already supporting her family by working as a journalist on London’s Fleet Street, or Grub Street as it was known.

She wore her hair short, dressed like a man, and smoked cigarettes. “She was quite one of us,” one (male) editor wrote in 1890, before going on to describe her as “an exceedingly clever young lady” and “an enthusiastic journalist”.

English cartoonist Leonard Raven-Hill even considered Graves to be the first female journalist. “She had to do a man’s job in a man’s way, and in those days there were no ‘sob sisters’; lingerie chatterers, and the shrieking sisterhood hadn’t started then,” he wrote.

I thought of her this week, because the anniversary of her birth to Major William Henry Graves, of the 18th Royal Irish Regiment, and his wife, Antoinette Deane, fell on Wednesday. It’s a good time to shine a light on a woman who is not as well-known as she deserves to be, not least in her native county.

More than that, it is worth recalling her life and work at a time when journalists are branded ‘the enemies of the people’ and arrested as they go about their business in Donald Trump’s America.

On the other side of the water, journalists can, at least, openly question the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, and reveal him to be a man with, let’s say, an interesting relationship with the truth.

Here at home, it is no time to be smug, even if Tánaiste Simon Coveney tweeted during the week that “peaceful protest and robust, independent media” were essential for democracy.

He is right, of course, but why, then, are we so slow to support our own robust, independent media, in particular newspapers?

The future of Irish media is “very uncertain”, the Press Council of Ireland and the press ombudsman warned at the launch of their annual report at the end of May.

All newspapers and magazines are struggling because of falling sales, a drop in advertising, and the threat of large and unpredictable defamation payouts. It’s no surprise, then, to hear that a number of titles will be forced to stop publishing if there isn’t a substantial recovery in the economy.

The drop in sales, however, goes deeper than our predicted economic woes: Newspaper circulation has halved in the last decade, when people have had much more disposable income.

Whatever you say about newspapers — oh, and people say so much: Just look at the comments below — they are staffed with journalists who themselves are held to account in the same way that they, in turn, try to hold others to account.

That has never been more important than during these Covid-19 days, when the public needs reliable, sourced information, rather than the conspiracy theories and scaremongering that are given free rein on social media.

In the same way that people have started to ask about the provenance of their food, it is time for them to ask where their information comes from.

We want to know what goes into our food: The nasty, hidden ingredients, the preservatives, the additives. If the coronavirus crisis has shown us anything, it is that we must also ask the same of our information.

If you post on social media, nobody will ask you how you know that. They won’t ask you who said it, when, or why. They won’t look for a source, not to mind question its independence or reliability.

If you work for a newspaper, you can’t put a word on paper without being asked all of those questions. Any working reporter will tell you that. It was drilled into us, along with this quote from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The Elephant’s Child’: “I keep six honest serving-men/They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When/And How and Where and Who”. We were taught to answer them, or at least to try. Not that journalism is perfect. People seem to enjoy counting the ways in which newspapers fail. It’s a kind of armchair sport to say that such and such a newspaper used to be good, but you wouldn’t wrap your chips in it now, or that there is nothing at all in the local rag these days.

BY all means, have your say. Write to the editor or post your comments online. You can also complain to the Press Council or the press ombudsman. It is a two-way street.

Let’s not, however, sleepwalk into losing our newspapers and magazines through complacency. The loss to society would be “inestimable” if we abandoned the news-gathering skills accumulated over centuries, the Press Council has warned.

We would also lose a priceless record of our times. I can’t think of any more complete snapshot of our world than an edition of a daily newspaper. It captures what is happening at a single moment in time and reveals society in all its kaleidoscopic glory, rotating through news, to features, culture, opinion, sport, photography, television, radio, and puzzles.

Indeed, it was a clue in a crossword puzzle that tells us Clotilde Graves was still a household name in Ireland in 1971. Readers were asked for her male pen name (Richard Dehan), under which she wrote an international bestselling novel, The Dop Doctor.

Fifty years on, few might guess the answer. Let’s hope in another 50 years, some of our newspaper titles won’t also be forgotten because nobody shouted ‘stop.’

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