Man of the people: Sunday World's Jim McDowell steps down
After myriad threats to his life and a beating by a loyalist mob, the charismatic journalist is looking forward to semi-retirement. By Laurence White
It was the unlikely sport of greyhound racing which introduced Jim McDowell, the fearless and much threatened Northern editor of the Sunday World newspaper, to what he calls the "romance" of journalism.
Jim, who has just retired after a quarter of a century in the post, was brought up in a 14 shillings a week rented house which stood on the site of the present fire station in the Gasworks area of Belfast.
His father, also called Jim, was in local parlance a doggie man - he kept two greyhounds in the backyard and every day he brought home four local newspapers, the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish News, The Whig and the News Letter, primarily to read if any of the greyhound correspondents were tipping his dogs for that night's racing at the city's two tracks, Dunmore and Celtic Park.
It is Jim's last day in the post and he takes time out from his negotiations over his retirement to reminisce about his 47 years in journalism - although he intends to continue as a reporter.
"I can still remember the smell of the printers ink on the newspapers my father brought home. In those days the city editions of the papers were printed right up to around 6am. From those early days there was a kind of romance about newspapers and even then as a young boy I wanted to be a reporter," he recalls.
He studied at the fledgling journalism course at the College of Business Studies and contemporaries were Martin Dillon - who went on to write several acclaimed books on the Troubles - Ivan Little and Gary Gillespie, who both made their reputations in television broadcasting.
From there he began as a cub reporter on the News Letter - at that time journalists had to serve a seven-year indenture before being regarded as senior reporters.
Those were the days of broadsheet newspapers and Jim recalls how routine jobs such as covering the courts or Belfast City Council meant filling the acres of space required. "You just didn't come back with one story. You had to fill at least one page, maybe more, so it was quite hard work."
He became a strident member of the NUJ during his time in the News Letter, becoming Father of the Chapel (shop steward) and being involved in two major strikes - one of seven weeks involving all local newspapers and the other of 11 weeks just involving Century Newspapers staff.
That led to him and about five other NUJ members being blackballed by management, so he and two other journalists, Joe Oliver and Brian Rowan -now a well-connected security correspondent for this newspaper among others -left to form their own Ulster Press Agency.
"We may have left Century Newspapers with some rancour," Jim recalls, "but Captain Bill Henderson, who was managing director then, was one of the first to write to me when I was injured in a helicopter crash and later beaten up in the grounds of Belfast City Hall. I am very grateful to him for that consideration".
It was during his time as a freelance journalist that Jim coined the phrase Dome of Delight for his frequent sketches on events at Belfast City Council in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was a time of high political tension and the City Hall was the focal point for much of what passed as politics at that time - there was no local administration at Stormont as central government was run by direct rule.
"Belfast City Council was like a safety pin in a grenade", he says. "It was the main crucible of party politics in Northern Ireland and that is why it was so incendiary. It was the only forum where politicians could get publicity and that accounted for much of the shenanigans that went on there."
But there was also humour.
At one unionist Lord Mayor's inaugural dinner, a fiercely independent unionist councillor berated the new man for allowing a ceili band to perform, calling it a disgrace for someone who called himself a unionist. He had to be informed that the musicians were actually Belfast folk group, Barnbrack.
On another occasion when refurbishment of the City Hall was being discussed, a councillor well known for his mispronounciations said the building was in dire need of a "good coat of Durex paint".
But the defining image of Jim McDowell is of the fearless journalist heading a staff exposing the criminal underbelly of life in Northern Ireland.
His introduction to the Sunday World came as a result of a loyalist terrorist attack on the newspaper when armed men left a bomb in the doorway of its then offices in High Street, Belfast. Journalists were forced to jump over the device as they fled to safety.
Several years earlier, two UVF gunmen shot former bureau chief Jim Campbell five times at his home in north Belfast in front of his wife and children. He actually died on the operating table before being revived but he returned to his post and continued writing about loyalist godfathers until his retirement in 2007. Jim McDowell was brought in to steady the ship amid fears that the owners would close the Northern Ireland office after the bomb attack and was later appointed Northern editor.
It was not long before he too was in the line of fire.
At the last count he had 21 official warnings - PM1s - from police that his life was under threat.
"I am not on my own in this. Many journalists here have also been threatened including other members of the Sunday World staff," he said.
"My wife, Lindy, wanted to paper the small downstairs bathroom with the warning letters. But, more seriously, we have had to have security measures put in place at our home. The worst threat came several years ago when the children (he has two sons, Jamie and Micah) were young. Police came to our house one night - Lindy was in bed - and told us that we should leave the country due to an imminent threat against us.
"My motto is 'Never look back, never step back and we are not bate yet'. I would never bend the knee but I also realise that my family must always come first and so we decided to move out for a fortnight, but we came back. Sometimes you have to listen rather than talk and that was one of those occasions."
But he doesn't regard himself as heroic. "Reporters are not up there with real heroes like firemen, police, paramedics or doctors. What we try to do is open a window to show people the barbarity of terrorism and the consequences of crime," he said.
"I have always regarded journalists as being part of this community and if we can do good for this community by exposing gangsters, paramilitaries, drug dealers and paedophiles then that is our job. I am glad I was part of that even if there were consequences."
For one of his colleagues the consequences were fatal. Martin O'Hagan was shot dead by LVF terrorists as he was returning home from a night out with his wife. Although the newspaper has publicly named those they believe were responsible, there have been no prosecutions and that is something which rankles Jim.
"It says something about the system of justice in this country that more than 13 years after the murder of Martin, his killers have not been convicted and put behind bars where they belong. I am still committed personally and professionally to bring those men to justice."
Understandably that was the worst experience of his journalistic life, which was marked at the CIPR Press Awards last week with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
"I covered events like the Milltown shootings by Michael Stone and Bloody Friday when more than 20 bombs exploded in Belfast, but the shooting of Martin was the most horrendous event to me. It happened on a Friday night, September 28, 2002, and I still don't know how we got our newspaper out the next night. The staff all rallied around but other journalists came in to help, some of them from Dublin. We all felt this was an attack on all of us."
Jim famously was beaten up in the grounds of Belfast City Hall by four men he says were members of the UVF. They launched their attack from behind which prevented him identifying them at the time and making prosecution impossible.
He remains jovially defiant about that incident. "They said they were going to beat me good looking but you only have to look at this face to see that they couldn't even do that right."
There are still others who would do him harm. Recently he was in a Belfast bar when a man came up to him and said he was going to take him outside and beat him up. Instead he suddenly spat in Jim's face and ran away. "If you can get a kicking you can handle it, if you get threats you can handle them, however when someone spits in your face it is the worst thing. Unfortunately I can't really raise a gallop now so I wasn't able to run after him."
Humour is never far away from his lips. He recalls with glee one story which left one alleged leading paramilitary figure incandescent with rage.
The man's daughter was getting married and the Sunday World obtained a picture of her hen party with the girls performing a version of the Can Can dance in short dresses. It ran under the cheeky headline 'And Their Cry Was No Suspenders'.
Jim's burly physique, shaven head, rolling gait and distinctive gravelly voice makes him one of the province's most recognisable journalists. Several people come up to say hello to him as we chat. It is a testament to his old-fashioned journalistic work, where much of his time was spent cultivating contacts face to face.
As we chat he suddenly spots one of those crossing the street. He recalls how the woman was the partner of a drug dealer shot dead and of meeting her afterwards to discover that she too suffered in that brutal underworld.
Yet it was a pleasant press junket rather than paramilitary action that nearly cost him his life one October day in 1996. He was among five people travelling in a helicopter hired by a drinks firm to take the media to the launch of a new product when the tail rotor sheered off.
Jim's distraught wife Lindy watched the drama unfold from another helicopter taking part in the press trip.
To this day he remains grateful for the skill of the pilot Commander, Malcolm Reeve, who managed to land the stricken aircraft in bogland to minimise the impact.
"The pilot was magnificent. We all had intercoms and could hear his Mayday calls. There were four of us along with him, myself, TV journalist Barbara McCann, Irish News journalist Joe Kearney and Brian Duffy, an executive with the drinks firm. We put our arms around each other but I never felt we were doing to die.
"The pilot managed to control the spinning helicopter and then jettisoned the fuel to avoid it becoming a fireball when we crashed. It took about two and a half minutes for us to hit the ground and during that time I heard one of the most unselfish comments ever.
"Barbara said a little prayer - 'Dear Jesus, please look after my mother and father'. That always stuck in my mind."
Jim, Barbara and Malcolm all suffered severe back injuries in the crash and Jim still has a split vertebra. An air accident report found that a jacket which flew out of a hatch and entangled on the rear rotor was the cause of the crash.
"They wanted to take bone from my hip to repair the damage to my vertebra but I refused because I thought my hips were in even worst condition after taking part in 11 marathons and playing rugby for 37 years from the age of 11."
Rugby he regards as his religion and he was a more than useful player in his youth playing for Ulster schoolboys, captaining Ulster juniors and even turning out once for an Ulster Presidents XV alongside the legendary Willie John McBride. "I was never good enough to play for Ulster but that was a memorable occasion," he recalls.
He points to his cauliflower ears as a relic of his time among the forwards in the scrum for teams including CIYMS, Annadale, Cregagh, Malone and Ballymoney at various levels.
He has passed on his love of the game to his sons who he refers to as his "ballerinas" because they play in the backs, traditionally regarded as the fancy dans of the sport by their forwards colleagues. Given that both are around 6ft 5in, Jim's comments are an unlikely description.
Now aged 65 he regrets that his hopes for a new Northern Ireland after the horrors of terrorism have not yet been realised.
"I don't call it the Troubles. It was a dirty little sectarian war with more than 3,000 deaths for what? I had hoped that we could beat sectarianism and always believed from the beginning of the violence that it would take at least 30 years for us to see some sort of calming of the waters, but it didn't happen and especially among young people.
"That we haven't beaten sectarianism is down to one thing - our schooling system.
"Our kids never sit down together until they go to college or university. That is just a recipe for more hatred."
Another concern for a man who has had more than his fair share of legal cases to defend is the working of the European Human Rights Act which he regards as the greatest threat to newspapers.
"Newspapers are being gagged by this legislation. Gangsters can get legal aid to go to court and claim that stories we write about them are a threat to their lives or that of their families. This is just an attempt to censor newspapers and broadcasters.
"One leading legal figure here has said that this legislation has the potential to bankrupt newspapers.
"It can cripple us in our coverage as well as financially. That is my fear."
So in spite of all the threats, the murder of a colleague and the attempted murder of another, would he still want to go into journalism again if he was a young man. The answer is unequivocal.
"Yes. God I love it. I would do it again without a moment's hesitation."
Then it's time to go back to the office and finishing clearing out his desk. But we will still be seeing that well known byline - By Jim McDowell.