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Eamonn McCann: 'Thank you all, it's been a blast, but I'm giving up the column for Stormont, where I'll hold even less sway'

In his valedictory piece, Eamonn McCann reflects on his time as a Belfast Telegraph contributor and hopes he's caused some people's blood to boil (including the Editor's)

Published 18/05/2016

Robert Kilroy-Silk
Robert Kilroy-Silk

Over the years I've been writing this column I don't think anybody at the Telegraph ever changed a word. All instances of poor syntax, convoluted sentences and infelicities of one sort and another have been my own work. Sorry about that.

The Editor once told me that the piece I'd just emailed was very good and that her blood was boiling. Now, that's the kind of response you want from an editor.

I was never asked to contribute a regular column. A features editor suggested years ago that I write a one-off opinion piece on some topic he thought I might know something about. After it appeared I asked whether he'd fancy another one. He did. Since then I've just kept sending them in and the Tele has kept on printing them.

I suspect it was assumed by some that somebody else must have had commissioned me. There'll possibly be a stewards' inquiry now. But in the meantime I've scarpered off to Stormont, where I'll have even less influence.

Columnists tend to believe at the beginning of their stint that they can guide the thinking of regular readers and thus help shape events. That is, they believe they have regular readers who pay attention. This conceit ought to have perished with the case of the oddball reactionary Robert Kilroy-Silk, whose Daily Express column was cancelled a dozen years ago after he'd written a piece headed 'We owe Arabs nothing', studded with references to the inherent badness of every Arab who ever lived.

Kilroy-Silk complained, to no avail, that he'd been unfairly dismissed since he'd written the same column word for word the previous year without attracting a single complaint, much less been awarded the order of the boot (it had been "republished in error", he explained). There's a lesson there for all of us.

Almost worst of all are the occasions when you think you've come up with something rib-tickling, razor-sharp and deftly satirical and have even chortled at your own wit before emailing it off, only to discover that the handful of people who confess to having read it also confess that they found it dull and unconvincing.

Actually worst of all are the times you send in a magisterial analysis of a serious issue which, it is later brought to your attention, has been received by readers as a wisp of whimsy.

Regular pieces of opinionated journalism used to be disparaged by many in the trade - journalism is a trade, not a profession - as an add-on, inessential, even an indulgence. No need to unearth facts and present them fairly, just take a deep breath and give vent to your prejudices, beliefs and attitudes. A column has to be a good read, and that was all.

"Comment is free," wrote long-time Guardian editor CP Scott on the centenary of the newspaper in 1921, "but facts are sacred." Almost another hundred years on the sentence continues to be taken as the definitive assertion of the necessary virtues of a free Press.

A brilliantly written news story remains rubbish if the facts within it are wrong. But a brilliantly written column can be freighted with all manner of stupidities and still pass muster. The late Kenneth Tynan once produced a column about Greta Garbo which opened: "What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober." I cannot remember what came next and it doesn't matter. You write an intro like that, you are entitled to ramble on aimlessly until you have filled your allotted space.

Tynan also once wrote of Anna Nagel in a West End play that: "She shook her voice at the audience like a tiny fist." Neither an intro nor in a column, but this could be my last chance to quote it.

I have cherished and valued my time with the Telegraph, not least because, whether or not I really heated blood to boiling point, much of my copy will not have been greeted in the office with whoops of agreement. And even when I have been late, nobody ever shouted down the phone: "Where the so-and-so is your so-and so-copy?"

I am late again with this piece, but this time I have an ace excuse, having spent the day at Stormont on democratic duties. The reason I'm off is that I think the job should be done full-time.

So that's it. Thanks for the tolerance all these years. It's been a blast, and a privilege.

Thanks for reading the bits I've written. It's been a privilege.

Belfast Telegraph

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