Ruth Dudley Edwards: Jim McDowell is a journalist who has led from the front to expose NI’s gangsters and low-lifes
Press gets a bad rap, but people like the ex-Sunday World editor deserve our admiration, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
Many readers of this newspaper know or at least would recognise in the streets or pubs of Belfast that legendary newspaperman Jim McDowell.
In any gathering Jim almost certainly has the biggest (baldy) head (literally, not metaphorically), the biggest heart (metaphorically, and, for all I know, literally) and the biggest balls (ditto).
He’s also likely to have the most lived-in face and body, reflecting a lifetime of rugby, lowering pints, jogging, marathon running, punch-ups (mostly in self-defence) and mishaps along the way like a helicopter crash, a stroke and an attempt by UVF thugs to kick him to death.
Like most of his friends, if I had to go into a jungle, Jim is the person I’d want charging ahead of me to clear the path, fight off predators and celebrate our survival joyously at the final watering hole.
With any luck when we got there, his wife Lindy, another journalistic hero who brightens all our lives, would have already got the drinks in.
In a world where dwindling readership and resources have consigned all too many to life in front of a screen, Jim still longs to be where the action is.
And although mostly he’s stayed close to home, he’s certainly seen an awful lot of action, which included 21 death threats, some of which required massive disruption to his family life, and innumerable libel cases.
He’s nominally retired now but has a column in the Sunday World — the northern edition of which he edited for a quarter-of-a-century fearlessly and successfully — and has been kicked by Lindy into writing a gripping memoir of his extraordinary life.
With impeccable timing, Jim became a reporter in 1969, the beginning of the Troubles. The Good Fight: From Bullets To Bylines — 45 Years Face-To-Face With Terror tells of his years taking on the paramilitaries, gangsters, drug dealers and sadists who prey on those he loves.
He will never cease to be proud of the decent people among whom he was brought up in the inner city, near the Gasworks.
To describe a newspaper as muck-raking is often a term of contempt, but when its target is corruption and terror, it performs an invaluable service.
Journalists are not a popular breed, yet many of them are deserving of our respect.
As Jim puts it, Northern Ireland reporters lived “with the death and destruction and the desperation and the desolation of the bereaved every day”.
They were and are part of that community, and “when that community bled and mourned, we bled and mourned with them”.
“We translated the red blood pouring down the pavements into the black ink printed on the white pages of newspapers.”
In the case of Sunday World’s Martin O’Hagan, murdered in 2001 by the LVF, it was a journalist’s blood that poured down the pavement.
Jim’s experiences of the low-lifes he has encountered throughout most of his career — including celebrity villains like Johnny Adair, Jim ‘Doris Day’ Gray, Michael Stone and Billy Wright, some of whom organised boycotts of Sunday World and bombs on its premises — are often funny as well as horrifying.
The exposure and mockery they received at the hands of Sunday World staff drove them crazy, but their threats never secured silence.
Yes, the paper has suffered from lawfare: few Northern Ireland politicians want reform of the oppressive libel laws.
And Jim is scathing about the European Human Rights Act under which “criminals, killers and paramilitaries” get legal aid if they argue that “the Press, by reporting their crimes, was allegedly invading the privacy, harassing them, or putting the lives of themselves, or their families, at risk”.
To their credit, judges have applied common sense to some of these preposterous cases: one ruled against LVF supporter Drew King, whom Sunday World believes murdered O’Hagan, in what was a landmark ruling in defence of Press freedom.
Jim’s passion for his profession began in childhood when he smelled the printers ink on the newspapers his father brought home to read about greyhound racing and decided he wanted to be a reporter.
When asked if he’d do it all again, his answer is: “I’m not bate yet… and never will be. Best job in the World.”
Here’s to you, Jim!