Mary Kenny: Younger journalists are better educated, more serious and well behaved than I was

When young, I had an opinion about everything and would gaily tackle any subject. Now I’m more aware of the depth of knowledge needed to write authoritatively on a theme

As a working journalist, I don’t regard myself as anything very special. But I have achieved longevity: in this year of 2023, I’ll have been a professional newspaper scribe for 60 years. (Let’s not say “hack”, which implies a scribbler who’ll pen anything for money, which isn’t necessarily true!)

The arc of my experience starts from the days of slugs, flongs, the spike, galley proofs, page proofs, copy boys, copy takers (who wrote down your deathless prose, read over the telephone, sometimes with the weary response “is there much more of this?”), hot metal, printers’ ink, rotary presses, “bastard” size paper and the brilliant cuttings library – while a fug of smoke hung over the office, alive with clattering typewriters, and scribes might frequently repair to the nearby boozer.

And it has stretched into our era of computers, electronic transmission, online newspapers, the 24-hour news cycle, the internet, Twitter and TikTok, working, alone, from home, and the media itself sometimes becoming the story, at least in the eyes of Prince Harry.

My life as a journalist started in 1963, when I was 19 years old and a humble au pair in Paris (subsequently a companion to an eccentric older lady). I discovered that French cafes were also bars, and bars were where you met people, and heard things. Through the auspices of Peter Lennon – a contributor to The Irish Times, and the journalist Joe Carroll, also later of this parish – I listened to conversations about what was going on in the world. Being an opportunistic little minx, I saw my chance to submit my writing to newspapers.


And so I started sending pieces regularly to the Dublin Evening Press, and sometimes to the Irish Press, and indeed The Irish Times. It was a simple procedure in those days. You had an idea, typed out the article – I had a portable typewriter – and sent it by the postal service. It duly appeared and you received three guineas in payment – journalists, like medical consultants and milliners, were paid in posher guineas (a pound and a shilling) although journalism was not, then, an entirely respectable trade.

The orthodox path into journalism was an apprenticeship in provincial papers, in both Ireland and Britain, but entry could also be idiosyncratic. As Peter Lennon wrote in his amusing autobiography Foreign Correspondent, you could “sidle” into the trade by various other means. (It was always a “trade” – not a profession: Andrew Marr called his history of journalism My Trade.) Peter sidled into journalism while working as a bank clerk, ghostwriting reviews for the Irish Press music critic, who knew all about music, but couldn’t write.

I sidled my way into the newspaper trade in London because, after my Paris sojourn, I had accumulated a portfolio of cuttings, with which I approached the editor of the London Evening Standard, Charles Wintour (father of the now more famous Dame Anna). He was impressed by a piece I had written in The Irish Times about Rolf Hochhuth’s accusatory play about Pope Pius XII, The Deputy, because it was “controversial”; he also said he liked my being cheeky.

People might get a job because they were lucky, knew someone who helped them, or just hung around the pubs where scribes congregated. (Bertie Smyllie, the eccentric Irish Times editor of the mid-20th century, sometimes hired people just because they were from Sligo, like himself.)

We don’t want your smart-alec Varsity men here – but sound working-class lads and lasses

—  The night editor of the Guardian told me in 1964

Yet my ambition had never been in journalism. I wanted to be a serious writer, which was why I had a typewriter from the age of 16. But I suppose I had the temperament: audacity, an appetite for excitement, an attraction to the sensational. Nicholas Tomalin, a Fleet Street war correspondent, said “the only qualifications for real success in journalism are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability”. Often quoted as an amusing aperçu, this is less applicable now when media training is much more organised and professional.

And so, my career in journalism progressed thereafter, working in London and Dublin. More graduates began to appear. Hitherto, most journalists had gone straight from school into a job – Tony Gray, in his entertaining book about Bertie Smyllie, recalls being hired aged 18, and three weeks later found himself books editor. In my early days, there was actually a prejudice against university graduates. “We don’t want your smart-alec Varsity men here – but sound working-class lads and lasses,” the night editor of the Guardian told me in 1964.

Yet, from the later 1960s, more young people were attending university and that was reflected in the media. This began a gradual “embourgeoisement” – and feminisation – as journalism shifted from being a somewhat Bohemian milieu to a more middle-class one.

Journalists also became more politically engagés and I suppose I was part of that development when, as woman’s editor of the Irish Press from 1969-71, I was a founding member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. So many of the activists were journalists: Mary Maher, Nell McCafferty, June Levine, Mary Anderson, Nuala Fennell, Mary McCutcheon, Janet Martin, Mairín de Burca, Marie MacMahon – all either writers or in some way connected to the print media.

In earlier times, ordinary journalists were not expected to express any political opinions. In Fleet Street, an employed journalist was not permitted to write a letter to The Times without the boss’s agreement; you also had to have written permission to appear on television, since the press barons saw TV as a competitor.

Yet our activism in feminism, by 1971, was tolerated, even indulged. It was a hub moment, and credit should be given to the men who were encouraging to my generation of feminists, notably Douglas Gageby and Donal Foley at The Irish Times, Tim Pat Coogan at the Irish Press, Aidan Pender at the Irish Independent and Sean McCann at the Evening Press. There’s much talk today of patriarchy and “toxic masculinity”: but there were also men who were supportive of women’s liberation.

More changes came: print had to accept the increasing dominance of TV and radio, and “the press” became “the media”. Technology upheavals came in the 1980s despite the opposition of the unions – who can blame workers for trying to defend their jobs? – and hot metal was replaced by computerisation and laser technology. But we adjusted, and journalism went on – as it must, being a prerequisite for a free society.

Over the decades I did almost every kind of newspaper writing job – except for sports and business. I’ve written for every sort of publication, from the Daily Mail to the Times Literary Supplement. (Journalists are rarely snobs about “the tabloids”: at one stage, the chap writing editorials for the Sun was a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge – you have to be clever to explain complex ideas in 400 words.) But in latter years I settled into the role of columnist and commentator.

Once, a newspaper might have only one major columnist. Today, papers have a range of columnists, catering for a repertoire of tastes: and what can only be described as “tone of voice”. Columnists can be informative, sassy, outrageous, funny – there should always be a humorous voice in a paper – or even sometimes comforting. But more columnists means more specialisation. When young, I had an opinion about everything and would gaily tackle any subject. Now I’m more aware of the depth of knowledge needed to write authoritatively on a theme.

Journalists don’t meet each other as they used to. This is a loss: the spark of ideas often depends on interaction and encounters

Social media and the internet, which came to be an influence from about 2008, has also made me aware that strong opinions aren’t necessarily enlightening, without knowledge, evidence or experience.

Change always involves gain and loss: I look back on some of the informality of earlier times with a certain nostalgia. When I went to interview Princess Grace in the 1970s, I just turned up at her hotel suite, as directed: no minders, no security, no one controlling the conversation. When the film critic Barry Norman interviewed Richard Burton, they embarked on a three-day bender together.

The media today has guidelines about ethics: the reporters’ purpose, in the past, was to get the story by fair means or foul. David O’Donoghue’s engaging journalistic memoir Line of Fire perceptively describes the iffy practices that sometimes occurred, and the complex, occasionally nefarious, ways that Irish life was interwoven with local connections.

Younger journalists today are better educated, more serious, and well behaved than we were. They surely drink less – the boozing culture has gone, partly because women don’t favour it. But there is also less collegiality, and more atomisation. Journalists don’t meet each other as they used to. This is a loss: the spark of ideas often depends on interaction and encounters.

In my 20s, I remember it being said of a famous foreign correspondent who started drinking daily at 11am: “Drunk or sober – he always files.” Indeed, meeting the deadline is an absolute; perhaps I will request “she always filed” on my gravestone!

Mary Kenny’s most recent book is The Way We Were – Catholic Ireland since 1922