In a journalism climate adverse to costly, time-intensive investigations, Belfast writer Lyra McKee is hoping to defy the odds by using the power of the internet to crowdfund her book about the last weeks of murdered South Belfast MP, Rev Robert Bradford.
emocracy depends on good investigative reporting. When society loses its muckrakers, the powerful and the crooked get away with their wicked deeds. But the digital age has not been kind to the traditional institutions of journalism. Newsroom budgets continue to decline and resources for investigative journalism—a lengthy, litigious, and research-intensive craft—are scarce. So it’s not surprising that philanthropic organisations, concerned about the implications for democracy, have stepped to the fore to pick up the slack.
But there is a big question about sustainability. The not-for-profit model cannot carry the burden of funding investigative journalism on its own. On the one hand, the rise of the internet has deflated the once mighty newspaper industry. But on the other, through social media, digital media, and crowdfunding platforms, it has opened up new opportunities for innovative and resourceful journalists tenacious enough to make the economic realities of the industry work.
Lyra McKee, who turns 24 at the end of this month, has dreamed of being an investigative journalist since she was fifteen. To source funding for her first book project, she’s trying something new. She’s using the internet to ask her readers to pay her a monthly subscription directly. The book investigates the last days of Northern Ireland MP, Robert Bradford, who was murdered 32 years ago inside a Belfast community centre. Subscribers, who can support her by registering at Beacon Reader, will get a first hand look at each chapter as it is completed.
I am sitting with Lyra in a Clement’s Café across from Belfast City Hall on a typically overcast and cold day in March. As she fiddles with the cream and marshmallows on top of her hot chocolate, Lyra gives me her life story, tells me about the plan to fund her book, and explains why someone from a working class Catholic background in North Belfast would commit herself to telling the story of a murdered Protestant unionist.
Lyra went to school in Ardoyne, one of the most heated interface areas in Northern Ireland. At the age of eleven, when most students in Northern Ireland sit the transfer test, she was, as she says, “basically written off.”
“I was one of the kids that couldn’t even sit the transfer test because I was so bad at it. The only thing I ever felt I was good at was reading, and that made me feel stupid.”
“The transfer system taught you that if you weren’t good at math and science, and you weren’t passing the exams, you were stupid. And you didn’t fit in the education system. I really hate the transfer system so much and the fact that our politicians back it because it can destroy lives and self confidence.”
“I had a couple teachers who told me I was good at something, who were fantastic. But most just gave up on me. And you know, mum would tell me I was smart, because mums do that. But you don’t believe them. And you’ve got the teachers contradicting her. Then a teacher said, ‘I have faith in you,’ and that was it.”
“What that teacher did was pull me back from the brink. It was intervention. She told me I was smart and had a talent, and, like wow, no one ever told me that before!”
While at school Lyra was encouraged to join a journalism training scheme for disadvantaged teenagers. With the mentorship and direction she gained while on the scheme she wrote her first story.
“It was the first time in my life that I truly connected with something. I knew this was the one thing I was meant to do for the rest of my life. And it felt like I was actually really good at it. It was like slipping into a skintight suit. It just fit perfectly. I have never experienced anything like it since, it was like electricity running through your body. It was an epiphany moment, Barton. I knew what I was meant to do for the rest of my life!”
Lyra has just been to the dentist and her cheeks are still droopy. She is talking at a rapid pace, and while she does, bloody saliva begins to cover her teeth and stain her lips. I gently interrupt her and point this out. She fishes out from her bag a specially suited hygienic cloth from the dentist. “I almost forgot I was in pain!”
For the last five years, Lyra has been freelancing. At one point she had been enrolled in an undergraduate programme at Queen’s University, but she dropped out. “As someone from a working-class background, it was a culture shock. It was almost like that little voice at the back of your head that says, ‘You’re not good enough.’”
“As well, I couldn’t figure out how it was going to get me to my dream. Because at that point, the journalism industry was falling apart. There was going to be no jobs anyway, so it didn’t matter if I had a degree or not. So I said, ‘I need to invent my own job.’”
Lyra has since made the 2013-2014 shortlist of the prestigious Stanford University John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship and is currently waiting to hear back from the University of Ulster about a PhD application to study the future of investigative journalism.
But it’s her investigation into the murder of Robert Bradford that has kept her up at night, trawling through online archives deep into the wee hours of the morning.
“The book is about the last weeks of Reverend Robert Bradford who was the only Northern Irish MP to be murdered during the Troubles. He was a Methodist minister, he worked in West Belfast, was originally from Sandy Row, and was an interesting guy. But really the reason it matters is because there are so many questions about what really happened to Robert Bradford.”
“There’s this rumour. Before he died, Reverend Bradford was asking questions about something sensitive. But no one knows what it was. And I’m totally intrigued by this.”
“This guy was basically an investigative reporter by night. He was a politician, but at the same time tried to hold power to account. He was an opposition politician. And constantly digging stuff up.”
“He had this final story that he didn’t get to finish. So I want to finish his final story. Find out what it was and see it through to the end.”
Lyra has been working on the book with no funding for nearly twenty months on her own free time. The launch of the crowdfunding campaign tomorrow marks the next step in the project and Lyra hopes that with the money she generates she’ll be able to afford trips to archives in London and sources in the Unites States.
Coming from a Catholic-Nationalist background in North Belfast, it’s perhaps surprising that Lyra would choose to devote her first book-length project as a journalist to the life of a unionist politician. I asked her to tell me why she was so intrigued by Bradford and why it was important that his story gets told now.
“He was originally from the Sandy Row. He was a working-class boy in Big House Unionism. He said a couple things which led people to accuse him of being a bigot. I think he screwed up sometimes. He had issues with the Catholic church, for example. So he protested at a Catholic service being held at Westminster.”
“But he was very good friends with Gerry Fitt, who was the Catholic MP for West Belfast. He had a cross-community church group. So he was all these things, and yet he gets painted as this bigot.”
Bradford made a series of mistakes, Lyra believes, because he could not handle the pressures of his public role. “You never saw the really good things he did for Catholics in the background. Here’s the problem, we’ve only ever seen Robert Bradford in the context of a war. We’ve never actually seen the person that he would have become, the politician and peace maker he probably would have become if he’d lived. We’ve only seen him stressed and not really coping.”
“We only see politicians when they’re making the headlines, and it’s usually for the wrong reasons. For me as an investigative journalist, it’s fascinating. We have this picture of him that is really one dimensional. But he’s a lot more complex. It’s changed my mind on the Troubles.”
Like all good writers, Lyra is trying to complicate our understanding of history. She wants to document an important Troubles-era story that will cause us to rethink the narrative of the conflict in Northern Ireland. “We tend to see the Troubles as one side against the other. And every side is trying to claim the monopoly on history so they can claim to be the good side. Really what you have are people who are victims of their circumstances. They were being humans in very harsh circumstances. We try and find good guys and bad guys, but what we have in fact, are humans.”
With Beacon Reader, an online crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter, readers pay a $5 per month subscription (or more) to fund a writer and also get access to every story from every other writer using the site. Lyra’s project will be featured on the Beacon homepage tomorrow when her campaign goes live.