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History Through the Journalistic Eye

Burns Scholar John Horgan has built a unique perspective through three careers

Burns Scholar John Horgan. (Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Nov. 10, 2014

John Horgan, the Burns Library Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies for this semester, draws on multiple perspectives from careers in journalism, public life and academia for his teaching and research.

Currently teaching a course on the politics of constitutional change in Ireland from 1922-2013, Horgan will present a free public lecture, “Journalism: The First Draft of History?” on Nov. 19 at 4:30 p.m. in the Burns Library’s Thompson Room.

From 1962-76, Horgan worked as a writer and editor for the Irish Times covering religious affairs, education and foreign press coverage. While still at the Times, he was elected to the Irish Senate and later to the Dáil – Ireland’s principal legislative chamber – and the European Parliament. In 1983, Horgan became a professor of journalism at Dublin City University (then known as the National Institute for Higher Education, Dublin), where he taught until his retirement in 2006; a year later, he became Ireland’s first press ombudsman.

The author of biographies on major Irish political figures such as Mary Robinson, Sean Lemass and Noel Browne, Horgan – who earned his doctorate in history from University College, Cork – has published several books on Irish media.

Horgan recently spoke with the Chronicle’s Sean Smith about his three careers, his impressions of Boston College, and why he’s not ready to declare print journalism dead.

Give us a little flavor of your upcoming lecture. You think a lot about the interplay between history and journalism, don’t you?  

I’m fascinated by newspapers’ role in history, something I think is undervalued. A well-written newspaper is a cultural artifact in its own right; if you read the old papers carefully, they’ll give you a well-rounded idea of what society was like at the time. That doesn’t mean everything they write is “right,” but it is often vivid reading and can give you a valuable missing piece or two. A good journalist does a balancing act between audience and voice, and even if they get it right they have to add spice to the sauce in the recording of specific details. Historians go for the big picture, but it’s those details that illuminate the events.

For example, in 1867 a band of young Irish-Americans were arrested in Waterford for coming to aid a failed rebellion. The newspaper report was full of praise for the soldiers and the constabulary, but you also get little glimpses of sympathy for the young men shown by the townspeople. There are different things happening on different levels; you get the sense the reporter is speaking to the lords on the one hand, but to the common people on another.

That doesn’t always happen, mind you. All too often, journalism becomes stenography for the powerful. I prefer the fresh-air, shoe-leather style of journalism, where you go out and about, use your powers of observation and avoid the trap of re-engineering stuff already written.

Perhaps in 50 years, scholars may look at the 1995 referendum that cleared the way for divorce in Ireland, and they’ll note that there was a low voter turnout in the more conservative part of the country. But if they don’t read a newspaper, they probably won’t know there was a big downpour most of the day in that area, which certainly had an impact.

Journalism won’t replace history, and it’s not the “first draft.” I think it’s more accurate to regard journalism as history shot on the wing: a lot of feathers but hopefully the bird as well.

What impressions have you formed of Boston College since you’ve been here?

I actually spent time here, briefly, while I was a fellow at Harvard during 1987-88; I taught a course at BC on Northern Ireland for a semester. But this visit is substantially different in many ways, and I’ve been able to make far more contact within the BC community than before. There is a fabulous range of events to go to, and I like the atmosphere of informality and approachability – you’re really expected to introduce yourself. It’s a very relaxed, open place.

The students are bright and dedicated, and a pleasure to work with. We talk about Irish constitutional issues and how some of these – gay marriage, abortion – have been issues in the US as well. We’ve had some wonderful discussions.

As Burns Scholar, you get to use the Burns Library’s Irish Collection for your research. What kind of project are you working on?

I’m interested in Irish-American newspapers, particularly 19th-century Irish Unionist papers. Irish history has tended to be the history of Irish nationalism, so material from the Unionist side of things may seem counter-intuitive, but I like being counter-intuitive. Burns has really good stuff of this kind, too. I think a rounded approach is a good confidence-building exercise in defining national – as opposed to nationalist – culture, and covering material that historians neglect.

You started out as a journalist, of course, practically right after finishing college. Were you inspired by anything in particular to make that a career?

Not really, I just discovered while in school that I loved writing. I was supposed to become a lawyer, but I wound up getting my degree in the arts. I said to my parents, “I don’t want to be a lawyer, I want to be a journalist,” and they weren’t very happy about that so I took a job at the Irish Times without telling them. They gradually came around.

I was fortunate to work for the Times in that they had a bit of money to spend, and an editor, Douglas Gageby, who loved to give reporters freedom. And in timing I also was fortunate, because in the 1960s the Irish media were taking people straight out of college and giving them a lot of very important assignments, whereas in the past you had to start at the bottom of the ladder. So in 1965, I was able to cover the Second Vatican Council, and for six days a week I wrote thousands upon thousands of words – and every comma was published. I also got to write about education abroad, and about political developments in Africa and Cuba, which was fascinating.

As I said, I had a lot of freedom, but with that freedom I felt a great measure of responsibility to get things right and go beyond the stuff that had already been reported.

How did you wind up going into politics?

For the first decade or so I worked for the Times, the Fianna Fail party was in power and looked like they’d be that way for years to come because the political opposition was ineffective. So the media, including the Times, took on that role of holding politicians’ feet to the fire, and essentially served as the opposition.

I had a group of friends who had promoted someone, unsuccessfully, for an election and they were trying to find someone new. I’d developed a reputation working for the Times and had had a lot of exposure, so in 1969 they turned to me. It took me all of 30 seconds to say “Yes.” I wound up serving for a dozen years, first as an independent and then as a Labour Party member. When one of the Labour representatives in the European Parliament resigned in 1981, I took his place.

Did you find, then, that being a journalist helped prepare you for public service?

I found the reality of politics was quite different. My new political colleagues looked at me as if I had two heads, and were afraid I’d blurt out all kinds of things. So I had to adopt a trappist mode and not reveal political confidences to any of my former journalistic colleagues.

Having thus worked on both sides, I came to realize that unless you’re an assiduous journalist you miss a lot of stories in the political arena, and you can easily wind up doing “water cooler journalism” – writing about what everyone else is writing and talking about. It takes an incredible amount of spirit and independence to break away from that.

And then you went into academia.

Ireland being the small country it is, I just felt that, after having gone from journalism to politics, I couldn’t simply go back into journalism. But here again I was fortunate: In 1983, I was hired to teach at Dublin City University by a far-sighted guy who wanted to start an advanced course in journalism. This was during the time DCU was in transition from national institute to university status, so its enrollment was starting to grow.

It was a tremendous learning experience for me. I’d been hired to pass on skills, and wasn’t tuned into the idea of a university as a place of research. A few years later, though, I decided I wanted to start writing a book about political history and started doing the research, and after six months I scratched my head and said, “Why did no one tell me about this before?” I’m a great advocate of research as central to the academic experience.

What do you see as the major changes in journalism since you started out? What does its future look like?

I think the basic requirements to be a journalist have not changed. You have to have an intense curiosity about everything, and the ability to put one word in front of another.

But there has been a huge crisis in journalism, because the old economic model is cracked and falling to bits. My argument is, the only way forward is for journalism to survive on its strengths, rather than chase the Internet to where it wants to go. I think some of the most popular websites are associated with traditional news organizations. People consume the information feeds but also continue to value the authenticity and verifiability of traditional newspapers. The problem with the web is how to make it pay for the expensive business of good reporting.

That’s what we have to play to, or else we’ll be drowning in a sea of information while parched with thirst for meaning.