Northern Ireland news

Tom Collins: Jim Fitzpatrick made the world a better place

Jim Fitzpatrick with grand-daughter Gaia

IT was 1991 and The Irish News was about to go through a major relaunch. Then deputy editor, I was responsible for the redesign. On one level, it wasn’t radical. The paper was still a classic quality broadsheet; but everything had been changed for the new look – with the exception of the ink and paper we used.

Dennis Hackett, a blunt-speaking Fleet Street big hitter, had been brought in to advise Jim Fitzpatrick and the board as they pushed through the paper’s transformation. Hackett wasn’t happy with the redesign – in particular, a brutalistic new masthead.

Jim was unnerved, and I came in from my sickbed to defend the change. I suspected then that I got my way only because it looked like I was going to expire at the boardroom table. But I think now that the reason was more profound. Jim listened – one of his strongest suits - he respected other people’s opinions, and he trusted his team.

That masthead was designed to help The Irish News stand out on the newsstands. It did its job before making way for the current one (much to Jim’s relief, I’m sure).

Jim was not a brutalist. But sometimes events meant The Irish News had to respond boldly. When those days came, Jim was strong in his support.

The thing I admired most about him was his willingness to embrace self-doubt. We live in a world dominated by people who think they ‘know it all’, and who make decisions based on a caprice. That was not Jim’s way.

He had firm convictions – not least his faith – and values which determined his actions. But he was humble enough to know that he might not always be right; and that willingness to question, to listen and to learn, is what made him special. He encouraged his editors to question orthodoxies too – and that made for better journalism.

Jim recognised the power of the media. He was often nervous of about the impact our stories might have on the people we were writing about, and he wanted us to be sure of the angles we took in an editorial.

As editor, and I was in the chair for six years, I could expect to be tested and probed. But never once was I dictated to. He was very clear about editorial independence, defending it from outside attack; and respecting the separation between proprietor and editor.

Jim knew it was part of his job to be embarrassed sometimes by the stories we carried. On more than one occasion he was at an event with someone we’d lambasted in an editorial that morning, I’m sure he must have been mortified at times, but he never showed it.

Separation of roles cut both ways.

Independent of the paper’s advocacy of reconciliation, behind the scenes, Jim worked tirelessly to promote peace – supporting those in the churches and civil society who were in dialogue with paramilitaries and those who influenced them.

When he died I said I could think of nobody, other than John Hume, who worked so tirelessly for peace. I do not think that was an exaggeration.

His role as peacemaker was to be an honest broker, not a newspaperman. He never revealed his contacts, or what plans were afoot, to those of us on the editorial floor. He could keep a confidence, and would never betray anyone’s trust.

I can only wonder how many stories we missed that were happening just a floor away in Donegall Street. Thinking about it now, I should have assigned a reporter to keep an eye on the comings and goings up the stairs from the front office.

Because he never put himself first, Jim earned the trust of people from all quarters, and at all levels in society. He was as comfortable talking to the ordinary men and women who came through the doors of the Irish News, as he was talking to prime ministers and presidents. He made each of us feel valued.

Jim was inspired by the English martyr, St Thomas More. I cannot think of better words to describe him than these from the opening of More’s biography written by son-in-law William Roper: “… a man of singular virtue and of a clear unspotted conscience”.

Jim made the world a better place, and encouraged each of us to be better than we thought we were.

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