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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

The killing of journalist Lyra McKee

Journalist and author Lyra McKee. Image: Family release by PSNI

The Chartered Institute of Journalists condemned the appalling murder of the highly respected investigative journalist and author, Lyra McKee, while reporting on riots in Northern Ireland on Thursday 18th April 2019.

Lyra was 29 years old and had been an editor for the news site Mediagazer.

She had recently moved to Derry/Londonderry from Belfast to be with her partner, Sara Canning, who worked as a nurse at Altnagelvin Hospital where Lyra was taken after being shot.

For many years her journalism had focused on community conflict and the legacy of ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland.

The Times described her as a ‘Passionate journalist and campaigner who examined the legacy of the Troubles and spoke fearlessly of being gay in Northern Ireland.’

Her reputation widened following her TED presentation in 2017 when she argued that changing religious teaching on LGBT people will literally save lives. She said the fight for LGBT equality is a fight for hearts and minds.

It is believed to be the first time a professional journalist has been killed covering a riot, or public order event in the United Kingdom.

The Institute said: ‘Our deepest condolences and heart-felt sympathy go out to Lyra McKee’s family, friends and professional colleagues. Reporters Without Borders have just reported a world media freedom climate where hatred of journalists degenerating into violence is contributing to an increase in fear. That fear is tragically present in the United Kingdom.’

There is no evidence at present that Lyra was personally targeted for the violence or had been killed because of some gesture of violence aimed at the media.

Lyra was covering the unrest taking place in the Creggan area of the city of Derry/Londonderry.

Detective Superintendant Jason Murphy said: ‘People saw the gunman and people saw those who goaded young people out onto the streets, people know who they are. The answers to what happened last night lie within the community.’ Image: PSNI

The Police Service of Northern Ireland said it was treating the killing as a terrorist incident.

Lyra’s death was claimed as an accident by the paramilitary group of dissident Republicans who call themselves ‘The Real IRA.’

Reporters Without Borders said: ‘the UK remained one of the worst-ranked Western European countries in the World Press Freedom Index, largely due to a heavy-handed approach towards the press, often in the name of national security.’

The Institute adds: ‘This shocking murder of a journalist while simply doing her job is a catastrophic blow to media freedom.’

Lyra McKee was author of ‘Angels with Blue Faces’ and had just signed a two-book deal with Faber & Faber. Her book, ‘The Lost Boys’, was due for publication in 2020.

Speaking the day after her murder, PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin said: ‘First and foremost, I want to say that I share the thoughts of everyone who has expressed their sympathy to the family and loved ones of Lyra McKee – a young woman, aged just 29 whose life was taken in such an indiscriminate and senseless way last night in this city.’

Deputy Chief Constable of Police Service Northern Ireland, Stephen Martin talking about the global impact of Lyra McKee’s killing. Image: PSNI

He added: ‘Lyra’s murder at the hands of a single gunman has been met with global condemnation, horror and revulsion. I should not be standing here today condemning the loss of a young life at the hands of evil who have nothing to offer anyone anywhere.’

The Deputy Chief Constable said: ‘The gunman and those who share his warped ideology should hang their heads in shame today – they represent no one. Lyra’s murder has shocked not just people across this city, but people around the world and there has been a global wave of shock and sympathy from her colleagues in journalism, politicians, church and community leaders.’

The ’New IRA’ released a statement stating that it was responsible for Lyra’s death in a situation that they regretted because they had not intended to kill her.

In a ‘code-protected’ statement it offered ‘full and sincere apologies’ to her partner, family and friends and this was sent to the Irish News newspaper.

It added: ‘We have instructed our volunteers to take the utmost care in future when engaging with the enemy, and put in place measures to help ensure this.’

The group is one of a number of small organisations who remain active and oppose the 1998 deal, which largely ended three decades of violence in the region. It is far smaller than the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which disarmed after the peace deal.

The Times Newspaper said in its obituary of Lyra that ‘As politicians mark the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, McKee’s death acts as a sharp reminder that the relative peace is a fragile one.’

Lyra herself had said: ‘We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us.’

The killing of journalists while carrying out their work is very rare in the United Kingdom. The last such death was that of another investigative reporter from Northern Ireland, Martin O’Hagan, who was shot dead in 2001 while working for the Sunday World.

He was 51 years old, and like Lyra, an active member of the National Union of Journalists. The Guardian said Mr O’Hagan’s ‘exposés enraged republican and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.’

It is believed he had been killed in retaliation for writing a series of articles alleging the involvement of a loyalist paramilitary group in drug dealing.

Five men were arrested and sent for trial in September 2008 for his murder. None were convicted.

It would appear that Lyra’s misfortune was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was within a group of people close to police vehicles when she published her last tweet.

A still from the digital video released by PSNI showing Lyra within the crowd close to a police vehicle during the rioting.

The fact remains that she died in these horrendous circumstances because she was working as a journalist.

She may have been wearing a protective vest as shown in the video released by the police, but did not appear to have any head protection.

Three seconds later this police still shows Lyra appearing to take a picture on her mobile phone that could have been the still transmitted in her last Tweet. Image: PSNI

It is not known whether anything could have been done to prevent her death from bullets fired towards the police from a handgun.

A still from the PSNI digital video apparently showing the handgun at the moment it was being fired towards the police vehicles.

Certainly professional journalist associations and major media groups need to carefully review the health and safety issues raised by this event and whether any lessons can be learned from it.

The Guardian’s obituary on Lyra by Henry McDonald said that she ‘was at the scene of the riot in the republican Creggan area of the city as part of research she was conducting into the dangers of frontline journalism. She had been due to speak at an Amnesty International event next month on the perils of reporting conflict.’

A still from the PSNI digital video showing a masked paramilitary figure apparently holding a handgun to the person’s right side.

The wretchedness of the the night’s events became clear when digital video footage of the violence and its aftermath was montaged for Youtube.

Lyra was very much a representative of a new kind of journalist in Britain where traditional career paths and roles have been broken down by newspaper closures, and rationalisation.

She was entrepreneurial in online and multimedia as well as establishing a widening reputation for campaigning and investigative writing that made waves as early as the age of 16 when she received a young journalist award from Sky News after researching and writing about suicides in North Belfast.

She had a flourishing freelance career writing for Buzzfeed, The Atlantic and the Mediagazer website where she was an editor.

She was also at the beginning of a successful book writing career with commissions from Faber & Faber, and this has been cruelly cut short.

The Prime Minister Theresa May described her death as ‘shocking and truly senseless.’ She added: ‘My deepest condolences go to her family, friends and colleagues. She was a journalist who died doing her job with great courage.’

Lyra McKee’s journalism sought to overcome past sectarian identities in order to build a more progressive and peaceful Northern Ireland. She was respected for her advocacy of LGBTI rights, civil liberties and human rights.

Her tragic death seemed to galvanise political and public opinion in Northern Ireland to condemn violence and prevent escalation of community conflict.

The leaders of Northern Ireland’s five main political parties released a joint statement saying: ‘ ‘The murder of Lyra McKee is first and foremost a devastating loss for her grieving partner, family and friends, and our thoughts are with them at this awful time. Lyra’s murder was also an attack on all the people of this community, an attack on the peace and democratic processes. It was a pointless and futile act to destroy the progress made over the last 20 years, which has the overwhelming support of people everywhere. We are united in rejecting those responsible for this heinous crime. They have no support in the community, must be brought to justice and should disband immediately.’

They added: ‘We reiterate our support for the PSNI, who while carrying out their duties were also the target of last night’s attack. We call on anyone with any information to bring that forward to the police and assist their inquiries. This is a time for calm heads.’

A friend and colleague of Lyra has successfully organised a funding page raising money to pay for her funeral and support her family.

Michael Harris said: ‘I had the pleasure to get to know Lyra through her working on the grassroots campaign to reform the law of libel in Northern Ireland. Lyra was a passionate defender of press freedom and exposing the truth. You don’t expect journalists to be killed anywhere. For it to happen to a friend, in a (troubled) democracy, is just unbelievable.’

Funeral and political impact

Lyra’s funeral in Belfast was ecumenical and in the spirit of somebody who wanted her journalism to dissolve conflict.

It was a service for a Roman Catholic in a Protestant Cathedral.

The Prime Minister and Leader of Opposition of the Westminster Parliament, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn attended.

The President and Prime Minister of Eire, Michael D. Higgins and Leo Varadkar and all the political leaders of Northern Ireland were there.

It dominated the news media for at least 24 hours as the lead story.

On the following morning from The Belfast Telegraph, Daily Mirror, News Letter to The Irish News – all led with the funeral of the murdered journalist

The Mirror focused on the £10,000 reward being offered by Crimestoppers for information leading to the conviction of those responsible for the murder.

Most of the news reports echoed with the voice of the Priest, Fr. Martin McGill: “I commend our political leaders for standing together in Creggan on Good Friday. I am however left with a question:

‘Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?’”

The momentum of this political catalysing continued by Friday 26th April with the news that the British and Irish governments have reached an agreement to establish a new round of talks involving all the main political parties in Northern Ireland, starting on 7 May.

Police focus on the prime suspect with more digital footage of his masked presence

The announcement of the resumption of political talks to resurrect power-sharing coincided with a further appeal from Detective Superintendent Jason Murphy who is leading the murder enquiry:

‘“About one minute before Lyra was murdered, three men walked across Central Drive from the direction of the shops. In the footage you can see these men. At the front you can see a man circled – he’s carrying a crate of petrol bombs towards where the crowd including children, were standing. He is the tallest of the three men – I want to know who he is.

“Behind him you can see two other men. The man on the inside nearest the wall is the next tallest. He’s wearing dark skinny jeans, blue Nike trainers with a white tick and a white sole. He’s wearing a camouflage scarf or other covering across his face. Do you know this man?

“In other footage he can be seen holding a petrol bomb and in the new light his clothing is clearly visible.

“As he walked along the footpath, he was accompanied by the third man. In the footage you can see that he is shorter than both of the other men and of stocky build. It’s my belief he is the gunman that fired indiscriminately into the crowd, placed the community and police officers at risk and took the life of Lyra. You can see he is wearing dark clothing and in other footage you can see this clothing in a different light. People know who he is.”