Veteran journalist Jim McDowell started his career at the Belfast News Letter in 1969, the year the Troubles began in earnest. Raised in Donegall Pass, staunchly working class, he grew up playing in flute bands and dreaming of becoming a reporter, loving the romance of the cut and thrust of newspaper journalism. The bantering Belfast man would go on to become editor of the Sunday World for 25 years and a journalist for 45, gaining a name for himself as a fearless critic of the terrorists wreaking havoc on the streets. In particular McDowell and his colleagues at the Sunday World set about exposing the so-called ‘brigadiers of bling’ who made up the various paramilitary loyalist factions, men making money by peddling drugs, terrorising neighbourhoods with their gangland violence and engaging in the assault and murder of innocent people with apparent impunity. Over the years McDowell has received 21 death threats - enough to wallpaper a room, he jokes - for exposing such criminality; the premises of the Sunday World were fire-bombed; and in 2001 Sunday World journalist Martin O’Hagan was brutally murdered by the LVF because of his fearless attempts to hold murderers and bully boys to account in print, such exposure being wholly in the public interest. Combative truth-telling came at great personal cost: most recently McDowell was assaulted by loyalists at Belfast Christmas Market in 2009.
Now the redoubtable reporter has written a memoir, The Good Fight, detailing his hugely eventful and colourful journalistic career from filing copy over the phone in the midst of terror on the streets to leading the Sunday World on its truth-telling mission. He describes his career with typical bravado as over four decades of “bullets to bylines”.
He was fighting the good fight of producing close-to-the-bone tabloid journalism documenting the Troubles and paramilitary criminality for decades, refusing to compromise despite the threats from hugely dangerous men.
“The stories - even the ones that put my life in danger - had to be told,” writes McDowell. “That was my job. That was what I did.”
This is a fast-paced narrative that will resonate with readers who have lived through the very worst of the so-called dirty war from Teebane to the exploits of Michael Stone and his ‘performance art’ at Stormont Buildings.
McDowell’s ability to deliver the story under any circumstances is the stuff of local legend and upstairs in Belfast’s Duke of York even has a room named after him (McDowell’s Hole) such is the diehard hack’s loyal following.
The fearless editor may be loathed by the loyalist high command but he has plenty of admirers too - his readership understood the bravery and commendable commitment to justice that fired his work and made the Sunday World a circulation success.
As McDowell writes: “I loved newspapers, the feel of them, the smell of the fresh ink, and to end up the editor of a paper was beyond my dreams.”
The Good Fight: From Bullets to Bylines - 45 Years Face to Face with Terror by Jim McDowell is published by Gill Books, priced £14.99.