Peter Donnelly’s Final Editorial For The Gown

Peter Donnelly, Editor

It is by no means an outlandish exaggeration to say that the past 18 months have been extraordinarily challenging.  Since the Coronavirus, uninvited, entered our shores no walk or area of life has been exempt.  The management of The Gown was certainly no exception.  The reality of the ‘new normal’ descended in March 2020 and took up residence thereafter.  It is something with which we have all had to contend.

Yet the certainty of change has not escaped certain aspects of our lives and one year since I assumed the editorship of The Gown, I am now introducing the handover to the next young, fresh-faced and bright-eyed Editor, Aidan Lomas.  So for once, I am going to disturb the journalistic convention, by which I have stringently abided, throughout my tenure as Editor and speak personally about my experiences.

‘Pandemic Editor’

It is fair to say that I am, for want of a better phrase, The Gown’s first ‘pandemic editor.’  I took up the role in the midst of the easing of the first worldwide lockdown, at the end of July 2020.  At that point the full scale and magnitude of Covid-19 had not been yet experienced.  I remained hopeful that a resumption of some mode of ‘normality’ would be restored to university life. 

In times of unprecedented challenge, in my role as Editor, I had to be as practical and flexible as was possible.  For much of the time, at home in County Down, I was absorbed by a steady multitude of email communications capturing the sobering statistics emanating from government public health podiums and the hasty retreat by Queen’s University from the hybrid, ‘blended’ teaching model initially envisaged at the commencement of the 2020 academic term.  

I felt that it was my duty to capture the thoughts, concerns and feelings of students in a time when the reassurance of consistency and predictability was in scarce supply.   When you are in a position of responsibility – no matter how grand or modest – the qualities of offering a helping hand and being a reassuring voice are essential; after all it costs nothing.  As the lockdowns have now largely eased and a semblance of, yes I will say it, ‘normality’ has returned, it does not follow that the full effects of the lockdowns on physical and mental health have come to light.  Without sounding overly pessimistic the extent of the impact on people will be laid bare in the months and years ahead.

The Current Climate

What has provided me with no end of encouragement to persevere, even in the darkest of days during the past year, is the consistent flow of contributions submitted to The Gown.  The contributions have featured an array of contemporary topics, yet with one constant – the eloquence, wit and passion with which they have been penned.  The knowledge that there are so many keen and enthusiastic young journalists and writers out there willing to contribute to an esteemed student publication makes the life of the editor a worthwhile and enjoyable one.  It is not just editors that should be encouraged by this but the wider public, as ultimately an impartial voice persistently prying for the truth in a landscape of misinformation is a value to be treasured.

Although The Gown is one tiny speck within the broader journalistic ecology, one speck can make all the difference in a world whose political and social jargon is exercised by fake news; concepts not universally recognised when The Gown was initially established, by then Queen’s medical student Richard Herman, in 1955. 

In recent times I have pondered whether the terms such as ‘fake news’ and ‘hyper-partisanship’ were completely foreign to previous generations of journalists as is often suggested by some people operating under the spell of nostalgic denial.  It is true that the emergence of digital news and social media has compelled these expressions to become pronounced, however, the general principle underlying those terms was certainly not a recent phenomenon.  Therefore, the challenge to impartial journalism, and by extension democracy, has always existed in one form or another. 

At their core, the terms ‘hyper-partisan’ and ‘fake news’ are inherently political and experience has shown us that the entanglement of journalism with politics is not, or should not be a comfortable interaction.  Social media has hastened the advance of such uneasy dichotomies. 

Sam McBride, award-winning Northern Irish journalist, recently signed off from his role as Political Editor of the Belfast News Letter with a constructive observation: “Journalism has many flaws, but if democracy survives as a meaningful concept it will be because there is more good journalism which reveals and explains, and less sensationalist clickbait or lazy regurgitation of press releases.”  I wholly concur with that.

Distance and Reflection

When the world appears so polarised it can become an irresistible temptation to throw in ‘your lot’ with the restless rest and impulsively take a defined position, planting your stake with one camp or another.  Careful and thoughtful reflection and the benefit of clear blue water, however, can make all the difference. 

One of the greatest statesmen and thinkers of the Victorian generation was the four-time Prime Minister, William Gladstone.  He did not earn the credential of ‘the grand old man’ for no reason.’  In his infinite wisdom, after decades of experience encountering people from all avenues of life, he warned that people “are apt to mistake the strength of their feeling for the strength of their argument.  The heated mind resents the chill touch and relentless scrutiny of logic.” 

Even the most seasoned of journalists, commentators, politicians and society as a whole are yet to fully recognise and practice this.  

Onwards To The Future

I know that all editors add their own personal touch and direction to their publications – we are all human after all.  I do not know how drastic that change will be as the next editor’s roots lie across the Irish Sea, in Manchester.  Time will be the ultimate teller of that tale. 

I have no doubt that Aidan and his team will continue the long-established tradition of student journalism and writing that has always set Queen’s University and its body of students apart.  I sincerely hope that my tenure as Editor at The Gown has enriched the experience of its readership. 

Going forward I wish Aidan Lomas and deputy Editor Rory Morrow, and the editorial teams in the years to come, every success.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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