Friday 23 August 2019

'He had a great sense of decency'

A personal appreciation by Ger Walsh

THE TERM ' leading from the front' could never have been a more accurate description of anyone than Dermot Walsh's style as editor at People Newspapers. He was certainly not afraid of work and would never ask anyone to do anything that he would not be prepared to take on himself.

I joined the People in 1986, when Dermot was just a few months into his editorship. It was a time of great change at the paper as Dermot sought to modernise the titles and prepare them for a new generation of readers.

He had tremendous energy and enthusiasm for the job and that was reflected in the papers over which he presided. Dermot was a man for change and moving fast. Early in his editorship he put fashion pictures from the then popular TV series ' Miami Vice' onto the front page of the Wexford People. There was a Wexford connection to the story in that the clothes for the TV series were being supplied by a Wexford man. But many still thought the decision somewhat crazy.

Viewed in the context of the old world of local newspapers it was a bit daft, but I and many others believed that this was exactly the sort of daftness that would be required to drag local papers out of their comfort zones and ready them for the challenges of the years ahead.

Dermot's mind was always racing and he was overflowing with ideas. It didn't matter that many were not really practical in a local context because the ones that worked made a huge difference to how the paper was viewed.

He always wanted to be different, to push out the barriers and not to be 'safe'. At Christmas time in 1986 he came up with a plan to boost circulation in the lean weeks at the start of 1987. At the time it was unheard of for a local paper to publish an election poll and Dermot predicted correctly that it would become a huge talking point.

The poll result bore little resemblance to the outcome of the election itself a month later, but it did achieve its objective, becoming an agenda-setting talking point and, according to many, having an influence on the actual result of the election in the constituency.

When it came to covering the election result there was more innovation. Count day was on the day the Guardian and New Ross Standard were published and so they would not be able to carry the full result. Dermot came up with the idea that we would publish these papers twice that week. The first edition would have the early results and a second edition the following day would have the full result.

Back in the Eighties, newspapers like the People operated in a type of straitjacket controlled by the unions and making any change was a slow and tedious process. But it was to Dermot's great credit that he did manage to publish the papers in two editions and also had the Wexford People on the streets complete with election result and photographs just four hours after Brendan Howlin was sensationally elected for the first time.

In this era of modern technology it is difficult for people to fully comprehend the scale of this achievement, but it was quite remarkable and it was an effort which hugely boosted the standing of the paper in the eyes of the local community. Of course, Dermot didn't achieve these things on his own, but it was his energy, ambition, enthusiasm and hard graft that made it possible.

Life around Dermot Walsh was many things, but it was certainly never boring. From the time he arrived in the office in the morning there would be non-stop communication with the staff, with reporters being fed various story leads which he had picked up somewhere the previous night. It is true that some of his famous ' leads' led straight up a cul de sac, but others produced sensational stories, some of which might never have seen the light of day but for the fact that Dermot was never off duty.

Outside the office he was outstanding company. He was a great believer in journalists letting their hair down after a tough day at the office or at the end of the week. Attendance at Tuesday night's session with The Bushers in The Shambles was virtually mandatory, even if it didn't leave us in great shape to finish the paper, which was then published on a Thursday morning.

He held strong views on many issues and was never afraid to express himself, even if it wasn't always the popular thing to do.

Aside from all his ability as a journalist, I think Dermot's finest characteristic was his great sense of kindness and decency. He was immensely interested in the welfare of others and he assisted many people in a variety of ways over the years with acts of kindness and generosity for which he sought neither praise nor publicity.

His time at the helm of People Newspapers was relatively short, but he did leave a significant mark on the papers and provided a signpost for their future development. His achievements from the editor's chair were of huge assistance to me when I followed him in 1989 and they certainly provided me with a clearer understanding of how to face the many challenges of the 1990s.

He had battled cancer for 17 years and had written extensively about his first successful fight against it. The manner in which he faced that illness has been an inspiration for many others who face similar battles and for that he deserves enormous credit and gratitude.

In that battle he had the loyal support of his wife Joyce, son Emmet and daughter Grainne. To them, and to all his family, I extend deepest sympathy on my own behalf and also on behalf of all those who worked alongside him at People Newspapers.

Ger Walsh is a former editor of People Newspapers Group and is now chief executive of Independent Regionals

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