Shop stewards are few and far between in the upper reaches of the Conservative Party and mothers of the chapel are even rarer but her roots in local journalism are a badge of honour for defence minister Anna Soubry, chief guest at the Journalists’ Charity’s annual reception at the Embassy of Ireland.
She regaled members, supporters and friends with tales of her early days as a trainee reporter on the bi-weekly Alloa and Hillfoots Advertiser and Journal in Stirling.
There was even more amusement when she chided the charity’s chairman, Laurie Upshon, her former boss at Central Television, where she was a journalist and presenter and became mother of the chapel for the National Union of Journalists.
Ms Soubry was welcomed by the Ambassador of Ireland, Dan Mulhall, who spent eight years as a press spokesman for the Irish government and who said he was delighted to welcome guests at an event in the London embassy (30.1.2014) that brought together so many British and Irish journalists and their friends.
He said the Embassy of Ireland was proud to host an annual reception that celebrated the many close connections within the British and Irish media world.
Ms Soubry, MP for Broxtowe and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence, described her initial training as a journalist as one of the happiest years of her life. The Alloa and Hillfoots Advertiser and Journal had two reporters and a couple of sub-editors.
“It was fabulous experience. I learned shorthand and passed my shorthand test and completed my indentures...I am not suggesting there are improper journalists but I like to think I am a proper journalist...I cut my teeth doing court reports.”
After two years as a reporter and presenter at Grampian Television in Aberdeen, she joined Central Television as a reporter and presenter at Central News East at Nottingham. She spoke fondly of her time as a mother of the chapel for the National Union of Journalists.
“I am an old shop steward. Indeed I was clearly appointed an NUJ shop steward because I was even more right wing than the bosses at Central Television!”
As a politician Ms Soubry did have one word of advice for journalists. “I am not sure the relationship between politicians and journalists is the healthiest. Journalists should stand up more to politicians and we should stand up more to journalists. Journalists should work to a strict code of conduct and we should know where the boundaries are.”
In welcoming the minister, the ambassador recalled the eight years he spent as a press spokesman for the Irish government in Dublin, Brussels and Belfast. He probably counted more British journalists among his friends and acquaintances than from any other walk of life. He felt he could say with authority that he was a genuine friend of the profession of journalism.
Quite a few of these friends used to come to him for advice, especially about the mysteries of the European Union. In Brussels he briefed among others Lionel Barber of the Financial Times and Boris Johnson of the Daily Telegraph. “But please don’t hold me responsible for any inaccuracies in Boris Johnson’s copy...but we did have a great time together and I have a lot of friendships as a result.”
Given the centenary this year of Great War, Mr Mulhall said it was fitting to recall the great role played by Irish war correspondents.
William Howard Russell from Dublin, who became a member of the Newspaper Press Fund, was sent to the Crimea by The Times after cutting his teeth reporting Irish general elections in the 1840s; in the 1880s two Irish journalists, Frank Power and Edmund O’Donovan, lost their lives in the Sudan.
“There is a long and distinguished record of Irish journalists contributing to British newspapers and it is entirely appropriate that the Journalists’ Charity should come here once a year so that the Embassy can host this event.”
Mr Mulhall promised that 2014 would be another great year for British-Irish relations. The President of Ireland Michael Higgins would be paying the first ever state visit to the United Kingdom in April.
“There has been outstanding progress in our relations in the last couple of decades. The Good Friday agreement lifted a burden from British-Irish relations, providing the basis for close neighbourly relations and genuine friendship.
The two countries had recognised that British and Irish history had overlapped when Irish people fought and died on the battlefields of the Somme and Gallipoli and the other battlefields of the Great War.
Last month the Irish Taoiseach and Prime Minister David Cameron had visited the cemetery in Flanders and seen the graves of Irish soldiers who had fallen in the Great War. To mark the 100th anniversary a Commonwealth war cemetery will be established this year within the Irish national cemetery at Glasnevin.
In thanking Ms Soubry on behalf of the Journalists’ Charity, Laurie Upshon recalled his first meeting with the minister thirty years ago and he implied he needed no reminding of her days as the NUJ’s mother of the chapel in Nottingham. “Perhaps for the first time I have the last word and not Anna!”
Mr Upshon thanked the ambassador for his hospitality and said it was fitting that the Embassy of Ireland reception should be the event that launched the charity’s150th anniversary.
He looked ahead to the next event in the charity’s anniversary year, a thanksgiving service at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, on the 20th of February. The actor Simon Callow and the Sky television correspondent Alex Crawford will be among those reading lessons.
Illustration: Anna Soubry, MP, The Times, 8.9.2012