What can Wannabes Learn From The Life Of Georgina Henry?

Georgina Henry

Georgina Henry

Georgina was the former deputy editor of the Guardian who died this month of cancer, aged 53.

At her memorial service in the Round Chapel Hackney last week, friends, family and former colleagues weaved personal stories into their speeches, each full of uplifting remarks, making the occasion more than a typically sombre affair. Such a tone accompanied a request from Georgina herself that the event not be mawkish and full of sadness.

It feels difficult to suggest to aspiring journalists what is required to reach the upper echelons of the profession because of the vast contribution Georgina made to it; but clearly those who spoke of her skills and attitude to journalism did so with ease. This is because Georgina was an easy subject to write about.

SELFLESSNESS AND DEDICATION

Close friend and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger spoke of her genuine selflessness and dedication to the pursuit of a story. Ian Katz, now editor of Newsnight told of his favourite trait of hers; he recalled that George (as she was known to most) used to lick her finger tips before beginning an assignment like a person starved of food ready to eat at a feast.

A TEAM PLAYER

Roger Alton made a point of how the collective audience would have wanted George on their team. During a flight the pair both shared, an air hostess informed George that she was seated at the emergency exit and in the event of an emergency she would be responsible for opening it. So George asked “What exactly do I do?” The air hostess motioned the manoeuvre of pushing and turning the handle; to which George replied “Oh yes of course I will do that!” When Alton finished, “She bloody well would have n’ all”, everyone laughed and nodded approvingly.

CONSIDERATION AND A KIND HEART

There were other mentions of her consideration for fellow journalists, not least trainees and new writers. Merope Mills admitted that without George her career at the Guardian would never have happened. Breaking from the idea of senior figures’ often cold reputations, she recounted that upon recognising anguish in a writer at an appraisal with George; the meeting was put on hold to discuss their relationship break-up.

That kind-hearted, human face of journalism is something that George has entrusted to this generation of journalists and which she will be fondly remembered for. For those who continue to be inspired by her, (recent Guardian trainees included) and those yet to be, it is obvious that becoming a better journalist means supporting the work of others and not becoming immune to the wider issues of human experience to suit ourselves.

STANDING UP FOR JOURNALISM

To the point of cliche and deadened words, journalism in some quarters seems to have lost its reputation as an honourable profession, but wannabe hacks can draw on the exceptional talent of George to change this trend immediately. This might mean taking on a fiery persona at times and identifying with positions of right and wrong on the basis of principle.

For George this meant opening up conversations to all, not reserving them for newsprint writers. It would be remiss not to make mention of the wonderfully courageous and brave effort she brought to the Guardian offices when conceiving and developing Comment is Free.

DEVELOPING A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN READER AND WRITER

Comment threads form a special and central relationship between writer and reader; Georgina’s foresight brought that to bear better than most. While her interests were deeply political, she clearly enjoyed extending debate to an unlimited audience through digital media.

PUSHING BEYOND THE MAINSTREAM

To make the site work, George and her team constantly pushed beyond mainstream political culture. She commissioned the translation of the Qur’an from Arabic to English in the wake of the stigma of terrorism being attached to Muslim communties after the 7/7 bombings in London. Writers of colour were approached, female voices were given more of a hearing, so too the young and old.

Here was the Guardian side-stepping the so-called ‘experts’ within journalism and academia and creating a fresh, diverse range of opinion from which its readers could learn. Some didn’t like it but George was proven to be right in the long run.

QUESTIONING ‘LAZY JOURNALISM’

Her example exposed and corrected the problems of lazy journalism too as she interrogated writers’ copy, while committed to the values of the Guardian. Accepted wisdom has its merits but it shouldn’t go unchallenged. Injustices require careful attention from journalists regardless of experience. While the conversation at the memorial never directly turned to what makes a great journalist, phrases like ‘fairness’ and ‘good judgment’ were spoken of consistently.

MODESTY

Above all else, George was an honest and modest person to the point of naivety. Her last conversations with Rusbridger were characterised by this sense of herself, “I can’t imagine too many people will turn up (at the memorial)” she said.

The swell of people who arrived at the service denied any truth to this statement and learned of a highly motivated woman who drew strength from a work ethic borrowed from her novelist/screen writer husband Ronan Bennett, “Dry your eyes and do your bird (bird translates as time/work).” These words are fitting inspiration to hacks, as George’s legacy is left to journalists ready to pursue what they believe in.

This article was published by Wannabe Hacks on Monday 3rd March 2014.

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