This article was originally published on the Guardian Northerner Blog
I am angry with Lee Halpin. I am angry because, as a journalism educator and as a friend, I cannot get my head around his loss. He was too young to give his life away in pursuit of a story – even one that needed telling. He needed to make this film. As many have said in their tributes, he was a brave journalist with necessary and original things to say.
I met Lee during a writing workshop three years ago. He was feisty, generous with his comments, nattily dressed, interested in the voices of others. When Lee and his friend Kerry Kitchin launched the arts and culture magazine Novel, I asked them to run a journalism class for me. Lee commanded the room of aspiring writers with an attention to detail and maturity that belied his age – he was only 24 at the time.
Lee was not my student, but he was a courageous journalist who was willing to tackle difficult stories by placing himself in dangerous and frightening situations. I wish he had been my student – maybe then we would have talked about fearlessness in covering a story.
Lee was investigating the rise in homelessness and the repercussions of the ‘bedroom tax’ in the North East. His body was found in a derelict hostel on Westgate Road in the city’s West End. He was following the story as part of a call by Channel 4’s Dispatches on ‘fearless journalism’ to win a 12-month contract. He had set out to “sleep rough, scrounge for my food, interact with homeless people and immerse myself in that lifestyle as deeply as I can”.
Lee believed the issue of homelessness was “politically, socially and culturally” important, especially in the region. Official figures from March show homelessness has increased 10% in the last year and, according to his contact at the Crisis Centre in the city, the figure of those sleeping rough had risen by 31%.
Socrates defined courage as the knowledge of what is and is not to be feared; not every fear should be ignored. Perhaps those who had slept rough all winter knew it was too cold a night to stay out – Lee had earlier put out a tweet for a sleeping bag. Perhaps they knew better than to sleep in derelict buildings. The cause of death has not yet been found – but it is certain his fearlessness contributed to his death.
I came up against my own limits as a journalist when I was offered a role in Palestine. I didn’t go, partly because of fear of the situation. I am now trying to understand what has happened to Lee for my students, who I want to encourage to be curious, courageous journalists. Where is the boundary? When is fear a good fear? How do you combine fearlessness with safety, with knowing when to step away? In his final video for the competition Lee said his approach “certainly feels brave from where I’m sitting now”. He cannot be criticised for that. But I’m still angry with him for it.
“Trash the supplements, trash the columnists, fire the editorial writers but don’t fire the frontline reporters,” said Andrew Marr in 2008, awarding another friend and fearless reporter, the Times’ Deborah Haynes, with her investigative journalism award into the plight of Iraqi translators working with the British.
Lee was a frontline reporter at the beginning of his career. I am angry with Lee for dying before that career developed, before we could learn from his work, or invite him to come and inspire future journalism students.
It is not lasting anger, of course. It is sadness. And more than both, it is admiration for Lee’s work and his sacrifice in wanting to tell this story that often goes unnoticed, about homelessness and vulnerable people. Homeless people do die in the cold. If we only identify Lee’s death as tragic because he was a journalist who didn’t need to be there, then we will not have listened to his story.
Picture (C) North News and Pictures