22 Aug 2017

My friend Liz MacKean: a forensic journalist who had time for people who others ignored

Newsrooms are not always known for their caring sharing environment and the arrival of a new reporter is a bit like a stray animal pitching up into the middle of a pack – everyone staring suspiciously at the new arrival, looking them up and down and wondering just how much of a threat this person is going to be.

So in comes Liz, so striking, beautiful, absolutely oozing confidence. She had a real stride about her – it would have been easy to be unnerved by her, put off straight away. But there was something very unusual about her. There are plenty of people in news whose confidence is a weapon to overwhelm and undermine their colleagues but Liz just wanted to do a brilliant job and wanted you to be as good as you could be too. So you could envy Liz her talent but you couldn’t begrudge her it.

I’d watch her pieces and just have to concede, every time, she was so bloody good. There was an hilarious inevitability about going home after a night when we’d both had pieces on and as I walked in the door, my husband would say, “Blimey, Liz’s piece was excellent…”

The thing was, from the very first moment you met Liz, you felt an absolute palpable warmth about her. She loved people, and that is absolutely central to why she was so good at her job. She had a combination of skills that is much rarer in journalism than it should be. Not just a forensic, brilliant mind – plenty of journalists have that – but it was coupled with a genuine interest in hearing people’s stories, and most often people who were considered unimportant, not used to getting their stories heard. Her openness and warmth meant people, so used to being dismissed or ignored by authorities, trusted Liz and felt able to talk to her. It’s why the whole Savile debacle was so wounding for her.

Liz and producer, Meirion Jones, had begun investigating allegations in 2011 that the late Jimmy Savile had sexually abused young girls at a school. They’d spoken to scores of women and convinced by them, in turn, the pair managed to convince several of them to speak on camera. But their investigation was shelved by the BBC, prompting a huge crisis for the corporation and the beginning of a truly crushing period for Liz. The story was eventually broadcast by ITV.

Liz knew it was a brilliant scoop of course, but she also knew those women had trusted her, believed that she wouldn’t let them down. Liz, in all aspects of her life, was loyal and I think because of that, she found the lack of loyalty from the BBC to her over Savile, particularly devastating. She loved Newsnight, she loved the BBC with a passion and yet during that time she genuinely felt they were out to destroy her.

I’m now constantly – and painfully – reminded of speaking to her back then and how it was the first time I’d ever heard any sort of anxiety, or sadness in her voice. She knew she was right – she knew that absolutely – but she said she felt the full weight of the corporation working against her and it was clear how difficult it was. I hate hearing that voice in my head now – it was so unlike Liz, always upbeat, strong, positive.

I absolutely love though, the photo of her coming out through the revolving doors of the BBC with her beloved colleague and friend, Meiron , behind her, after the Pollard report had been published. She looked relieved, vindicated, justified.

I think it was always an enormous sadness to her to have to leave the BBC but she said despite being vindicated she felt frozen out. She was certain things would never be the same again and so – with her customary toughness – she walked away.

She went on to do fantastic work outside the BBC. But I often think – long before Savile – the BBC missed a trick with Liz. She had a fantastic career but when we were at Newsnight , it was a time when the BBC’s main flagship Ten O’Clock news was often chock full of male reporters – it wasn’t uncommon to watch for fifteen minutes before, as Liz and I used to say “a bird turns up” in front of the big news board in the studio for a quick minute. She could and should have been one of their big hitters, she could have stood her ground with the “big beasts” at the top of the Ten running order with ease.

But in the end, it wasn’t what really mattered to Liz. She absolutely loved life – every aspect of it and she wouldn’t let work get in the way of the important stuff.

She was a terrible – but glorious – gossip. Every time I had a day off I’d get an urgent breathless answer phone message from Liz which always started with “Jacks, it’s Elizabeth Mary MacKean here. I have some really important news for you. You MUST ring me back as soon as you can.”

In the beginning I’d ring , panicking that some massive story had broken , but I soon learnt that she’d just want to talk about some absolute nonsense in the office, some ridiculous thing one of the bosses had asked her to do, or some speculation about who might be going out with whom. She always said it was “strictly entre nous” but an hour later I’d have one of her other friends telling me the story, insisting I didn’t pass it on because Liz had told them it was “strictly entre nous.”

She adored her partner Donna and her two children, Alex and Will, and talked about them constantly. Their wedding was a perfect illustration of Liz’s character. As we all sat waiting, Liz and Donna walked down the aisle looking stunning to some rather unexpectedly traditional wedding music. Thirty seconds in, it turned into some mad hip hop and they danced the rest of the way down, both women laughing and looking delighted with it all.

At a party just before I left the BBC, we were all, I won’t lie, absolutely hammered. She never stopped laughing as she danced round the room, smiling and hugging everyone. She span past me and shouted “I adore you Jackie Long and I’ll miss you.” And now all I can think is we adored you, Elizabeth Mary MacKean, and we’ll miss you too.

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