My Big Break: Eamonn O’Neill, investigative journalism lecturer and BBC Radio Scotland regular

NOW in his 13th year teaching journalism and into his 26th as an award-winning journalist, specialising in investigations, Dr Eamonn O’Neill is programme director of the MSc in Investigative Journalism course at Strathclyde University.

He has received honours in the university’s annual Teaching Excellence Awards, following nominations from students, four times in the past five years, with his most recent nomination being announced this week.

Eamonn is a regular on BBC Radio Scotland, both presenting and researching his own documentaries for the station and also reviewing the media on the John Beattie Show (with Stuart Cosgrove) and the Good Morning Scotland programme on Saturdays.

When did working in the media become an ambition?

I remember deciding quite firmly when I was 14 or 15 that I wanted to be a journalist.

I found out at, some stage, that my great-great grandfather and my great-uncle had both been journalists. In fact, when the latter died, his obituary in the newspaper he wrote for said he was born ‘with a pen in his hand and ink in his veins’. That made me smile.

My father has been a big influence too; he remains very, very sharp on current affairs and news.

I was that kid who was sat down in front of the TV when I was very young to watch ‘World in Action’ from Granada TV.

The first book I remember reading was called ‘Four Days’, by United Press International, about the death of JFK.

Enough said!

What was your first ‘media job’?

After graduation in 1989 from Strathclyde University, I was offered a place at Oxford to do a modern history PhD.

Before I could seriously consider it, though, I was commissioned to co-author a book on nuclear testing and its impact on the servicemen exposed to radiation, based on freelance work I’d been doing for anyone who’d commission me; which in turn led me to STV where I was hired to convert my research into a Dispatches documentary.

The man who hired me was young head of News and Current Affairs called Blair Jenkins.

Meeting him was fortunate in more ways than I can ever explain.

Describe briefly how your career has unfolded between your first media job and where you are now.

I worked in network TV, making factual programmes for a number of years.

I enjoyed it very much but it became more about developing and selling the idea than making it, so I eventually left.

I loved the craft of journalism very much and so I started writing long-form feature pieces for magazines like GQ, Esquire and broadsheet newspaper mags back in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Fees were high and the expenses were relatively generous.

I travelled internationally a lot and, eventually, my wife and I lived in the USA for a while in the late 1990s.

It was an exciting period in my life and I learned a lot from journalists I met across there and who I have stayed good friends with ever since.

One impact the USA had on me was noticing the close relationship between academia and journalism. Journalists I admired moved rather easily between stints in the news organisation they worked for and the campus.

So, when the University of Strathclyde offered me the job teaching journalism in 2002, I was really pleased to see if I could make that work for me too.

Simultaneously, I have still researched, presented and produced documentaries – usually investigations – for broadcasters. I’ve also managed to keep up a decent work rate writing long-form articles for a whole range of publications and some books too.

Obviously, academic research also features heavily in my workload these days too.

It allows me to step back and study the industry, its practices, the impact of technology, the trends and to peer into the future a bit too.

I also do some consultancy work advising newsrooms and other organisations about strategic planning and how to use new approaches, models and technological tools to make them more efficient.

I’ve enjoyed this immensely because I like new ideas and find change as a concept and process exciting.

Recently, I’ve been spending more time reviewing the media for BBC Radio Scotland.

It’s allowed me to reflect and scrutinise output in a way that I enjoy. And, I get to work with Stuart Cosgrove, nothing short of a legend in the business, who I’ve known for my entire career.

Currently, I have lot of projects on the backburner but, meantime, I have a big academic book on investigative journalism to finish first.

Any particular big breaks along the way?

Yes, the biggest break was – and I am serious – marrying a great wife. I’ve seen marriages fall apart under the pressure of being plugged into the daftness of the media world. Thank goodness I married the woman I did. She’s wonderful.

In job terms, being hired by Blair Jenkins at STV was a genuine break. He backed my investigative work and that led, in turn, to support for more ambitious projects from the senior figures like David Scott and, of course, ex-World in Action boss, Gus Macdonald.

It was the latter, Gus, who started me working on a miscarriage of justice story – involving Robert Brown – that was followed by his freedom and some accolades for me. I’ll never forget his role in that.

I also was mentored to an extent by the superb David Lloyd at Channel 4. He commissioned my first big network projects when I as at an absurdly young age and firmly guided my work for a number of years.

Later, a succession of editors at Conde Nast and Hearst publishing, really all gave me breaks that are too numerous to mention.

Jeff Zycinski at BBC Radio Scotland, has also been very supportive of my work lately too.

Many a project has started from a quick chat over a coffee – he’s good at spotting potential ideas at an early stage.

Who would you like to thank more than most?

Professor Tom Devine – He was my main educator at university. He did his best to make me rigorous and forensic in my work. He’s a role model for consistency and focus.

Blair Jenkins – He’s never stopped being helpful, impartial, professional and a great friend. He is a fine, fine journalist. I admire his integrity.

Gus Macdonald – He also shaped a lot of my approach to investigative journalism. I respect his lifelong passion for investigations, enormously.

Kevin McKenna – An amazing journalist and a true friend. He’s having a great time in his career right now and it’s exciting reading his work. He is a journalistic contrarian and trouble-maker but always on the side of the angels.

Ross Wilson, at Matchlight Productions. He’s one of the greatest documentary directors of our era. I’ve been blessed – and I mean really blessed – to have him as a colleague and close pal for decades. I love his energy, style and passion for the next adventure.

Whatever I amount to, these five men played a crucial part in shaping the best bits of that outcome.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started?

I wish I had been less competitive and more confident in telling colleagues how much I admired their work – I try and do that a lot now.

I also wished I had known I’d teach one day. It fills me with non-stop optimism. A lot of great parents have done a fine job with their kids. I get to see the fruit of all that effort. It’s heartening.

I wished I’d known that the so-called ‘hard man’ school of journalism would finally die out.

It’s taken more time than I thought, but, apart from a few notable dinosaurs still unaccountably allowed to remain, most have thankfully gone.

I happen to believe and, indeed know, that creative, inspiring, intellectually-stimulating and visionary leadership can produce better journalism by ten o’clock any day of the week, than bullying and intimidation in the workplace can in months.

Finally, I wished I’d known how journalism really is a lifetime’s education. You are never accomplished. You just become more proficient at falling flat on your face and picking yourself up again.

It’s hard work alright, but, God, I love it.