Saturday 25 November 2017

Aengus paved way for a shift in Irish media

I OWE a great debt of gratitude to the late Aengus Fanning because he was, in many ways, a cultural forefather of mine.

Before there was VIP magazine, before we started puffing up the lives of minor celebrities whose chief claim to fame was looking good with a glass of bubbly in their hand, The Sunday Independent, under the leadership of Aengus Fanning, was leading the way.

Perhaps first amongst any other journalist or publisher in Ireland, he latched onto the curiosity of the nation when it came to people who were not traditionally considered "newsworthy". Because newsworthy, to Aengus, was simply something worth printing in a newspaper.

Many people don't remember just how ground-breaking The Keane Edge, the defining social diary launched by Aengus, was at the time. Under the stewardship of Terry Keane, it was Ireland's first proper celebrity column, similar in popularity to the Late Late show, but choosing to focus on the social, rather than working lives, of its subjects.

Wives of businessmen and politicians were brought into the public consciousness, and their lives were documented in a manner that provoked a mixture of fascination and envy.

Fifteen years after he started the trend, we picked up the baton and launched VIP in 1999. By that stage, Aengus had laid the groundwork in creating an interest in beautiful, glamorous women.

Articles about Bertie Ahern were all well and good, but the real appetite amongst Middle Ireland was for an insight into his then partner, Celia Larkin -- our cover star for Issue 3.


The parallels don't end there -- aside from the content, there was public opinion. Just like the Sunday Independent, many of us have been constantly criticised for avoidance of "serious" news, focus on celebrities and not publishing church notes.

And just like Aengus Fanning, I would always use the defence that if the good people of Ireland didn't want it, they wouldn't buy it, and if they didn't buy it, we'd quickly go out of business.

It's a particularly Irish illness, the almost automatic desire to criticise something just because it's a popular success.

In some minds, The Late Late, Liveline, The Sunday Independent, the Herald... they're all "rubbish." The very fact that they are market leaders bizarrely reinforces this "fact" because, let's be honest, your average Joe knows bugger all. This elitist, arrogant attitude gets shown up time and again in, funnily enough, rival "high brow" media.

Aengus was a firm believer that the 'public interest' wasn't some pompous, high-brow concept to be discussed by academics -- it was simply what the public was interested in.

And if they were interested in the holidaying habits of a south Dublin solicitor's wife, or the juggling act between career and children being made by a female autocue-reader, then so be it.

He was happy to plug a celebrity -- ie, traditionally 'non-news' story -- on the front page of the paper, and follow it on that most sacred of sheets, Page 3.

While other newspapers felt constrained to give the weightiest story of the day this prominence, Aengus understood the concept of light and shade, and a story about a businessman's run-in with a model half his age would be given pride of place.

And after rival newspapers got tired of sneering at this practice, they did what all sensible commercial enterprises do, and followed the leader.

Aengus Fanning was a groundbreaker, the trendsetter, and the man with his finger on the pulse.

In our shiny, glittering little world of glossy magazines, he will always be The Guv'nor.

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