Tobago

Tobago
Horizon at Sandy Point

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

More than words

In the early 1990s, the Guardian newspapers were riding a new wave, linking with readers, providing "information for life" with a modern edge. Or so it seemed to many of us. I had been there five years. We were attracted to the country's oldest newspaper by the ideal of journalistic integrity and the vision of a successful modern medium, articulated by Alwin Chow. Young people with computer savvy took charge of graphic and layout and dragged the "old lady of St Vincent Street" into the information age. Banks of computers replaced typewriters, proof-reading and layout tables, typeset replaced by plate burning and fast modern presses.

Between November 1995 and April 1996, shortly after the change of government, there were incidents that started like small cracks in the ground, but not earth-shattering. It is remarkable that when the worst happens, you are never prepared. You carry on calmly and unemotionally. Your heart is racing. Your mind is reeling. And then, it is over. I never stopped questioning the series of events, re-looking the twists and turns and what ifs, interrogating the past. But not my decision. When I think about the day my newspaper career ended, it is to look back to see what else it would teach me; or to remember the people and the partings.

It was April 1, a Monday, my precious day off because I edited the Sunday paper. We were also in the middle of the Easter vacation. My little car was packed with children, for the day at Blanchisseuse. (In order to have a day to myself or dedicated to the children, I would plan to go somewhere away from phone or office. Contrast Saturday when the children of editors and journalists had the run of the newsroom, the only way for many of us to get the newspaper out while keeping an eye on our youngsters.) I returned home to a ringing phone. It was Alwin Chow's wife giving me the news that Alwin had been fired from his position as managing director of the Guardian newspapers.

I went back to where the family were still off-loading the car, saying, almost to myself: "I have to leave the Guardian."

"Are you sure?"

"I don't have an option."

The next morning I returned to the office to submit my resignation and pack up my personal belongings. Why did I feel that there was no other way? The irony of April 1, All Fools Day, was the "constructive dismissal" of the person who was quixotic enough to stand against interference with the independent editorial process, ending three months of unsureness.

In January, in the run up to Carnival - that silly season - the Prime Minister (himself) had called the newsroom to complain about what he considered an unfair headline. It was unusual, a Prime Minister - the busiest, most demanding job in the land - calling the newsroom to complain. What was more astonishing was the emotion and ire in his voice. He was apoplectic, was the view of the reporter who took the call, and the editor who tried to speak low and slow to calm the situation. He never called again. Instead, there were nightly reviews by a member of the board before the paper went to press.

Compiling the Sunday paper one Saturday: the board member was apologetic; the production manager came to support the editor. These two gentlemen had been friends, colleagues, in another life. It was awkward, it was tempting indeed to slip something in the paper, something really outrageous. But editors are responsible people, keep the the public interest, keeping the public trust.

How much longer we might have tolerated this imposition by the paper's owner, I am not sure. Journalists on a daily basis operate on a treadmill. This is the industry where brains and perceptions and discussions and words are forced to a deadline, to create the product every single day. If the objective was to get rid of the editor in chief and reform the news bias, it was reasonable to assume that production would continue. But the adamant managing director seems to have got in the way and was axed precipitating the break up: six or seven editors followed him. The editor in chief responded by digging his heels in; and didn't leave until weeks later - notions of "going down with the ship"?

Was there another way, I asked myself, again and again. Indeed, the Caribbean Publishers and Broadcasters Association (under Ken Gordon as its chairman) had been attempting to intercede with the owner, and with representatives of the government.

Though I consider myself a perceptive editor, my forte was features, revealing the personalities, the background, the complexities and inevitabilities that create the news. The spotlight was always on the news. I may not have been a target of the owner. But to assume that as a reason for staying would have been disingenuous in the circumstances.

Pressure in 1996 brought by the government was passed on by the owner. It was the owner who invoked what he perceived as the right of his investment. Never mind the paper was in the black for at least two years. It was the owner who came to the newspaper office before the end of that week, to pound the desk and give the clearest message of his owner's right to those who remained, who had not yet resigned; and it was this, the door is there, all ah all yuh could leave too.

It's hard to say - in hindsight - what staying might have achieved. Continuing to be employed in the place that placed us at the centre of the most important story of the month - even the year - was surely more than conflict of interest.

I had been told many years before by a British consultant that the most powerful person in a newspaper is the owner. Words, photography, talent, skills are traded in service to the agenda of the owner. It might be a good bargain when there's alignment between the newsroom and the owner. But there's something inherently unsustainable, even cruel, if there is no independent guarantee of, at least, non-interference.

These lessons and more came home in that period between April 1 and May 3, World Press Freedom Day, in 1996. It is a lesson for everyone - not just journalists - to learn that the free press is a continuous negotiation; that an independent media rests upon one quality - trust -  forged among owner, journalists, readers.  Their agreement is to a principle, not - as is usual in industry - to profit. Furthermore, we learn that a newspaper survives, even thrives, on the most rudimentary skills as long as trust is intact.

In 17 years, I have moved from being an editor for the news, to a reader, a watcher. I watch the 24 hour television news with the same "grain of salt" that I give the daily newspapers. I believe I have a right to know who owns the media through which we receive the news; and I read regularly enough to understand the personalities of those who bring us the news, their strengths, their biases. I accept that every medium has bias; but bias does not negate trust. When trust is broken, it is seldom regained.

(Dear reader, the only news at the "old lady of St Vincent Street" is that the instincts of the owner haven't changed.)




2 comments:

  1. The irony is that we need the media more than we realise. It's now the only effective "estate" left for citizens.
    So what happens when the citizens don't understand?
    Night is falling.

    ReplyDelete