It is not everyone who is able to find their vocation in life and by so doing make a real difference to the society in which they live, but such was the case with David de Caires, Editor-in-Chief of the Stabroek News who died yesterday in Barbados. He began his career as a solicitor in the days when there were two categories of lawyers – solicitors and barristers – but discovered his true purpose in life when he became involved in the publication of the New World Fortnightly which appeared between 1964 and 1967. Mr de Caires’s concern for seeking workable solutions to Guyana’s intractable political problems dated from those days.
The late Editor-in-Chief of this newspaper had almost reached his fiftieth year when he embarked on the venture which was to make him a household name in this country. The story of how Stabroek News started has been told on several occasions, along with the role played by Mr Ken Gordon − at that time of the Trinidad Express − in getting the paper under way. At first a weekly, the newspaper entered into a world where freedom of the press had been denied for ten years, and it played a major part in opening up the society.
Mr de Caires was clear from the beginning about the objectives of the newspaper, and while experience modified his style, he never deviated from its founding principles. From the very first issue the new editor committed the paper to espousing the cause of a free and open society in which the rule of law prevailed, and independent institutions were allowed to flourish. In 1986 that also included free and fair elections, and Stabroek News did not waste time in adding its considerable voice to the campaign for these.
In describing what was entailed in a free and independent newspaper, Mr de Caires explained in a policy statement in the first edition that the newspaper would not be “free of any perception of the interests and operations of its owners. No paper is or ever will be, so free. We are free of direction by any outside institution.” And so the paper has remained. Mr de Caires would not be intimidated by governments, individuals or advertisers, and if there was a matter of principle at stake, such as free speech, there was no backing down. “We cannot afford to be in anyone’s pocket or even in their corner,” he once said, “the free press must see itself as an important arbiter committed to ideals and values that transcend interest groups of one kind or another…”
Along with his belief in an open society, the late Editor-in-Chief also laid great emphasis on the importance of the private sector in developing a nation, and by extension, on the evolution of a business culture in Guyana. From the beginning, therefore, he ensured there was extensive coverage of economic and related matters, which in due course provided the foundation for the Stabroek Business, a supplement which still appears weekly.
Mr de Caires had strong views on the matter of responsible and balanced reporting. The “unforgiveable mortal sin in journalism,” he used to say, was having an attitude to the news. Above all else, there must be a respect for the facts. Editorial sympathies could exist and be expressed in an editorial, but these should never colour an editor’s role as a recorder of fact. And he intended the Stabroek News should be a newspaper of record, which would in addition cover the serious issues and not just the popular ones, even if they did not have a large readership. He regarded the profession of journalism as greatly undervalued in this country, and tried to raise professional standards by sending the paper’s young journalists for training whenever possible.
When SN first appeared on the media scene it was its letter columns which made the biggest impact. Neither the Mirror nor the Catholic Standard, which had published through the Burnham years had ever had enough newsprint to make possible the inclusion of letters from the public at the level which Stabroek News could offer. The late Editor-in-Chief regarded these pages as representing the heart of the newspaper, and even in his later years when he had ceased to involve himself in the day-to-day running of the paper, he still edited the letter pages himself. An independent newspaper, he believed, could accustom people to think for themselves and form their own opinions, particularly in circumstances where the free expression of views had been inhibited for so long.
“To run a newspaper one has to have a bit of a mission,” he once remarked, “that is why I started.” And that, perhaps, was what distinguished Mr de Caires from many others, in that he eventually settled on a path in life not for money or for personal aggrandisement, but because he had a vision for the society, because he wanted to make a difference and because, it might be added, that he wanted to make some lasting contribution to the political debate. As such, one has to conclude that having invested his life with purpose, he achieved a level of fulfilment to which most people never even aspire.
And personal fulfilment aside, that “mission” has left an institutional legacy which cannot be denied. Not only did Stabroek News play its part as said above, in opening up the society prior to 1992, but it has remained committed to the role of watchdog of democratic values and the rule of law since then. This role has earned it few friends in high places, but that certainly did not bother the late Editor-in-Chief. He regarded independent institutions, as said above, as critically important to a functioning democracy, and Stabroek News is certainly an independent institution. He often liked to quote playwright Arthur Miller’s comment that a good newspaper was “a nation talking to itself,” and he hoped that the newspaper which he had founded was providing a vehicle for the national conversation.
For all his remarkable contribution to the society at large, those who worked with Mr de Caires will remember his personal attributes. He was, it must be said, extremely well and widely read, and had a range of interests. Articulate, intellectual and rational with a robust sense of humour, he bore no grudges, no matter what was said about him, and was incapable of petty vindictiveness. He was too a fair and kind employer, and he enjoyed talking to the various members of staff, who regarded him as almost a friend rather than a boss, who listened to their concerns and opinions. Ever courteous, he made time for everyone, no matter how much pressure he was under, or how unwell he felt.
To his sorrowing family Stabroek News offers its sincerest condolences.