By Ken Gordon
Ken Gordon served as managing director of the Trinidad Express and CEO and chairman of Caribbean Communications Network (CCN). He has also been instrumental in the setting up of a number of regional media houses. He also served as a senator in the Trinidad and Tobago parliament and as a government minister.
(This speech was delivered on April 1st at the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication in Jamaica and has been edited for length.)
CARIBBEAN NEWS AGENCY (CANA)
Sometime in 1974-75, Bernard Bonser, Rediffusion of London’s Chief Executive for the Caribbean convened a meeting to discuss a planned visit by a U.S. mission headed by Nelson Rockefeller of the US. to meet Heads of Caribbean media. Those present were Bill Lipton who ran the Trinidad Guardian and was Lord Thomson’s Caribbean man on the spot, Ken Ablack who headed the Trinidad and Tobago’s
Government’s Information Department and myself as Managing Director of the fledgling Express Newspaper. We got onto the subject of the Reuters News Service and its very limited dissemination of Caribbean News: a service that was supplied through a Reuters man who sat at a desk in Barbados and received copy from Caribbean stringers operating as freelance journalists in the different islands. They sent their copy through London by telex where it was edited and sent back to the media houses in the Caribbean; all paying a significant fee for information about their neighboring islands, frequently less than one hundred miles away. It was called the Reuter’s Caribbean Service and was one of the absurdities of colonialism which should have long been abolished.
Ablack strongly supported my proposal that the time had come for change. The Rediffusion and Thompson representatives said little. I was then President of the Caribbean Publishing and Broadcasters Association and we appointed a Committee to study the implications of replacing Reuters with a Caribbean News Service. With the assistance of UNESCO, CANA was launched in 1976.
The responses between the Committee’s report and the decision to establish the Caribbean service were threefold.
- Predictably the London media representatives wanted the Reuters status quo to remain unchanged.
- There was initially a mixed response from Caribbean representatives though support for CANA later intensified.
- The Jamaican Gleaner’s Tom Sherman was adamantly opposed. He first argued that it would not be financially viable. This was disposed of by a careful feasibility study done by UNESCO. Then Sherman fully declared his hand. He was convinced that Caribbean politicians could never be trusted to keep their hands off the proposed news service. It would be a propaganda tool he argued and he would have nothing to do with it. Then he walked out.
The vote that saved the day for CANA was cast by Michael Gordon of St Lucia (again no relative) who turned up to his first meeting in Guyana to give support and it was just as well that he did.
Once approved we proceeded without the Gleaner to establish the Caribbean News Agency. In a small way this was history repeating itself, given Jamaica’s earlier decision to withdraw from the Caribbean Federation. The difference this time was that we left the door open for one year. The Gleaner relented, decided to join CANA within the year and we welcomed them with open arms, extending the full rights of foundation membership. What a pity our Governments did not act similarly in 1961 for, during the twelve months which followed, Tom Sherman was replaced as Managing Director by Oliver Clarke who was to prove a Strong Caribbean ally in spite of the many working differences we have had over the years. Oliver later replaced me as Chairman nine years later when I stepped down as Chairman of CANA. He also played an important role in defending PRESS FREEDOM as President of the Inter-American Press Associa-tion and promoting the Declaration of Chapultepec.
But there was another dimension to the CANA story and Tom Sherman’s concerns. The Guyanese government had set its sights on controlling CANA from the outset with the assistance of the Jamaican Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dudley Thompson. We had no evidence of whether or not Jamaica’s involvement in this Guyanese plot went higher up the ladder. Initially we did not appreciate how committed Guyana was to control CANA.
But correspondence was later discovered to confirm that President Burnham had conspired with the General Manager of one of Guyana’s State Agencies who served on the CANA Board to play the role of a double agent. They had embarked upon a Machiavellian plot to emasculate CANA from the outset attempting to mobilize Jamaican and Guyanese state media votes to appoint Burnham’s General Manager as the first Chairman of CANA.
Fortunately, the plot was uncovered by J.C. Proute a Barbadian editor living and working in Jamaica and the danger averted. This is an unfortunate but instructive part of Caribbean history the details of which have been revealed in my autobiography, Getting it Write – Winning Caribbean Press Freedom.
CANA was launched in January 1976 and has maintained its independence throughout its existence. It has been lauded as a model news agency, for the developing world at international forums and has served the Region extraordinarily well. From the 3,000 words per day convoluted service run through London by Reuters, CANA expanded to 20,000 per day directly to Caribbean and other territorial newsrooms before it was forced out of business by technology.
SCHOOL TEXTBOOK PUBLISHING
Then there was the project to reduce the cost of school text books by having them written published and printed in the Caribbean. The objective being to reduce the cost of schoolbooks.
This was tackled in 1983/84 with the assistance of Dominica’s Dame Eugenia Charles who lined up the support of the Prime Ministers of Grenada, St Vincent, St Lucia, Dominica, St Kitts/Nevis and Antigua. Barbados stated their interest but Prime Minister Sandiford preferred not to make a commitment until the project was launched. I was persona non grata with Dr Williams and the TT Government, so our proposal to the Minister of Education in that Country never got off the ground. Jamaica had previously introduced its own formula for reprinting school books on newsprint with UK Publishers which achieved a significant saving in reducing the cost of Primary school books.
Even with all these good intentions, the reality was that some officers in the Education Departments were already authors and were tied to UK Publishers with attractive contracts. This was a major obstacle. But we persisted.
We inspired a collective letter from the Ministries of Education of Grenada, Dominica and St. Vincent, chartered a small aircraft and flew to the 3 islands to have the letter signed by the three Ministers on the day before leaving for London to meet the publishers. We thought this might give us political weight. But not so, the English publishers had done their homework and were waiting for us.
In London, we were told they did not need nor want us. They were printing in the Far East, they were happy with that arrangement, they were not concerned about our suggestions to achieve better prices, they had a captive market and already had text books authored by Caribbean educators. So in the nicest possible language it was conveyed to us, “jolly good try chaps but shove off”.
But we persisted.
We identified 10 experienced Caribbean authors and with supporting staff took 15 people to Spice Island Inn in Grenada for 2 days. We developed an action plan and a structure to commission publications in Social Studies, Mathematics and a comic book style series on Caribbean heroes, a series that could be added to, so that students in the region would become familiar with Caribbean role models. Dame Eugenia and I visited Canada and obtained the assistance of the Caribbean International Bank (CIDA) for the project. Then the University of the West Indies whom we had invited to identify with our efforts, intervened. They insisted that the printing of the books go out to tender as was being done in Jamaica. They were indifferent to the fact that in Jamaica the Gleaner newspaper was the only organization capable of printing in such volumes and that this constituted a monopoly. They were equally indifferent to the fact that what was being proposed was a Caribbean publishing industry for school books rather than simply reprinting from the UK on newsprint.
Massive confusion followed. Things were brought to a head at a meeting called in Barbados and chaired by Vice Chancellor Preston of UWI. The seating arrangements for that meeting were dramatic. At the head of the four sided table was Vice Chancellor Preston and senior Administrative Staff of the University, Ministers of Education from the OECS were on the western side. Representatives from UNESCO and CIDA together with Caribbean authors of Text Books were on the Eastern side and our team was on the Southern side. The then Managing Director of the Gleaner Oliver Clarke, was seated alone in the middle of the 4 square tables. Then surprise. The Prime Minister of Dominica, Dame Eugenia who was absolutely incensed over how the process of developing a Caribbean Publishing Industry for the printing of school books was being frustrated and monopolized decided to make an unexpected and unannounced arrival at the meeting. She arrived unescorted that morning from Dominica.
Vice Chancellor Preston made no attempt to hide his annoyance at her presence or his objective of introducing the Gleaner into the process.
Dame Eugenia minced no words and strongly opposed his proposal. We had arrived at an impasse and the meeting was silenced. The Vice Chancellor spoke briefly, brought the meeting to an unceremonious close and abruptly walked out of the room.
We continued without Jamaica, CIDA and UNESCO/ for the international Agencies were not able to advance funding in the face of UWI’s opposition. Caribbean Governments placed direct orders but did not have the funds to pay even at the significantly reduced prices; a difficulty which only arose because CIDA and UNESCO could no longer participate
The books that were then produced and introduced into the schools’ curricula of Grenada, St Vincent, Dominica, St Lucia and St Kitts for three terms were:
Caribbean Junior Primary Maths 3, authors Evelyn Sheppard and Agatha James
Caribbean Junior Primary Language Arts, Author Claudith Thompson
Caribbean Junior Primary Maths 4
Two Social Studies workbooks for CXC Exams by Stephenson C. Grayson and Mervyn C. Sandy
Four Caribbean National heroes in comic-book style
Sir Arthur Lewis – writer Guy Ellis, artist – Lisa Bhajan
Sir Frank Worrell – writer Guy Ellis, artist Sean Aberdeen
Eric Williams – writer Guy Ellis – artist Joanna Ferreira
Clive Lloyd – writer Guy Ellis – artist Sean Aberdeen
It was a monumental effort of organization to secure agreements for the concept, lining up the authors, obtaining approval from the Governments and individual ministers of education, and overcoming the hostility of the U.K. publishers. All based on the dream of Caribbean integration.
Some ten years later, prior to publishing my Autobiography I contacted Oliver Clarke to ensure that the position of the University of the West Indies and the Gleaner were accurately reported and to seek his recollection of events. His comments follow.
I quote: “I do not think Vice Chancellor Preston was partisan. You do him an injustice. He felt that UWI owned the copyright to the books and therefore had the right to commercially exploit the titles. The model of going to tender is the only way of doing that.
This was the mode we encouraged in Jamaica and which regularly delivers the print contract to our competitors the Observer. This is all water under the bridge except that the Caribbean still pays too much for text books.”
It may have slipped Oliver in making the above comment that our complaint related to a period when the Gleaner was the only newspaper in Jamaica. The Observer did not exist at that time. It commenced publication some 10 years after the Textbook project. It was also difficult to understand why the UWI should insist on exploiting titles of books which they would play no part in publishing.
I took a 3 year leave of absence as Managing Director of the EXPRESS NEWSPAPER to function as a Minister in the NAR Government of Trinidad and Tobago at that time, but the Textbook programme was already well underway. The OECS Government placed orders for the books and they became part of the curricula. Unfortunately, it became an increasing problem to pay for them and the Express was forced to finance the costs for an extended period. Eventually they pulled the plug and another potentially transformational Caribbean initiative self-destructed.
From Foreign to Caribbean Ownership
The Jamaica Gleaner is the longest established newspaper in the entire English speaking Caribbean. Established in 1834 with its Weekly Compendium of News it has grown into a Jamaica institution respected for its powerful independence and significant investment in PRESS FREEDOM initiatives.
It has been challenged by many private newspapers over the years though never successfully. But now, the Jamaican Observer which came on the scene in 1993 has mounted an even more serious challenge. After 24 years Jamaica appears to have been transformed into a genuine two-paper market.
The Gleaner was also the only daily newspaper in the Caribbean which survived under private National ownership until the Express came on the scene in 1967.
In those earlier years the Gleaner’s priorities did not extend to the Southern Caribbean though in more recent times they have been very helpful particularly with the STARBOEK NEWSPAPER in Guyana. The EXPRESS which came on the scene in 1967 saw its future development and success in maintaining Press Freedom as being inextricably linked to strengthening Caribbean media. Once it succeeded in winning the battle against the Trinidad Guardian, the former market leader owned by Lord Thompson, it embarked upon a policy of assistance to other Caribbean media houses.
The EXPRESS has since worked with neighbouring Caribbean countries to co-found 3 Daily Newspapers, the Nation of Barbados, Stabroek News in Guyana and the Observer in Jamaica. And guided the turnaround to profitability of 4 weeklies, the Torchlight of Grenada, the Voice of St. Lucia, the Daily Chronicle of Dominica and the Tobago News in Tobago.
The question has been frequently asked why did the Express not attempt to control any or all of the media houses it nursed into financial health. The answer is that it was so consumed with replacing foreign domination of Caribbean media with indigenous control that corporate benefit was never a part of the equation. The overriding objective was institutionalising Press Freedom and this could not be achieved by replacing London owners with Trinidad owners. Forthright and committed journalism was required to stop the spreading virus of state socialism promoted by the Burnhams, Bishops and Coards of the day. Equally important is that it would not have worked. The pride and emerging independence of our Caribbean colleagues signaled clearly that they wanted to do their own thing.
Many years later one of the Region’s most respected academic and business consultants, the late Dr Trevor Farrell, undertook a study of the model of the Express/Nation relationship which had been used with minor adjustments in the six other instances where the Express had assisted other Caribbean newspapers. This is what he had to say:
“In the present environment of mergers, takeovers and expansions in the Caribbean the relationship between the Barbadian and Trinidadian mass communications companies represented the oldest cross border business alliance in the Region.
The Caribbean Communications Network which owns the Express Newspapers provided valuable assistance to the Nation in its formative years. The Nation is currently celebrating its 30th Anniversary.
I have been telling people in Trinidad about this story and suggesting to them that the way in which cross border investments need to take place is using the CCN/Nation mix to build relationships that both parties feel is in their best interest”.
So that you may better understand the pride and independence of our Regional colleagues, let the mood of the Caribbean, at the time, emerge from the following comments which speak for themselves.
Rawle Charles a personal friend from Grenada who knew what had been accomplished with the Express came to see me in Trinidad with the Chairman of the Grenada Torchlight Newspaper seeking assistance. I responded to his enquiry about costs saying there would be no charge other than recovering our costs. Chairman D.M.B. Cromwell took over…” Young man, what are your intentions. I have come here because Rawle has asked me to do so. But I do not like Trinidadians. I do not trust them. I do not believe that you will assist in the way you describe just because you know Rawle. I suspect you really want to take over the Torchlight and it is not for sale.”
Founding Editor of the Nation Newspaper, Harold Hoyte revealed in the book Express Story “One Director accused us of not understanding the ultimate goal of Ken Gordon was to own and control the media of Barbados. He charged that those Directors who accepted Ken Gordon at his word must recognize that Santa Clause was a myth.”
FOUR YEARS LATER
Late Prime Minister Tom Adams – at the opening of the Nation, Fontabelle office –
“Any enterprise which can in 4 short years command such a standing as is now enjoyed by the Nation must give the lie to a sometimes expressed notion that Carib-bean men and women can do little or nothing on their own.”
25TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE NATION
Prime Minister Owen Arthur
“You are a symbol of the Nation’s confidence. Barbados at all levels needs symbols of confidence, excellence and achievement. You are one such.
Phillip Nassief, Dominica’s leading businessman. “In 1983 the New Chronicle was facing closure because of low circulation and advertising. The Board requested the assistance of Mr. Gordon, Chief Executive Officer of the Express.
Within weeks administration and editorial support was arranged through the valued services of Mr George John and Leslie Brunton. Within six months editorial improved, distribution doubled and the Chronicle has survived and continues to play an important role in the life of Dominica
The enormous problems Guyana had to overcome need to be understood. A statement from the late David de Caires then a prominent Attorney in Guyana is reproduced: (Apologies for the frequent mention of my name but accuracy is necessary.)
“The Stabroek News could not have started without Ken Gordon’s help. Having read an interview he had done with President Hoyte in which he raised the possibility of opening a newspaper in Guyana – at the time the media here were completely state-controlled – I asked him if he was planning to start a newspaper in Guyana. He said he was not but if I was, he would do all he could to help. To my consternation as I had not yet fully made up my mind but had gone essentially on an exploratory mission, Ken summoned his secretary and dictated the outline of a plan of action to start a newspaper in Guyana. I left his office in a daze, vaguely aware that I had embarked on a venture that would radically affect both my career as a lawyer and my life.
Shortly after, Gordon and I made another call on President Hoyte who confirmed that the Government had no objection to a newspaper being started but he said that he could not afford to allocate foreign currency to import newsprint and other items.
Ken was able to get a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington which enabled us to start publishing as a weekly newspaper in November 1986. We had no press. The flats were prepared in Guyana and taken over to Trinidad every week by my wife Doreen. The Express would fit in the printing of our newspaper with their printing schedule and Doreen would come back to Guyana with the papers. That arrangement lasted for about nine months until we were able to acquire a second hand press by September 1987 and to start printing in Guyana.
From the beginning throughout several preliminary meetings in Port of Spain and Guyana, Ken was as good as his word and gave all the back-up we needed. Ken provided training and other assistance from time to time and we have continued to maintain excellent relations with the Trinidad Express. In November 1986, Ken flew to Guyana for the official launching of the Stabroek News which marked the return of a free press to Guyana after years of monopolised state control. It was a significant occasion.”
The Stabroek News is another outstanding Caribbean success story which has worked its way through the enormous difficulties of a Guyanese economy starved for foreign exchange. David and his wife Doreen made an outstanding team and Guyana today enjoys a free and independent media because the de Caires family had the courage to walk away, if necessary, from the comfort and security they enjoyed to put it all at risk to make Guyana a better place. Fortunately, the performance of the Newspaper is now justifying the tremendous risk they took.
THE ELECTRONIC MEDIA
Then of course we have had the expansion into electronic media with the Gleaner and Radio Jamaica’s merger at the Northern end of the Caribbean and the Nation and Express into One Caribbean Media in the South. There have been minor changes of ownership in some of the islands but the structure of indigenous ownership essentially remains intact.
Only DirecTV which was originally brought into the
Caribbean by the Express and then subsequently reverted to its original Cisneros family ownership is now owned by a US corporation.
The bottom line is that the transformation from foreign to indigenous control of our media would not have occurred if the courage and independence of our Caribbean colleagues had not been fully respected.
And now we look at some important Caribbean interventions from an indigenous media which have in many instances altered the pattern of events in the Region.
FIRST BARBADOS NATION
In 1974, Prime Minister Barrow of Barbados sought to emulate Burnham’s example in Guyana of taking over media houses. Barrow’s Government was in the process of buying out the Barbados Advocate when the NATION broke the story. A blazing headline told Barbados ADVOCATE SOLD.
Public opinion exploded. So, did Barrow who also pulled back – takeover plans abandoned. Significant move toward State Socialism stopped dead in its tracks.
In 1976, Barbadian gunrunner Sydney Burnett-Alleyne living in the UK and Prime Minister Patrick John of Dominica concocted a farfetched scheme to create the Commonwealth of Dominica and Barbados merging the two islands into a unitary state. Plot exposed by NATION.
Again, attempt abandoned. Alleyne arrested in boat laden with ammunition on path to Barbados.
In 1974 at height of Energy Crisis. Long lines at gas stations. NATION exposed “A Privileged Pump” with access to unlimited supply of gas for Ministers and friends.
Result: End of privileged pump.
In 1983, Cricketers from Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica combined islands signed cricket contracts to play in apartheid South Africa. NATION reporter discovered plan, arranged booking on same flight to Miami, confronted players while airborne. They admitted and toasted in relief the fact that the plan was blown.
Result: Life ban on playing cricket…. later reduced to 7 years.
Using the powers of its Public Emergency in 1976, the Jamaican Government introduced censorship of the Media: a requirement to have news approved by Government before publishing.
The GLEANER newspaper was steadfast in its refusal to submit its publication for censorship.
The Caribbean owes the GLEANER an on-going debt of thanks for this historical example of courage.
Trinidad & Tobago
In 1971, a black American Dentist Dr Hannah and his wife were forbidden to play tennis at the Trinidad Country Club. An EXPRESS investigation exploded story – mounted on-going crusade on grounds of discrimination. Chief Justice appointed one-man Commission of Enquiry. Apology to Hannahs.
Result: Business Community mounted advertising boycott to close down EXPRESS. 12 writs filed by members of Country Club Board – still awaiting trial.
In 1972, Black Power demonstrations. EXPRESS condemned behavior but called on Trinidad society to accept part of responsibility and to look within itself for answers. Also, mobilized strong support calling for changes. Strong community support including Roman Catholic Archbishop Pantin followed.
Result: Advertising boycott intensified. Circulation climbed through the roof, – size of paper reduced to 16 pages – selling price covered cost of production – near disaster turned into opportunity. EXPRESS turned around and never looked back.
Sometime in the mid 1970’s a Public Order Act was introduced by the PNM Government calling for harsh measures to cope with National unrest. EXPRESS led crusade against the Act forcing it to be withdrawn by the Government.
In 1997, the UNC Government invited comments on Media reform in a Green Paper designed to erode PRESS FREEDOM. This too led to an Express crusade which forced withdrawal of Green Paper with great embarrassment to Government.
Result: Prime Minister Panday attacked the Chief Executive Officer of the Express in a public address. The CEO, took the Prime Minister to Court. Justice Jamadar forcefully concluded, “On the evidence in this case the Prime Minister could never have honestly or reasonably believed that the Plaintiff was a pseudo-racist”. “In my opinion the Prime Minister was actuated by malice.”
This matter was pursued all the way to the Privy Council. It was heard by some 8 Justices in its passage through the High Court, Appear Court and Privy Council. Acting Chief Justice Sharma was the only dissenting judgement at level of Appeal Court. He later publicly admitted after being challenged that he had made a mistake and had attributed to the Plaintiff, statements which the Court records confirmed had not only never been made, but which had been categorically denied by the Plaintiff under cross examination.
And so, my young friends, I have come to the end of my Caribbean journey as you prepare for the beginning of yours.
I wish I had brought my crystal ball with me today for it may have signaled a conclusion to Caribbean Integration which the reality of our experience denies. Its logic cannot be faulted but its implementation quickly turns into a nightmare as self-inflicted obstacles multiply:
- Like establishing the structure of the Caribbean Court of Justice, then frustrating its operation;
- Like denying the Caribbean Textbook Publishing project.
- Like the extraordinary costs of governance of 13 tiny islands many with less than one hundred thousand people, all insisting on sovereignity.
- Like the pomp and pageantry of a CARICOM Heads of Government meeting with 13 National flags, 13 anthems, 13 Heads of State with supporting establishments, 13 Prime Ministers with 13 Cabinets, some larger than the United States and England, 13 Leaders of the Opposition, 13 Parliaments, 70 Ambassadors, Foreign Missions and Consulates, all with heavy foreign exchange commitments. All to support the Governments of 6 million people.
Think of what such revenues could do in Development.
This is our reality which our political leaders cannot find the political Will to change. But the logic of working together must continue. Unlike 1961 when the Federal experiment was politically driven now the links are being driven between Caribbean People and their organizations. People who today know infinitely more about each other than they did 56 years ago.
An indigenous Media is a powerful resource to grow and develop these linkages. More than ever communication strengths will expand the advantages of technology as you prepare yourselves to lift your horizons and challenge the World.
Usain Bolt has done it. So has Brian Lara. So have our other Caribbean Nobel Laureates and Champions. Why not You? The impossible barriers no longer exist. Let your personal development be your primary focus at this time.
I share with you some guidelines that may assist in confronting that ever shrinking World.
Think BIG – everything is possible. Determine where you want to be in 10 and 15 years, then plan how to get there. Remember that every plan must have a worst case scenario and be guided by that prospect. Identify landmarks to monitor progress. Liming and drifting with the crowd is the surest way to mediocrity. Do not be afraid to be alone in your convictions or to fight for them. When you fall and you will……. get up and start again…. often that’s when opportunity arises.
Do not magnify problems; the qualities that lead to achievement are enthusiasm, creativity a thirst for answers, integrity and professionalism. Achievement is not an end in itself, it is an on-going process which is ever grappling with the next hurdle. Success cannot be achieved by material accomplishment alone. It is the man or woman you become, the family you love, the people you help and how well you serve your God and your Country that will ultimately determine your success.
So, congratulations on the road you have travelled and good luck with the road ahead