On reaching 35 years
Time surely flies in the human experience. Yesterday, which was the start of my birth month, also marked the 35th anniversary of my initial walk through the doors of the former Caribbean News Agency (CANA) to formally begin what turned out, generally speaking, to be an exciting and rewarding career in journalism. I chose to use the word “formally” because, in a sense, I had already had a journalistic initiation of sorts several years earlier.
The first experience was as a 14-year-old writing a youth column which appeared twice monthly in the then weekly Nation. It was during Carl Moore’s brief, but impactful, tenure as editor of the then fledgling St Mary’s Row, Bridgetown-based newspaper. That was when the Nation was a respected newspaper which addressed serious issues instead of peddling trivia as happens so often today. I called up Mr Moore one day, told him of my interest in writing, and he generously provided the opportunity for me to prove myself.
That is how the journey all began. The column, entitled Teenager, for which I was paid $15 per article, was terminated almost as soon as Harold Hoyte replaced Moore as editor, having come over from Caribbean Contact, which was a monthly newspaper published by the Caribbean Conference of Churches (CCC). I concluded – as did many other young people at the time – that providing a forum for articulating youth issues and concerns was not priority for Hoyte, as it was for Moore, to whom I am eternally grateful. Only columns like Of Mice and Men seemed to matter.
The second opportunity was as the 15-year-old editor of the Lighthouse, the newspaper of the then Boys’ Foundation School, which, together with the separate Girls’ Foundation School next door, until their amalgamation in 1977, have produced many journalists and media practitioners over the years. It most likely stems from a rich liberal arts tradition with a strong emphasis on language and communication and cultivating an appreciation of their polished use.
Though writing was always in my blood, along with a natural interest and curiosity in whatever was happening around me, journalism was not my first career choice. I saw myself, from about age nine when I was an altar server at St Martin’s Church, as an Anglican priest, the thought of which I still struggle with to this day. However, when Harry Mayers, then general manager of CANA, made me the offer, what was most tempting wasn’t so much the opportunity to write, but to travel and see the Caribbean and wider world.
And so, I entered the Wildey Plaza, St Michael headquarters of CANA on the morning of June 1, 1981, determined, seeing that so many other young people would have loved such an opportunity, that success would not be an option, but an imperative, even though the pay was lousy — just $600 a month. — and was not much of a motivation.
Newsrooms back then were full of noisy typewriters. They were the essential tool of the journalist. Computers, which revolutionized news production, arrived years later when CANA, through a joint UNESCO and Friedrich Ebert Foundation-supported development project, moved to new headquarters on Beckles Road. These first computers were huge, clumsy and ugly, but they made life easier and got the job done efficiently.
Among the first stories I wrote, one painfully stands out. It was steeped in tragedy and involved two childhood friends – a boyfriend and girlfriend from the St Philip community where I partly grew up. The young woman was stabbed to death and the boyfriend was charged for her murder. After he was released from prison many years later after serving time for manslaughter, I went to see him and related the experience of writing the tragic story. It was painful for us both.
While every journalist at CANA was a generalist, except the sports people, political reporting appealed to my interest, because I was already a political animal of sorts. Within five months on the job, it was off to neighbouring St Vincent on the first of what turned out to be countless political assignments around the Caribbean and the world. I remember making the 30-minute journey across to St Vincent early one Saturday morning on LIAT which then flew Avro aircraft.
For the political situationer piece, I interviewed quite a few people, including James Mitchell, then Opposition Leader who became prime minister a few years later, and the late Hudson Tannis, the affable deputy prime minister in the then Milton Cato administration. Tannis lived next to the Arnos Vale airport and I had to compete occasionally with the noise of aircraft during the interview in his patio.
Over the ensuing years, I have covered many historic events, including general elections, heads of government conferences, crises such as the bloody turmoil in Suriname and Grenada in 1982 and 1983 respectively. I also had the good fortune to interview most Caribbean leaders, including Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
The then Dominica Prime Minister Eugenia Charles was a darling. Whenever I visited her home outside Roseau, she would always treat me to freshly made fruit juice from her orchard. Nicholas Brathwaite, former prime minister of Grenada, became a dear friend. He is one of the most decent and honest politicians I have known. I also saw the once mighty Eric Gairy at his lowest when I interviewed him for the last time in June 1995, a few years before his death. Blind, almost alone except for the company of an old lady and a dog, and wearing a vest with a few holes, he was a shadow of his once flamboyant self.
My clash with Owen Arthur during my tenure as editor of the Advocate is legendary, but the most chilling encounter I have had with a political leader involved H. Lavity Stoutt, then Chief Minister of the British Virgin Islands. He was visiting Barbados in the early 1980s and asked if he could be interviewed. Given the assignment, I turned up at the appointed time at the door of his room in the then Holiday Inn. He graciously let me in. Everything went well, no controversial issues were raised, but at the end of the interview, he bafflingly demanded that I replay the tape.
I refused and told him I had to go but he refused to let me.
“Young man,” he bellowed, “let me hear the tape! Now, don’t mess with me, eh.” He then proceeded to give a lecture about good journalism and his disdain for reporters. I finally got out, slipping through as he stood across the door. As I dashed down the hallway, he bellowed a warning that if I wrote anything untruthful about him, he would teach me a lesson. The tape, with the interview and threats, brought much comic relief to colleagues in the newsroom on my return.
A particularly terrible and potentially lethal experience in the line of duty was getting poisoned at a Tobago hotel. The water used to make the tea and coffee for breakfast was laced with insecticide. I, along with a few others who had ingested the stuff, had to be rushed to the Scarborough Hospital to be flushed out. I was the one who sounded the alert that something was wrong with the water. I was there to cover the 1984 Tobago House of Assembly elections. Thankfully, I recovered.
When the typical Caribbean person thinks of regional success stories, CANA hardly ever comes to mind though it was a trailblazer that came to be recognized internationally as the best news agency to have emerged in the developing world within the context of the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) debate. The value of CANA was that it told the story of the Caribbean’s struggle for development from a Caribbean perspective. Sadly, with CANA’s demise, this is absent today and the region is poorer for it.
CANA came out of what was the Caribbean service of the international news agency, Reuters, and applied their high standards to the practice of journalism. It therefore constituted a good training for any young journalist looking to excel. Having this background served a useful purpose when I entered Carleton University on a generous Canadian government scholarship in 1988 to pursue a Master’s degree in journalism. I only had to take a few specialized reporting courses in economics and international affairs and was able to design a study programme tailored to suit my professional development needs and interests.
From CANA where I rose to become Director of News and Current Affairs, I went on to become Editor of the Advocate and later Director of News and Current Affairs at the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). The Advocate saw a few successes during my tenure, including a noticeable turnaround, but the experience was overshadowed by politics. There is little change you can really effect at CBC. It exists primarily to serve the interests of the Government of the day. The CANA experience was the best by far and I am better off, professionally speaking, as a result. I would do it all over again!
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and long-standing journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)