Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Starring figure in media saga of our times

Lennox Grant logo37

Mark Fraser

 “We take our pride in our liberty.”

More than half a century after first hearing the song, that punch line, on Old Year’s Night, somehow hit home like never before. 

At the Anthony Watkins “Family New Year Prayer 2014” event, however, it must be the climactic refrain over stanzas of “God Bless Our Nation” which compelled my attention. We enjoy “liberty”, and even “take pride” in it, over and above “unity” and “tropic beauty rare” that the patriotic song also celebrates. 

It wasn’t an emphasis of which I had expected to be reminded, starting the new year at that signature happening. Shortly after, however, I would read references connecting the just-departed editor and publisher Therese Mills to the liberty-exalting legacy of APT Ambard. 

As the Newsday obituary recalled, he was an “outstanding editor in Trinidad’s history...who fought a contempt case all the way to the Pri­vy Council...settling once and for all the doctrine of the Freedom of the Press”. Mrs Mills, late Newsday editor-in-chief, had begun her career at the newspaper once edited by Ambard, whose name is linked with the famous 1936 dictum, “justice is not a cloistered virtue”. By my reading, it means journalists and others may criticise judges and judgments, without necessarily running the risk of being held in contempt of court.

It is not, however, by trading on the Ambard connection that Therese Mills had earned her distinction. Though we once worked in the same Guardian offices, we never did get to know each other from better than a cool, professional distance. Still, the encounter was enough for me to recognise a powerhouse personality and an unmistakable leader figure. 

It was later when she had restar­ted a career with the launch of Newsday 20 years ago that I got to know her. But only through scrutinising her work, and what it represented, and how it shaped her definition as a starring figure in a media saga of our times.

Though my interest was drawn to what was being done by Newsday, I never myself felt beckoned to that cause. Or adventure, as I too saw it as back in 1993. For if I couldn’t assess “market” prospects, I was sure that journalistic capacity and talent then available seemed hardly enough to share three ways—

Express, Guardian and Newsday. 

“I had been offered another job, but I didn’t think it would be as exci­ting as starting a newspaper,” she recalled in 2003. The Guardian retiree, 65, but looking for excitement, “joined the Newsday movement.... I had a single condition and that it was that I would have total editorial control.” 

As a journalist, an Express editor and general media junkie, I was fascinated from the start by how the lady exercised the “total editorial con­trol” accorded by her publishers. History will likely issue a mixed eval­uation. In 2012, she acknowledged shortcomings in grammar, spelling and accuracy: “Anything goes and there are times when I pity the poor reader who tries to figure out what the facts are in any report.” The interviewer did not probe her corrective efforts.

Still, I marvelled at how she demonstrated there was a substantial niche to be filled, and how she marshalled the means to do so. Newsday would sometimes publish the entire file of CANA (foreign) news.

“Life begins at retirement,” wrote John Babb, a Guardian retiree who, at 60, had assumed the Newsday news editorship. “We were mainly geriatrics,” said Mrs Mills of the earliest days. The paper offered opportunities to literate and able retiree-

types in Angela Pidduck, Anne 

Hilton, Marion O’Callaghan, Freddie Kissoon, George Alleyne.... Eventually, she noted: “Newsday enjoyed a mixture of mature experience and the energy of young mostly UWI grad­uates.”

It helped. In 1996, to cover the mon­ster story of the Dole Chadee gang murder trial, the Express assigned two reporters. We equipped one with a then-cutting-edge laptop. Newsday posted just John Babb, 

singularly adept at shorthand note-


Delivering the wall-to-wall coverage readers wanted, Newsday won that round, and recognition as a serious contender. By verdict time, it was their story: the front page nine times bannered the blood-red word “GUILTY”, next to the names of each killer. 

Pushing the envelope further, the paper later front-paged a photo of convicts shouldering the coffin of one hanged Chadee gangster. The picture showed the white gloves worn by one pallbearer dripping with blood.

As T&T life, and its news, become ever more beastly, Newsday and the lady in control proved again and again to have the “belly” to “tell it like it is”. Other dailies try, but none can match Newsday’s upfront images of a severed human head, headlined “OH GOD!”; a baby, as pretty as a doll, lying dead on the highway shoulder; a youngster outside a soca fete with a long knife blade plunged into his lower back; an 81-year old Beetham protester, skirt raised high, exposing her bingo-bag underwear and more.  

“There are too many areas of national life still underserved by the media today,” Newsday No 1 said.

That complaint is still valid, but Therese Mills and those under her control have tried to help. May they continue to try.