A Salute To The Mail And Guardian, Johannesburg
DAILY GUIDE, ACCRA June 20, 2015
It is not easy to create a great newspaper; partly because it is so easy to set up what appears to be a newspaper, but what turns out, in reality, to be either a propaganda sheet or a collection of commercial pull-outs masquerading as news pages.
A great newspaper is first and foremost, a paper devoted to real news. It seeks to tell its readers about something they did not know about before; and moreover, something they could not find in any other publication. How is that possible when some news items are circulated to every publication in the land?
The answer is that a great newspaper finds its own way of treating a story. It looks for aspects of the story that no-one else will have got because the great paper is the only one asking the intelligent questions about the story. In short, it creates its own angle to it; an angle which leaves the reader to say “Hmmm? I wouldn’t have expected that to be the case!” It’s better still when the reader acknowledges the professionalism manifested in the story by wondering: “But how did they get that?”
They would have “got that” by discussing the raw news item, tossing it around and finding questions to ask the actors — and experts – on the phone, or if necessary, turning up on their private doorsteps as well as their offices, to interrogate them with special skills, including feigned sympathy, deliberately concocted “facts” put to the actors to wring from them, the genuine article which they don’t want to expose; and even the occasional, humble appeal to their humanity: “Listen, my editor will kill me if you don’t tell me; I had to hitch a ride to this place, you know, and I have been hanging around waiting for you all this time! You know?”
In police parlance, the indefatigable reporter gets the would-be informant to “crack”! But even then, he has to get the story to the office before his “deadline” runs out.
This is the aspect of their work which thrills good journalists the most. They hate and fear deadlines, yet if they manage against the odds to beat a difficult deadline, they get a feeling that is almost orgasmic. For if you are a journalist and you don’t secure the information in time to meet your deadline, it’s of no use. You could get it tomorrow, right? Wrong! You see, your editor might by then have read it in a rival paper, and concluded that the paper’s reporter is more assiduous than yourself. Or he could hear much fresher info being reported and/or discussed on radio or television. A journalist could lose his or her job if this happens. At best, he or she would sink lower in the editor’s estimation.
When I was appointed editor of the Daily Graphic in February 1970, I went to the job with three years as a radio newsman and five years as a magazine editor, under my belt. In the radio newsroom, we were obliged to read the papers each morning to see whether they had managed to carry forward, the stories we had broadcast the day before. We scoffed at them often, for they would repeat, almost word for word, what the Ghana News Agency had originally sent, which even we, with our much shorter deadlines and more limited space, had tried to turn into stories with a proper background and context. And when I was editor of the Ghana edition of Drum Magazine, my task was to see elements in short newspaper reports that lent themselves to expansion into much deeper, more interesting stories.
I took these two skills to the Daily Graphic, and swore that under my editorship, it would have to become a great news-paper once more. (it had been good for news in the 1950s, when it was first founded. Like its marvellous “mother” from Fleet Street, London, the Daily Mirror of Hugh Cudlipp, it was generous in awarding bylines, and this inspired its reporters to turn in stories that had an individual touch: if you saw the name of S N Addo; Kofi Ahorsey; E W Adjaye; P. Peregrino-Peters or Anthony Mensah, Oscar Tsedze, Kofi Badu or Addo-Rwum above a story, you would know that it would be original and thereby enjoyable.
I tried to inspire my boys at the Graphic to revive the paper’s old news spirit. When their curiosity let them down in a story they had submitted, I turned the editorial meeting into a seminar, hauled the reporters before the editorial executives assembled at the meeting and got the whole group to grill them: why didn’t you say how much money was involved? Did the amount of the alleged fine make sense to you? Where was his wife? The questions came from every quarter and often, the reporter had to go back and get the answers. If the story was big enough, we would wait for the answers (to the great annoyance of the production team, which didn’t appreciate the minutes away from the nearby pub that the waiting took away from them!)
However, the “seminars” helped us to get some really good stories out, and I felt a special thrill whenever I had to go down into the hot printing house adjacent to the office to okay stories on “the stone” itself – rather than wait for them to be brought up. Do modern journalists know what ‘the stone” is? I sometimes wonder, as I watch them tweet and text their way through smart cellphones!
The nicest words I ever heard at “the stone” were “Lock up!” — uttered by the Chief Printer. A tall heavy man called Mr Lutterodt, he would say this when the last corrections had been done and fitted onto the page. The “Stone Sub” would, meanwhile, be trying not to shake like a leaf, as I watched his interactions with the typesetters who churned out words in the form of lead from their hot machines . (Sometimes I felt both Mr Lutterodt and his staff would have loved to punch me for delaying “their” paper! So I always made sure he got a bottle of cold beer to drink when he turned up in my office, smiling — with sweat pouring from his large face, to find out “how things were shaping up.”
I knew the real reason why he had come, but I held my peace, and so we got on very well: he appreciated my viewpoint that it was no use producing a paper to scheduled time, only to hand the readers a bland product that could be “read” in exactly five minutes, from cover to cover. Mr Lutterodt did everything possible to make “lock up”’ time as painless to both of us as possible. But every now and then, we would be hit by a power failure, at which point nearly all of us cried in pain, for it meant that the lead making up the pages that had not already been “molded”, could become “molten” and have to be redone all over again — even with standby power available.
Readers appreciated our effort to offer them great news and the circulation of the paper rose and rose. Heck! — we created news! One day, I was photographed sitting in a rubber dingy of the Ghana Navy, watching warships bring back to Tema Harbour, a fleet of Russian-made trawlers which the Ghana Ministry of Agriculture was selling cheaply to a British dealer who was going to sell them in Brazil for a huge profit. We exposed the deal, and the Government had to bring the boats back. Our unforgettable front-page headline for the story, in our biggest font (144pt.) was “BACK TO BATAAN”!
In the 10 months I was with the paper (I got myself sacked for opposing the Busia Government’s attempt to establish “dialogue” with the apartheid regime of South Africa — a ridiculous “dialogue” in which the people of South Africa themselves would have no part but be “represented” by the independent African states!) names like Kofi Akumanyi, Ben Mensah, Teddy Konu, Vincent Vivor and Nana Daniels and many others had already become recognisable by-lines. My greatest regret at the time was that I did not stay long enough to instil a news culture at the paper that would be ineradicable. But hey — a man can only try.
Because of my interest in news, I have developed a habit of avidly perusing publications all over the world. That’s how, in the mid-1980s, whilst practising journalism in London, I discovered that I could buy a South African newspaper called the Weekly Mail at Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road, not too far from Trafalgar Square. As Africa Editor of Index On Censorship – a magazine that devoted itself to recording attempts by the world’s totalitarian governments to censor the news, suppress news organisations or brutalise journalists, I found the airmail edition of the Weekly Mail to be an extremely rich resource. This was the time when the apartheid regime, under President P W Botha, was in its death throes, and fighting ferociously – like all dying animals – to hang on to political power through repression. Outspoken journalists were banned or harassed; newspapers were often prosecuted and banned – and the Weekly Mail gave me the raw material to report all these happenings.
The paper was founded in 1985 by Anton Harber and a few colleagues who courageously tried to fill the gap left by the apartheid government’s banning of two leading liberal newspapers in South Africa, the Rand Daily Mail and the Sunday Express. The government, of course, tried to intimidate the Weekly Mail too by arresting its journalists, seizing individual issues and closing the paper for long periods. But Anton Harber and his colleagues stuck it out. The paper has since survived on a diet of accurate investigative journalism, enlightened comment, and a refusal to be dull.
I was thus excited when, on my first visit to South Africa in 1990, I visited the paper’s offices in the company of one of its star commentators, the poet Don Mattera. But I was not to know that I would soon become a columnist for it myself. It had changed its name to the Mail and Guardian, and when a weekly broadcast I was making for SAFM entitled Letter From the North was axed, I somehow managed to persuade the then editor of the Mail and Guardian, a very enlightened journalist called Philip Van Niekerk, to run a column of mine under the same title.
Philip’s decision was an incredibly brave one, forhe was, in effect, placing before a supposedly inward-looking South Africans on a weekly basis, the views of an African from the other side of the continent, who had never lived in their country. He was also taking away space from the South African staff, who, of course, wanted to run their own columns!
I tried to justify my occupation of their ”prime estate” by using the column to tell them about the Africa that the constricting apartheid system had ensured that they would know very little about. (The fruits of that lack of information about the rest of Africa can be seen, today, in the recent attacks on Africans from other countries by black South Africans. Philip Van Niekerk was thus, a very prescient Editor.)
I also tried to titillate my readers with my irreverent and often humorous take on world affairs — I entertained them with the vicissitudes of the incredible Pinochet trial in London; and one piece I very much enjoyed doing, during President Bill Clinton’s much-publicised fling with the White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, was entitled: If Clinton Were An African.
I even touched on some sensitive South African issues — for instance, I ran a couple of columns on the arms deal with France and Gremany [before it became a national scandal whose repercussions are still being felt in South African politics].
And I challenged white South Africans to reflect on the reasons why so many Africans were put in a position whereby they were “grateful” to their white fellow citizens for giving them jobs as gardeners, cooks, stewards, drivers, nannies or other domestic help.
I must have made enemies with some of what I wrote, for although the column ran until Philip Van Niekerk left the paper, the moment he left and was succeeded by Howard Barrel, the latter immediately killed the column – without ever saying a single word to me!
As the Nigerians would say, “I throw a salute” to the Mail & Guardian on its 30th birthday. Those who started it in 1985 could hardly have foreseen that apartheid would collapse as spectacularly as it did — with the assistance, of course, of courageous and intelligent journalists. Nor could they have imagined that the paper would become the main instrument of exposing the shortcomings of the African National Congress Government they assisted in bringing about to take over the reins of government from the apartheid racists in 1994.
From the negligent — to say the least — policy of then-President Thabo Mbeki on HIV/AIDs, to the widespread corruption that is being practised with impunity today by President Jacob Zuma and some mebers of his Government – as typified by the Nkandla scandal – the Mail and Guardian leads opinion in South Africa in trying to ensure that sanity prevails in the affairs of a country on which so much of the world’s emotions were once rightfully expended.
The Mail and Guardian is currently owned by a Zimbabwean entrepreneur, Trevor Ncube, who holds the majority of the shares in its publishing company, and is the company’s Chief Exective.
This “foreign ownership” is sometimes hurled at the paper as a last resort by those who seek to intimidate it. They do not, of course, care whether what it exposes is true or not; but no matter: many South Africans – both black and white – recognise that it speaks sincerely for all South Africans when it tries to stop their “Beloved Country” from becoming another authoritarian, corrupt African state, waiting in the queue to become a “failed state”.
Long may the M&G continue to be a beacon of light in a country once shadowed by an impenetrable political and social darkness! Long may it be a good example – in courage and literacy – to the media in the rest of Africa.
By Cameron Duodu
Tags: “Dialogue” with apartheid South Africa, Anton Harber, Attacks on African “‘foreigners” by black South Africans, Daily Graphic, Don Mattera, Drum Magazine, Failed State, Foyles Bookshop London, Ghana News Agency, HIV/Aids, Howard Barrel, Hugh Cudlipp, If Clinton Were An African, Index On Censorship, Joburg Sunday Express, Johannesburg, Letter From The North, London Daily Mirror, Mail and Guardian, Monica Lewisnky, Nkandla scandal, Philip Van Niekerk, President Jacob Zuma, President Thabo Mbeki, Radio Ghana, Rand Daily Mail, South African arms deal with German and France, Trevor Ncube, Weekly Mail