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Ismail Babatunde Jose: Newspaper editor who dominated journalism in Nigeria for three decades

By CAMERON DUODU Thursday, 25 September 2008

Ismail Babatunde Jose was not only the doyen of Nigerian journalism but the mighty tree whose seedlings sprouted other titans of the profession. Appointed editor in 1957 of The Daily Times – the most flourishing newspaper then in existence in West Africa – by Cecil King of the Mirror Group (which had bought the 21-year-old Daily Times in 1947), Jose ruled the journalistic roost in his country for three decades.

He eschewed partisan politics – something that was difficult to do in Nigeria. He craved professional excellence instead, and had a good teacher in the Daily Mirror, then at its tabloid best. The one-year attachment he enjoyed at the paper’s offices in Fleet Street in 1951 had an enormous influence on him.

Under Jose, The Daily Times sold 200,000 copies a day, while its sister paper, The Sunday Times had a circulation of 500,000 a week. The discovery of oil in Nigeria coincided with the growth of the two papers and advertising revenue poured into their coffers. Jose used the money wisely to attract young graduates, whom he shaped into irreverent reporters and columnists who could deflate the egos of the pompous politicians and military men who ruled the country after it achieved independence from Britain in 1960. He set up a training institute to teach his recruits the tricks of the trade.

Among those Jose mentored was a young Segun Osoba, who was to become Governor of Ogun State. Osoba said that “[Jose’s] death is the end of a great era in journalism history in Nigeria. [He was] not a graduate, but he was sounder than many professors. He encouraged intellectualism in Nigerian journalism… [Jose] produced an array of highly successful journalists… many of whom have also gone on to establish their own newspapers and produce many other journalists.”

Ismail Babatunde Jose was born in 1925 in Lagos. He was educated at Yaba Methodist School and then St Saviour’s Boys’ High School, Lagos. On leaving school, he obtained employment with Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe’s Daily Comet, and then moved to The Daily Times in 1941 as a technical trainee. His writing ability was noticed, however, and he was soon transferred to editorial, where he became a reporter, regional correspondent and assistant editor.

He was in Benin covering a commission of inquiry when he was summoned to fly back to Lagos. “My first surprise was that it was the general manager’s Humber car that was waiting for me,” Jose wrote in his autobiography Walking a Tightrope (1987). Heart pounding, he was taken to see the visiting chairman, the fearsome Cecil King. He told Jose, “As the chairman of the biggest publishing company in the world, I know… how to assess the ability of my employees. I am not entirely satisfied with The Daily Times. As Nigeria moves towards independence, it is imperative for the paper to move forward with it. But that means having an editor who knows the country, the people and their leaders well, backed by professional experience and competence. Well, my dear Jose, you fit in well into all these. I therefore appoint you the editor.”

Jose nearly collapsed with surprise, but recovered quickly enough to demand boldly that if he was to be “king”, then he wanted to rule as well, which meant that the British “editorial adviser” must go. King chuckled at this and agreed that if Jose managed matters well, the editorial adviser would depart within a year.

In Jose’s hands, The Daily Times grew and grew. It became a wholly-owned Nigerian enterprise. Jose was appointed managing director in 1962, and chairman in 1968. He created at least 15 new titles and by the time he was deposed in March 1976 – after disgruntled employees had encouraged the military government to seize the majority shares in the company – The Daily Times was one of the most successful African-owned businesses on the continent. Alas, that era is now a distant memory: The Daily Times first became anaemic, and then vanished off the streets altogether. Litigation is still raging over ownership of the title.

Jose also served his country as president of the Ahmadiyya Islamic movement and on many committees and industry organisations. He received the government’s Officer of the Federal Republic award in 1965, and an honorary doctorate of law from the University of Benin. Unusually for a Muslim, he received the Pope Pius medal for fostering religious understanding.

Cameron Duodu

Ismail Babatunde Jose, journalist: born Lagos, Nigeria 13 December 1925; editor, ‘The Daily Times’ 1957-62, managing director 1962-76, chairman 1968-76; twice married (10 children); died Lagos 2 August 2008.


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