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Ken Gordon: The man who almost gave his life for the Jamaica Observer (Part two)

BY DESMOND ALLEN
Executive editor — special assignment
allend@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, May 17, 2018

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It could be that Ken Gordon's meteoric rise as a black man in colonial Trinidadian society was ordained beyond the skies themselves. Or that he could have been swept along by the relentless march of history, carried — wittingly or unwittingly — on the winds of change in the emerging Caribbean selfhood.

Either way, mere human being that he is, he could not have known or even dreamt of the events, some cataclysmic, that awaited him beyond the horizons of the times. For sure, he was a man driven to achieve, but not merely for himself. It was never about himself.

As moment after historic moment shaped his own life, so too was Gordon helping to shape the lives of his Caribbean compatriots. It was inevitable, therefore, that he would turn up on the shores of Jamaica and be part of the magical moment of the birth of Gordon “Butch” Stewart's Jamaica Observer — a gift of knowledge to a country in search of itself.

In the intervening years, Gordon had announced himself as what the university types like to call the quintessential Caribbean man; never flinching from a fight, ready to don armour at a moment's notice, no matter the foe — be it priest or prime minister — if it was for a cause that would advance his people.

Having established a robust reputation as a fighting man who was shattering tradition after tradition in white-dominated, colonial Trinidad, Gordon left a trail of success everywhere he went, starting with Radio Trinidad, the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and then the senior Chamber of Commerce that catapulted him to champion of regional integration status.

Yet, it was in the gutsy arena of media that he would fight his most bruising battles, but enjoy his greatest victories. There is, as yet, no clear reason that Gordon — unlike most young people going into media who crave the glamour of lights, camera, action — chose the less exciting fields of organisation and management. But nothing about Ken Gordon has been boring or unexciting.

THE TRINIDAD EXPRESS

First stop was the Trinidad Express, a lively newspaper that he liked because of its fearless reporting. Two years into its storied life, the publication began to bleed red ink and Gordon was invited to lead the rescue bid.

They managed to woo him with talk of patriotism, so much so that he took a pay cut to become managing director on February 1, 1969, aged 39, saying he relished the challenge of proving that black people could run successful businesses. He soon found that his employers had grossly understated the problem at the Express.

“Frankly, the paper was insolvent. Worse, it was getting deeper into the hole because readership was falling due to late press times, and the problem appeared to defy solution… Everything had to be tackled at once, for time was not on our side,” Gordon recounts. “It was a tough time.”

Obstacle after obstacle was met and hurdled, but the price was strained relationships — between chairman and managing director (Gordon), and between managing director and board of directors. To define the parameters of his responsibility, Gordon drafted a policy statement that in time would be adopted by the future Jamaica Observer.

“Our first and unqualified objective is to serve the national interest. We are committed to giving full support and co-operation to the Government of the day so long as we are satisfied that their actions are in the best interest of the country,” the 12-point statement said in part.

“…The Express has no political ties. This means that we will not oppose any political party. If the policy or action of any political party or group merits the paper's support, it will receive such support. On the other hand, this newspaper will oppose or criticise political policies or actions it considers inimical to the best interests of Trinidad and Tobago.”

After a business boycott of the paper, that took away most of its advertising, the Express countered with a “10 Best Dressed Women” feature which lit up the fashion pages and forced advertisers to come running back.

PM ERIC WILLIAMSRIPS UP A NEWSPAPER

At times Gordon was called upon to defend his editors from wealthy businessmen or politicians, including the prime minister, noting that Dr Eric Williams was “a past master at bringing pressure to bear on the press”, and at one time publicly tore up a newspaper, “consigning it to the flames”.

The long and the short of the very engaging story of the Express was that Gordon persevered, eventually owning shares in the paper and establishing its viability using creative means, at the same time cementing his reputation as a saviour of newspapers.

The Express emerged as the only independently owned daily newspaper to survive in Trinidad. The Gleaner in Jamaica was the only locally owned of all the dailies in the Caribbean and, according to Gordon, “There was little empathy for struggling newspapers in the Eastern Caribbean”. There the adventure began as he flung himself into the struggle for press freedom from one end of the Caribbean to the next, explaining his philosophy in his book, Getting It Write: Winning Caribbean Press Freedom.

“As we fought battles for press freedom in the Caribbean, it also opened my eyes to the reality that when you fight from behind you start in a losing position. The prospect of winning is enhanced when you begin to fight on at least an equal footing. Becoming financially strong was therefore a very necessary ingredient to developing independent and professionally run newspapers throughout the Caribbean. This philosophy was the cornerstone of our battle…”

Next stop was the Torchlight in Grenada — a strident weekly which ran into financial difficulties. Faced with closure, one of the Torchlight's directors, Rawle Charles, who had closely followed the fortunes of the Express, invited Gordon to bring his magic.

“We will come into your operation, assess what you are doing wrong, recommend how it should be improved, and give you a specific report outlining the steps for implementation,” he told the Torchlight director.

Asked what he would charge, Gordon shocked the director and the owner, retired businessman DMB Cromwell, who was listening in silence, by saying there would be no charge. But if the company was turned around, the Express would take some shares to justify its time and cost.

“Cromwell, saying he did not trust Trinidadians, accused me of wanting to take over the Torchlight. But when we satisfied him that we had no such intention, he relented. We took the company into profit and he and I became great friends after that,” recalls Gordon.

Searched at gunpoint in Grenada

Cromwell died a sad man after the Torchlight was closed down under the Maurice Bishop Government which overthrew the Eric Gairy regime in a bloodless coup in 1979. Ken Gordon would not go unscathed.

In the years leading up to his coup, at the head of the New Jewel Movement, Bishop had sought Gordon's help to expose Gairy's violent actions against the Opposition in the Express. After the coup, he gave Gordon his first interview, in which he promised early democratic elections. But he reneged on the promise, earning the ire of the Trinidadian.

Gordon's Express had owned 25 per cent of the shares when it was taken over by the Bishop regime. He himself had been declared public enemy number one in Grenada. Still, he insisted, against dire warnings, on visiting the Eastern Caribbean island to see about the affairs of the Torchlight. At the airport he was pulled from the immigration line by soldiers.

“My body was examined with the muzzle of a rifle feeling for bulges, my briefcase opened and every sheet of every book was carefully scrutinised… The entire process must have taken about an hour. At the end I was told I was free to go,” Gordon relates.

Perhaps to make up, Gordon and his wife, Marguerite, the beautiful Miss Jamaica 1961, were invited some time after to attend the anniversary of the Grenada Revolution. He recalls that among the other guests were Jamaica's Michael Manley and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.

Incidentally, Marguerite Gordon, born Lewars, is the sister of Barbara Lewars, a former wife of Manley, who predeceased him, aged 29.

Ortega gives Manley, Bishop a gun

Gordon recalls a little-known anecdote from the anniversary event: “At one point it was announced that Ortega wished to make a special presentation to Manley and Bishop. With great flourish, specially prepared automatic SLRs were produced and presented in turn, first to Bishop who proudly lifted his gift high above his head to be photographed.

“Manley received his on the move. With his charisma exuding all over the place, he handed the gun in the same motion as he received it to an assistant, who quickly moved away with it. It was a striking example of the difference between a sophisticated socialist prime minister, who was accountable in a democratic society, and a nave leader who, catapulted into power by the gun, never understood the limitations and would eventually die by it.”

Before the Bishop escapade, Gordon received distress calls from Barbados and Jamaica. About a month after he got the SOS call from the Torchlight, the Barbados Nation was on the phone to him. A group of guys had decided to start a newspaper in 1973 and Gordon's immediate, excited offer of assistance was politely turned down.

However, some months later, trouble set in and he again offered to help. This time the offer was accepted, which started a close working relationship with the Nation's Harold Hoyte on a similar deal with the Torchlight. Suspicions that he wanted to take over the paper resurfaced here but were quickly dispelled. Gordon would later comment: “The Barbados experience was one of the near-perfect experiences that occur in a lifetime. There has never been a sour note in the relationship with our Barbadian colleagues.”

In Jamaica, a group of businessmen, headed by Karl Hendrickson, started the Jamaica Daily News in 1973 and sought Gordon's help when they ran into trouble a year later. Gordon's recollection was that the paper was bought out by the 1972-1980 Manley Government as soon as it had turned a profit. He resigned from the board, not wanting to be part of any State-controlled media. The Daily News folded in April 1983.

Up next was the weekly Voice of St Lucia, owned by Sir Garnet Gordon, the man who had led the 1965 mission that helped pave the way for the establishment of CARIFTA. Gordon felt the paper did not get the kind of ongoing attention a newspaper needed but his assistance was able to make it profitable.

Now it was onto Dominica.

Dame Eugenia Charles, Guyana’s Stabroek News

Gordon had enjoyed a close relationship with Dominica's Dame Eugenia Charles, the leader who would eventually invite the United States to invade Maurice Bishop's Grenada. When the Dominica Chronicle buckled under financial pressures, she joined its owner in inviting the Gordon and Express cavalry to ride in.

Some years later, the owner, businessman Phillip Nassief, testified: “In 1983, the Chronicle was facing closure because of low circulation and advertising… Within weeks, Mr Gordon arranged for administrative support and editorial assistance… Within six months, as a result of the assistance from the gentlemen, editorial content improved, distribution doubled, and the Chronicle survived this critical period.”

With the success achieved in other small islands, Gordon and his team decided that Tobago, the sister island of Trinidad, should have its own weekly newspaper. Around that time, a group of Tobagonians had a similar view and the two parties got together to start the Tobago News to serve the small population of 54,000.

The owners later wrote: “The Tobago News was a welcome addition from all quarters. Never a large profit-earner, it has made a consistent profit from the beginning and has made an important contribution to the development of Tobago.”

Up next, Guyana.

Gordon's many previous run-ins with Guyanese President Forbes Burnham did not prevent him from working with prominent local attorney David de Caires to establish the Stabroek News. That idea for came out of an interview he (Gordon) had done with new President Desmond Hoyte in which he said he had no problem with the start-up of an independent newspaper.

Gordon recalls de Caires' grateful words to him: “The Stabroek News could not have started without Ken Gordon's help… 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… marking the return of a free press in Guyana. Ken gave all the backup with needed, as well as training. Until we acquired a second-hand press, the paper was printed in Trinidad and flown home.”

Assignment Jamaica Observer and a near plane crash

Having set the Caribbean reading again, with a string of newspapers either founded or saved from certain death, Gordon in 1987 took “leave of absence” from the Express to accept a position as a senator and minister in the Trinidadian Government of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR).

But on return to the Express he was back in business. His friend Dr George Phillip had recommended him to Gordon “Butch” Stewart, the hotel mogul who was planning to start a newspaper to challenge the monopoly Gleaner newspaper, in collaboration with the fast-rising banker Delroy Lindsay.

It was a task tailor-made for Gordon. The story of the birth of the Jamaica Observer, as it became known, is well documented. What is less known is that at one time it seemed the Observer project would represent the final chapter in the storied life of Ken Gordon, more specifically, his demise.

On a visit to Jamaica in late 1992, it was agreed that a glitzy presentation about the new paper would be made to potential advertisers. Gordon needed some important material for the presentation and needed to get back to Trinidad to procure them.

A thoughtful “Butch” Stewart offered him his private plane to get him to Port-of-Spain — it was New Year's Eve — and to get him back to Kingston the same day, Gordon recalls. He was accompanied by Dr Phillip.

Thirty minutes into the journey back, a loud whistling noise was heard coming from somewhere in the front of the plane near the door. Gordon's account of the incident:

“There was pilot activity and whatever they did appear to solve the problem. But the loud whistling and unnerving noise returned twice during the next two hours. The pilot, Captain Johnny Harris, assured us that things were under control. Some 40 minutes out of Jamaica, bedlam erupted.

“First, the loud noise became piercingly louder. Then a screeching, blinking, red light came on close above our heads. Oxygen masks dropped down before us as the plane dropped into a sharp vertical dive, with rising decibel levels consuming the small cabin of which George and I were the only static objects.

“Where we were flying horizontally only a few seconds before, we were now looking on a steep vertical dive with only our seat belts keeping us from falling over. We were convinced that it was all over. The plane was clearly heading for a crash,” Gordon relives the moment.

“Either I or George said, vacuously, 'We are going to crash!'…Then, as suddenly as the dive had started, the plane levelled off. We discovered that the original noise coming from the door had something to do with a defective seal which led to decompression.

“Faced with a crisis which could have resulted in an explosion within the aircraft, the pilot put the plane into a vertical dive to get down to 10,000 feet (from 30,000 feet) at all costs. We landed safely at the Norman Manley Airport some 30 minutes later…and moved as nonchalantly away from the place as our shaking knees would permit.”

In a way, the early days of the Observer were as shaky as that plane ride. But the combined genius and resolve of “Butch” Stewart, Delroy Lindsay, and a pioneering staff saw the paper through its most turbulent times.

“We tackled the admittedly huge problems systematically. George Phillip did a tremendous job of keeping it all together. Step by step we worked our way out of our despair to establish a firm foothold in the Jamaican market,” says Gordon, unable to mask his co-paternal pride 25 years after.

“The Observer is now the preferred choice of a growing number of readers in Jamaica. It has become a profitable company, it has justified the expectations of its owner, and it has transformed Jamaica into a genuine two-paper market,” he says.

Gordon and his wife were in Jamaica as special guests of the Observer on Tuesday evening, as it celebrated its silver anniversary with a well-choreographed gala event attended by hundreds at the upscale Jamaica Pegasus hotel in New Kingston.

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