Ken Gordon, the intrepid newspaper gladiator behind the Jamaica Observer

BY DESMOND ALLEN
Executive editor – special assignment
allend@jamaicobserver.com

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

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For the ordinary man and woman, a near plane crash on the job, or the frightening experience of a soldier holding a gun menacingly against their body would be enough motivation to quit the newspaper business. But not this Ken Gordon.

At 88, Trinidadian Gordon still walks astonishingly upright; his voice booms; he parallel parks his car in the night with the accuracy of a race car driver, without glasses, and oozes the charm that stole the heart of a Jamaican beauty queen — Miss Jamaica 1961.

But the legacy of Ken Gordon is way more, as the man responsible for most newspaper start-ups or their survival in the English-speaking Caribbean — the compelling reason why it was to him that Gordon “Butch” Stewart and Delroy Lindsay turned for the expertise behind the establishment of the Jamaica Observer 25 years ago.

Stewart and Lindsay knew that Jamaica was a virtual newspaper graveyard. In the two centuries since printing began in the island, there had been barely 100 newspapers. Of the four dailies, only one had survived beyond five years in that brutal environment.

From the time in 1834 when it carried advertisements announcing the arrival of African slave ships or about the hapless runaway slaves escaping unbearable plantations, that newspaper had become a monolith and a monopoly. It had cemented itself into the psyche of Jamaicans, all of whom it had preceded. And it had grown jealous of its solo position.

Any chance of success for a new paper, therefore, would demand something special and someone extra special. Designated CEO of the Observer, the late Dr George Phillip, had known of Ken Gordon from back when he lived in Trinidad and Tobago and he recommended him to “Butch” Stewart who said an unhesitant “yes”.

Gordon's life had long before begun to prepare him for that task, not that he could have known it then. Before that date with destiny, however, he would have to smash age-old traditions and discrimination as a black man in his homeland; stare danger in the face and not flinch; establish himself as a talismanic newspaperman from one end of the Caribbean to the next, and survive numerous clashes with prime ministers the likes of T&T's Dr Eric Williams and Grenada's Maurice Bishop.

Sir Fred Gollop, chairman of the Nation Group in Barbados, said it best. In the foreword to Gordon's 1999 book Getting It Write – Winning Caribbean Press Freedom, he wrote: “There is no one, in my judgement, better equipped to tell the story of the development of the Caribbean media in the last 50 years than Ken Gordon. No one has given more assistance, emotional support and tangible technical help to the print and electronic media stretching from Jamaica to Guyana.”

First black man on Radio Trinidad

Gordon, at 19, was more than a little audacious for deciding in 1949 that he wanted to become a radio announcer, at a time when there was no black face or voice on radio in Trinidad during the heyday of colonialism. It was his first foray into the media world.

“When I turned up for the interview and test at Radio Trinidad, it was clear that everyone there was in shock to see a black man seeking to be auditioned for a radio announcer position,” Gordon recalls.

But he was unperturbed, even when a concerned woman alerted him to a newspaper advertisement placed some years earlier by the station saying: “Radio announcer needed, only whites need apply.”

Gordon got the job, did well there and in time became programme director, opening the door for other locals to enter the radio station, including a young Trevor McDonald who would eventually establish a name at the British Broadcasting Corporation ( BBC), Independent Television News (ITN) and Channel 4. McDonald was knighted in 1999 for services to journalism.

On staff at Radio Trinidad, Gordon represented the company on the Junior Chamber of Commerce set up by mostly young white business executives who had a vision for a more inclusive Trinidad and Tobago. In 1960, having earned himself a reputation as a strident speaker on national issues, he was elected the first black president of the Chamber.

Just as he was getting ready to move to a newly established television station, Gordon received an “offer I could not refuse” and left Radio Trinidad to work for the then all-white Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce, the senior body representing the older merchants, as its general manager in 1962.

He would later write: “The decision to resign from Radio Trinidad was taken with deeply mixed emotions… Walking away from what, up to then, had been the greatest romance of my life, was very difficult. This career had given me focus. It had opened up to me the university of life.

“Not only were my horizons expanded but it had taught me that managerial effectiveness was only possible when you understood that corporate results are achieved through other people and you learned how to motivate them to achieve their potential.”

It would be 30 years later that Gordon would go into television, as CEO and chairman of the CCN Group in which TV6 was a centrepiece.

Demise of West Indies Federation, birth of Carnival

In the meantime, he was becoming a central player in the Caribbean, and a participant or witness to much of the intrigue and little known information behind its biggest events, including the development and demise of the West Indies Federation after Jamaica withdrew, and the introduction of carnival similar to Trinidad's in the rest of the region, which eventually — after some initial resistance — became a reality, as one of several initiatives to help keep the Caribbean together. Two of the last holdouts on carnival, he recalls, were Jamaica and Barbados.

“…The concept was more readily embraced in the smaller islands of the Caribbean than in Jamaica and Barbados. When our proposal was made, some of our Barbadian colleagues found it difficult to conceive their scantily-clad countrymen gyrating in the streets of Bridgetown.

“Today, those reservations have disappeared and there are carnivals in all countries of the Caribbean — even in Barbados where Crop Over is not only enthusiastically welcomed, but has become one of the biggest on their national calendar.”

One of Gordon's most historic achievements as general manager of the Chamber of Commerce was his key participation in the conception and work to bring about the Caribbean Free Trade Area, or CARIFTA, that would years later morph into the Caribbean Community (Caricom). His recollection of the event was as clear as if it had taken place yesterday.

“When it (the mission) began, many of the leaders of government were not even speaking to each other. We started in Jamaica, for, given their earlier withdrawal from the Federation, it was of vital importance to have them on board for any discussion related to Caribbean co-operation.

“Sir Alexander Bustamante (the Jamaican prime minister) was ill and Mr (Donald) Sangster was then acting prime minister. It was apparent that Mr Sangster lacked the confidence that was required of the office, certainly on this particularly sensitive issue. He was initially tentative in his response.

“But then Arthur Brown, who was his financial secretary, transformed the mood of the meeting with a very strong statement that virtually disagreed with his prime minister's position. He gave us encouragement that was not forthcoming from the prime minister and he argued powerfully that Jamaica should give its support.

“Eventually, Mr Sangster gave the undertaking we had been hoping for, though one could sense that he was not entirely comfortable with it. Later that evening, Sir Garnet Gordon (a delegation leader from St Lucia), received a call from Sir Alexander Bustamante's residence inviting him to visit.

“To our surprise, Sir Garnet returned with the news that Sir Alexander Bustamante had made it abundantly clear that Jamaica would participate in any discussions which were held on the theme of free trade… He made a clear and emphatic commitment on which we subsequently had reconfirmation from government officials the following day.”

As a key member of that delegation working for Caribbean unity, which included Jamaica's Aaron Matalon, Gordon met every Caribbean prime minister, governor general, chamber of commerce, trade union umbrella group, manufacturers' association and most of the major business people.

But as critical as these events were, that was only the beginning. They would pale in comparison to the spine-chilling drama that was to come in the world of media that awaited... and beckoned.

Coming in part two Thursday: A near plane crash; a confrontation with Maurice Bishop's soldiers and the beginning of an odyssey in the newspaper industry.

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