Oliver Clarke: Phone calls at dawn from an angry prime minister

Oliver Clarke: Phone calls at dawn from an angry prime minister

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

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Part 2 of a reprint of Oliver Clarke's life story captured in the Desmond Allen Interviews and published in the Sunday Observer in 2005. Allen, the founding editor of the Jamaica Observer and award-winning journalist, was at The Gleaner when Clarke arrived in 1976. Clarke died last Saturday after a long battle with cancer. He was 75.

Oliver Clarke was not a man given to frivolity in decision-making. He had presided over stupendous growth at Jamaica National Building Society (JNBS) and decided he now needed different business exposure, such as a company that had financial and staff problems would provide. His sight now firmly set on the Gleaner Company, Clarke stepped away from JNBS, leaving it in the capable hands of Lanny Reynolds. But there was a sting in the tail.

When Leslie Ashenheim offered him the position as managing director (MD) of the Gleaner Company, Clarke thought the job was a godsend. It had both the financial and human relations problems he felt would test his true mettle. But there was more to The Gleaner than met the eye and he was now about to find out. This was 1976.

Two years before that the year that Clarke moved JNBS to Kingston headquarters from Savanna-la-Mar Michael Manley's People's National Party (PNP) Government had announced itself democratic socialist and set out on a path to build an egalitarian society. The centrepiece of the plan was to give power to the people, the voiceless hordes existing in abject poverty, in miserable hovels and in sprawling slums across the land they who were oppressed by an unthinking ruling class, unflatteringly described as rapacious capitalists by overzealous leftists.

In that same year, 1974, Edward Seaga outfoxed Hugh Lawson Shearer and became leader of the conservative, pro-free enterprise Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which had the solid backing of the United States. This collision of two events was to set up a fierce ideological struggle in which, at least according to the politicians, Jamaica was divided into the 'progressive forces' those to the left of centre and the 'reactionaries' who were to the right of centre. In the middle of it all was the pro-business Gleaner Company.

Last one to leave turn off the lights

Under its editor-in-chief, Hector Wynter, a former chairman of the JLP now turned journalist, The Gleaner newspaper quickly established itself as a sort of opposition to Manley's socialism, branding it communism in sheep's clothing and decidedly earning the ire of the progressive forces. Inside the country, violence much of it political in nature and origin raged out of control.

A massive flight of capital, and brains sapped the economic energy of the country. Jamaica was now floundering in uncharted waters and on the brink of collapse. One cute graffiti suggested “the last one to leave please turn off the lights”. Into this boiling cauldron of despondency and danger stepped Oliver Frederick Clarke in April 1976, aged 32, on a two-year secondment from Jamaica National. Wittingly or unwittingly, Clarke had joined the fray.

On June 19, 1976, Manley's Government declared a state of emergency, ostensibly to stem the violence and loosen its vice-like grip on the island. Clarke arrived at his office on the Gleaner's fifth floor to find a communication from the Competent Authority the heads of the police and the army on his desk. The document demanded that henceforth the contents of the newspaper must be submitted to them for vetting before publication. Clarke felt as if he had received a kick in the stomach and he uttered something unprintable. After collecting his thoughts, he phoned Hector Wynter and the other managers and set up a meeting.

Tell them to kiss my…

Leslie Ashenheim was in London vacationing when the phone rang. It was Oliver Clarke calling from North Street, Kingston. He told the Gleaner chairman what had happened in Jamaica and specifically about the communication from the Competent Authority. To comply meant the end of the free press as they knew it. Not to comply could mean indefinite detention for the Gleaner managers. Sensing his new MD's trepidation, Ashenheim, the old battle axe, was brutal in his response. “Tell them to kiss my (you know what)…” Clarke felt as if a weight had lifted off his shoulders. Ashenheim had voiced his own inclination and he got ready to do battle.

“Hector Wynter and I sat down that night and discussed what we would do. We would send them the paper each morning, after it was printed!” Clarke recounts. “We got a few calls from them, but, happily, they did not pursue the matter.” Clarke and The Gleaner had won the first round. But the real test was yet to come.

Financially The Gleaner was in a mess. The company was bleeding red ink and was heavily in debt. On top of that, buying newsprint on which the paper was produced was becoming very problematic. It was necessary to have a licence to import stuff and sometimes the company had to wait up to six months before being allowed to pay for the newsprint, on account of the acute foreign exchange shortage in the country.

Clarke and his team decided that to dig the Gleaner Company out of the hole they would launch a debenture stock issue. It became the biggest debenture issue in the country's history, with over 2,000 investors buying in, he says. When the debenture was repaid, investors had the option of converting up to 25 per cent to shares in the company. That gave the company the financial strength it needed and it was able to rid itself of the debt burden, while pulling in a new category of shareholders, many of them from humble circumstances.

“One of the lessons I learnt was that if you are not profitable, you can't print the news you want to. Advertisers can become offended and Government is one of your biggest advertisers. If you have to print something unfavourable to the Government, life could become very uncomfortable for you,” Clarke reflects. He believes that many of the current media entities are not profitable and argues that it is difficult to operate a free press if the entity is not viable.

Michael Manley calls at dawn

The financial problems now behind it, The Gleaner stepped up its role as opposition to the Manley Government. Clarke says he was not happy with the quality of the news output but Wynter had put together a very strong group of opinion writers, including John Hearne, Wilmot Perkins, David D'Costa, and Morris Cargill. “Together they wrote some incredibly strong columns critical of the Government that was becoming too heady in its ambitions.” And he confesses: “I grew up in that period.”

Michael Manley was seething over The Gleaner's seemingly relentless opposition to his Government and his anger had reached boiling point. One morning, at 5:00 o'clock, he phoned Clarke and let loose on him. Still groggy from not enough sleep, Clarke received an earful of Manley's forceful language. Many other predawn calls from the prime minister were to follow.

“I used to sit there quite terrified as he harangued me about the sins of the day,” Clarke discloses now. “But it taught me a very valuable lesson that if you are going to lead a newspaper, you have to read that paper and be in a position to deal with complaints. I had to learn how to deal with the prime minister's complaints. The mistake I later made was not to make the effort to maintain the communication between The Gleaner and the senior politicians in the country. If media is going to have problems with people, it is important that both sides talk to each other. But of course, I was young at the time.” It wasn't over yet.

Next time! Next time!

On a particular Monday morning, the mood was angry in the Cabinet meeting. The Gleaner was the hot topic of discussion and the unflattering language being used to describe the paper was not English. Manley ended the meeting early and in a sombre tone, made the unprecedented announcement that he would lead a protest march on the Gleaner Company! In broiling sun, the marchers meandered through the streets of the capital city and by the time they reached 7 North Street, home of The Gleaner, their numbers had swelled far beyond the relative handful of Cabinet ministers.

The Gleaner's gate was uncharacteristically shut in the middle of the day and police kept a nervous watch over the demonstrators. An open-back flatbed truck was transformed into a stage. From that makeshift platform Manley, in dramatic style, issued a solemn, chilling warning to the Gleaner: “Next time! Next time!” That was immediately interpreted to mean that after the PNP had won the coming 1980 elections, The Gleaner would be dealt with decisively.

As it turned out, the PNP was trounced by Edward Seaga's JLP in the October 30, 1980 General Elections and a conservative Government came to power. The Gleaner settled back into its customary run-of-the-mill pace and Clarke resumed his principal role of managing director and now chairman of the Gleaner Company, as well as its largest shareholder. And to think he had twice refused the job when Ashenheim had first offered it to him!

Clarke speaks highly of the Gleaner experience and the people he has worked with, beginning with the late Theodore Sealy, the editor-in-chief whose ability to recall was matched only by the late Carlton Alexander of GraceKennedy fame. He describes Wynter, now deceased, and the man who succeeded Sealy, as a strong editor. He is proud to have worked with the likes of JC Proute; Rev Dr Dudley Stokes, a former editor-in-chief; Wyvolyn Gager, the first woman editor-in-chief; and currently Ken Allen, a former editor-in-chief and now opinion editor, as well as Garfield Grandison, the now editor-in-chief. Clarke reserves a special place for Christopher Roberts, who recently retired after 30 years as financial controller and latterly deputy managing director. “He was firm but very human at the same time.”

Tony Abrahams, Butch Stewart, John Issa

The excitement of the 1970s behind him, Clarke increasingly looked beyond the walls of the Gleaner Company to the larger society, thinking to see what more he could offer of himself. The minister of tourism, Tony Abrahams, invited him to take over the chairmanship of Jamaica National Hotels and Properties, the holding company for State-owned hotels which were acquired in the 1970s, as owners cut and ran. Later, in a strange twist of fate, Abrahams whose father, Eric Abrahams had been a long-standing member of the Gleaner board would lock horns with Clarke in a celebrated libel suit that ended in a multimillion-dollar ruling, the largest against any media house to date.

But at the time, Clarke took Tony Abrahams' invitation seriously and worked at it. “Over half the hotel rooms in the country were owned by the Government and it wanted to sell them off. But it was very difficult to sell and the decision was taken to lease them,” Clarke remembers. Eventually, all the hotels were returned to private hands, including those of Jamaica's two biggest hoteliers Gordon “Butch” Stewart', owner of the Sandals chain and John Issa, owner of the SuperClubs chain.

The love of a woman

At age 44, Clarke had done well for himself, proving the biblical adage that, “Mother has, father has, blessed is the child that has his own.” But of all his blessings, none could surpass the love of a woman. In 1988, he married Monica Ladd, an American who was working at the consular section of the US Embassy. Ladd is currently, he says, a very successful lawyer with Myers, Fletcher and Gordon, one of the top legal firms here. “And the delight of our lives is Alex, our daughter, who will be nine years old next month. She says she wants to become an architect,” the proud father adds.

The following year, 1989, Manley retook power, and showing that he bore no grudge, the prime minister invited Clarke to be a member of the first board of the National Housing Trust. A series of other government appointments came after that. One of the most eventful was the chairmanship of the humongous National Commercial Bank (NCB) which had been acquired from Barclays in the 1970s and was now the largest Jamaican bank.

Prior to the appointment, Clarke had been involved with NCB through Jamaica National Building Society. JNBS and Mutual Life, the two largest mutual organisations in Jamaica, decided to exploit their synergies by purchasing NCB as equal partners. But Mutual Life then merged Royal Bank which it renamed Mutual Security Bank with NCB and thus became the larger partner. Soon enough, Clarke says, JNBS began to grow increasingly uneasy about its partnership with Mutual Life. The synergies hoped for in NCB were not materialising. JNBS had pumped approximately $300 million into the venture and was worried.

“We became very unhappy about the future of the NCB,” Clarke remarks. “For us it was a very big investment.”

NCB, FINSAC, and Michael Lee Chin

This was happening in the midst of the financial sector meltdown. A significant portion of the loans made by NCB had become non-performing and now required a substantial loan loss provision. The giant NCB was in danger of tottering. FINSAC, the Government's rescue plan for the ailing financial sector, was born. Clarke was invited to be chairman of NCB, with a mandate to bring the bank back to financial health so that it could be divested. The upshot was that Michael Lee Chin bought the bank, the problems having been, at least partially, solved, Clarke insists. And JNBS continues to grow from strength to strength under the highly gifted Earl Jarrett.

But the Government was not yet finished with Clarke. His next big job was to chair the Parliamentary Salaries Review Committee and hopefully take the issue of compensation and benefits to parliamentarians outside the political arena. Every time that Members of Parliament (MPs) voted themselves a pay increase, a big outcry would follow. Clarke took on the task and now believes that parliamentarians are underpaid and that the conditions under which they work are “grossly inadequate”. He has no doubt that a new Parliament building is needed.

He and his committee of Bishop Charles DuFour, Lascelles Perry, Tony Lewars, and Corinne McLarty handed in their recommendations for improvement on October 29, 2003. “Prime Minister PJ Patterson referred the report to a committee headed by Dr Omar Davies, the finance minister. But the recommendations have not yet been acted upon,” Clarke complains.

One of the social activities he is most proud of is the formation of PALS Peace and Love in Schools, now changed to Peace and Love in Society. “The idea is to promote peaceful ways of resolving conflicts,” Clarke explains. PALS is funded largely by the media houses, but he admits that these days it is difficult to raise money, unlike the early days. Clarke was chairman of PALS for the first eight years of its existence but has handed over to social activist Morin Seymour. The manager is Janilee Abrikian.

Nation's fourth highest honour

It came as no surprise when in the national honours of 1998, Oliver Frederick Clarke was awarded the nation's fourth highest honour the Order of Jamaica (OJ) for outstanding contribution to the business sector. His service to the country had provided the balance to his own search for self-development and profit. He also notes with pride his service as president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica which has inducted him into its Hall of Fame.

That service has gone beyond Jamaica's shores where he is seen and treated as a natural leader among international media counterparts. The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), a media watchdog body, especially in Latin America, made him its president and the Commonwealth Press Union also recently elected him as its president.

But it is the Gleaner Company which has benefited most from Clarke's abundance of talent and business acumen. The Sangster's Bookstore chain was acquired by the company and last year May he and his team decided to expand news publication overseas, beyond its regular business in North America and the United Kingdom for Jamaicans living there, by purchasing The Voice, the major newspaper aimed at the black community in England. It is a bold move but typical of Oliver Clarke. The ink is now irretrievably in his blood.

He says he runs The Gleaner on several parallel tracks at the same time. “A newspaper always has to find out what readers want and change to reflect that desire. These days it is health and lifestyle and what is happening with the young people. There is continuous pressure to keep abreast, and if you stop looking, the paper stultifies and becomes irrelevant.”

It is difficult for newspapers to become profitable, Clarke argues. “Who would run a delivery service twice a day, to Portland at one end and Mandeville at another? On that basis alone, it is difficult to be profitable.” That is why the Gleaner under his tenure maintains its technology at state-of-the-art level, and he notes that it is an expensive exercise that also requires much skill from the Information Technology Department.

Watch those big libel awards

On the stiffness of the competition, Clarke acknowledges that the Butch Stewart-owned Jamaica Observer “is a good tabloid”, a respectful nod to possibly The Gleaner's most spirited competitor ever. The competition also comprises cable television, the big jump in radio stations, more free-to-air television stations and the Internet.

Still he worries about the threats to press freedom, not so much in Jamaica as elsewhere, noting that hundreds of journalists worldwide have been murdered in the last decade. “Jamaica is blessed, in that even though there is much verbal criticism of the media, physical harassment of journalists is minimal.” The main threat in Jamaica is from sizeable libel awards that could bankrupt a media house.

“...A way has to be found to recognise that open and transparent democracy ought to encourage the media to investigate public officials. Every now and again we make a slip and if you make the odd mistake, you should be spanked but not at a level that would close you down,” he suggests.

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