Jamaica Broadcasting is Born: A fi we! A no fi dem!
by John Maxwell
Veteran journalist John Maxwell was there at the beginning: 1959, the start of the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation. “For the first time at last, it wasn't really necessary to listen to the BBC.” Successive governments, especially those of the Jamaica Labour Party, attempted to varying degrees to shape the JBC to their own political purposes. But, says Maxwell, “It is my opinion that in its short periods of independence, the JBC helped begin the transformation of Jamaica from an ignorant colonial backwater into a civilized society.”
Jamaica Broadcasting is Born: A fi we! A no fi dem!
by John Maxwell
This article originally appeared in Jamaica Observer.
Fifty years ago last Monday, an event occurred which transformed Jamaica. The launch of the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation transformed the Jamaican culture, theatre, music, politics, journalism and the Jamaican language.
In its periods of independent existence the JBC transformed the Jamaican idea of Jamaica, of Jamaican personality.
I am one of the few survivors of that day. Most of that small band are dead and most of those who aren't are scattered to the four winds. The JBC was Jamaica's real entry into the modern world and it excited enthusiasm and animosity in equal degree, provoking a struggle which persists to this day between those who know themselves to be Jamaican and those who charitably patronize things Jamaican and other pastiches of a Jamaica which never existed outside of travelers' tales.
On June 14, the day before the official launch, the new broadcasters of the JBC presented an ambitious showcase of their talents, programs ranging from a major radio drama, a concert by the JBC Orchestra playing Jamaican music, Jamaica comedy and high-class soap opera, Jamaican news and a Jamaican newsreel bringing Jamaicans for the first time face to face with themselves and their work, the commonplace and the sublime.
Two of the items for which I was responsible on that day were an interview with Hollywood star Errol Flynn and an interview recorded on a mule-drawn dray carrying supplies for fishermen on the road to Portland Cottage.
We stunned Jamaica.
The papers and the verandahs for weeks afterwards could talk of little else but the Jamaican accents which had never before been heard on radio. Until then two kinds of diction were permissible on Jamaican radio: the clipped BBC accents of Dennis Gick and his ilk with their J.B. Priestley plays, or the real (and occasionally fake) American accents of the announcers on Radio Jamaica. Jamaicans heard instead, for the first time, at last, the voices of Miss Lou (Louise Bennett) Mass Ran (Ranny Williams) Charles Hyatt, "Pro Rata Powell" (Ken Maxwell), Jack Neesberry (Carrol Reckord).
But what amazed everyone was the fact that the news – world news and Jamaican news, were written and edited in a Jamaican newsroom, and read by Jamaicans like Reggie Carter, Joy Gordon and Richard Harty. And, for the first time at last, it wasn't really necessary to listen to the BBC – which we continued to broadcast once a day to calm the nerves of those who could not believe that Jamaican journalists could possibly compete with English journalists. When I went to work for the BBC News eight years later I realized that we had been working twice as hard for half the pay and delivering a product at least as good as our august competitors and often better.
A decade and a half later, in 1975, I was congratulated for my handling of Britain's deputy Prime Minister, James Callaghan, one of the rudest and stupidest politicians I have ever met. The man who congratulated me was Sir Robin Day, then the doyen of British TV journalism. With a group of English journalists, Day came up to me in the Sheraton hotel where all of them had been watching my nightly interviews with people like Archbishop Makarios and Indira Gandhi at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference
"Great work," said Robin Day. "I hear you are called the Robin Day of Jamaica!"
"Oh!" I said, you must be the guy they call the John Maxwell of British television!" And after some more good natured banter we all repaired to the bar to talk about politicians.
Norman Manley, whose idea the JBC was, was never in any doubt that Jamaica and its people were as good or better than any nation anywhere and when the JBC began to prove it by exposing Jamaican musicians, like Carlos Malcolm, Foggy Mullings, and Ernie Ranglin, Don Drummond, Toots Hibbert, Count Ossie and Bob Marley, Jamaicans were astonished at the depth and breadth of Jamaican musical genius and the idea that world class could mean Jamaican.
It was the JBC whose attention to the mento, jankunnu, kumina and rastafari cultures brought them to the notice of their own people and the world. It was the JBC that created the market for Jamaican musicians and producers where none had existed before.
In the three years before independence the JBC was identified as a threat by those whose idea of Jamaica had concretized in 1944, when people spoke of democracy-in-embryo and the need for tutelage in governance. When the JBC presented public affairs programs that began to expose the realities of the society many were alarmed. C.L.R. James was astonished by a documentary I did in 1960 about the people who lived on and off the Dungle, who were allowed to tell their stories as if they were important. James thought that this was revolutionary stuff and prophesied that the powers that be would not long allow that sort of exposure.
He was right. When the JLP won the pre-independence elections in 1962 the JBC and myself in particular became immediate targets. One dispute was about JBC's alleged disrespect to the new government. The JLP said that JBC news was not dignifying Ministers by terming them "Honorable" as they said we had always styled the PNP Ministers. Fortunately we were able to produce a memorandum written by me two weeks after the JBC opened, in which we decided that honorifics such as "the Honorable" would be dispensed with except in cases of official announcements and things like death notices. They still didn't believe us.
We were always suspect, because we were not intimidated by anyone. In 1960, during the so-called Reynold Henry “uprising,” Wills Isaacs, acting as Premier while Manley was on a few days leave, insisted that we publish a ministerial statement by him calling upon Jamaicans to hunt down and capture and hogtie all stray bearded men in the interest of national security. We refused to broadcast the speech. Wills called me up, as the person then in charge of the newsroom and when I again refused he called Mr. Manley. I told Mr. Manley, when he called, that I had referred the speech to our legal adviser, Leacroft Robinson and he had agreed with me that the broadcast was an incitement to violence. When I told Manley this he agreed that we were right and told Wills to cool it.
A very similar row broke out in late 1961 or early 1962 when the JLP wanted us to put out a news release calling on "JLP Freedom Fighters" to give Mr. Manley "a hot reception" on his return from pre-independence talks in London. I was again the person responsible for refusing the broadcast, on the same grounds I'd given Isaacs in 1960. Seaga and Lightbourne were at Bustamante's house and got the old man to phone me to persuade me to allow the broadcast.
I refused and then Busta put on the Commissioner of Police, Noel Crosswell who said he saw nothing wrong with the release. Again I had Leacroft Robinson's advice and again I refused.
When Manley arrived at Victoria Pier by motor-launch from the airport all hell broke loose, with Seaga's "Freedom Fighters" locked in battle with Isaacs' Group 69. During the fracas Isaacs' licensed firearm fell to the ground and fortunately was picked up by a responsible adult. No one was seriously injured but I have always wondered what would have happened if Seaga's call to arms had been broadcast.
When the 1962 elections finally came I was not among the JLP's favorite people. Within weeks I was again in trouble. In my weekly news review I had been scathing about the departing British. After 300 years, I said, they had made the munificent bequest of one million pounds, sufficient to run the basic administration of the country for eleven days. They had also generously donated Up Park Camp, which I said was simply because they could not take it away.
On the following Monday Mr. Seaga with Sir Alexander Bustamante in tow, both dressed in funereal black, arrived at the JBC to see, by appointment, the chairman, the jeweler, L.A. Henriques. They got him to agree that I should be sacked, over the objections of Hector Bernard who was then the Acting General Manager.
When the rest of the JBC Board heard what had happened they immediately convened a meeting to inform Henriques that he had no authority to sack anyone. He was forced to resign.
I was reinstated. A few weeks later the entire board, with the exception of Henry Fowler, was sacked. A few months later I was again fired, on a trumped up charge and by way of a post-dated letter signed by the General Manager, A.L. Micky Hendricks, who at the time was in London on JBC business.
The new government of independent Jamaica did not understand the necessity for the autonomy of a public service corporation such as the JBC. They saw malice in any decision that went against them and were totally unable to accept any criticism. The PNP, demoralized in defeat, was unable to defend the principles on which we had always operated. Eventually in 1964 the newsroom rebelled against the attempt by Seaga and the new JBC Chairman Ivan Levy to be news editors.
Despite the first largely middleclass strike and the longest in Jamaican history until then, the gallant workforce of the JBC was defeated and most forced into exile. The JBC was transformed into a partisan mouthpiece – an image which it never shook – because the JLP were determined to destroy everything we stood for.
I had another innings at the JBC in the 1970s when I was personally painted as the implacable enemy of the JLP and of Edward Seaga, because I had run against him in the 1972 elections when the PNP could find no one willing to run in the brand new garrison of West Kingston. Although my candidacy was solely to prevent Seaga running unopposed and being elected on nomination day, it was taken as an impertinence and an insult to Seaga.
Despite this, however, the JBC managed to recover some of its self-respect. I personally remember with gratitude the opportunity I was given to start the first real talk-show in Jamaica, the Public Eye.
Public Eye had a few signal achievements, presenting for the first time public exposure of police brutality in the person of Peter Tosh, whose account of his mistreatment brought Jamaica up short. People knew that police brutality was fairly common, but few realized how pervasive it was. When I spoke to Peter Tosh he was still relatively obscure but well enough known to make a big impression.
Public Eye was also mainly responsible for the successful campaign to reverse the unfair convictions and secure the release of Michael Bernard and six other men on death row because of perjured evidence.
Our greatest achievement, however, was in raising the Jamaican consciousness about the condition of working class women. Shortly after the program began in February 1974 I interviewed Rosamund Wiltshire and Gillian Monroe who had just done an undergraduate thesis on the treatment of domestic helpers, up to then called servants and maids.
After the interview I invited the domestic helpers of Jamaica to phone me and tell Jamaica their stories. Soon, telephone locks were being imported by the thousands, so that householders could prevent the truth being told. I was accused of scandalizing the middle class and one day an expensively dressed chatelaine in a stush Mercedes Benz spat at me as I walked down South Odeon Avenue. After more than a year of agitation Michael Manley, at the instigation of his wife, Beverley, called me up to Jamaica House one day.
"What are we going to do about the helpers?"
I had an answer – suggested by the helpers themselves. Since they couldn't form a union and couldn't strike the society had to find the means to protect them from exploitation. A National Minimum Wage was the answer, but a National Minimum Wage policed by a special office which would also be responsible for defending all their rights.
Manley knew that everybody had said a national minimum wage would never work, that if implemented it would cause mass unemployment; but he, Beverley and I thought we should do it because it was right. Without consulting his Cabinet except for David Coore, he simply announced in Parliament that the government had decided to implement a National Minimum Wage and an office to supervise it.
Pandemonium. Jamaica knew the time had come for justice for the largest section of the labor force. Respect was due.
The impact of the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation on Jamaica has never been measured. It is my opinion that in its short periods of independence, the JBC helped begin the transformation of Jamaica from an ignorant colonial backwater into a civilized society. We have a long way to go, but the JBC proved that we have the brains and the will to do it.
If our traditions had been maintained I cannot imagine that 50 years later a Jamaican Governor General would be flying to Buckingham Palace to be knighted by the Queen as if he were some middle-ranking British civil servant.
In our cosmology, honor flowed not from England, but from the cane-cutters and domestic helpers, from the small farmers and the higglers, from the Rastas and all the people who constitute Jamaica, as we know it.
When they say "Respect is Due" we know what they mean.
John Maxwell a veteran Jamaican journalist. He has covered Caribbean affairs for more than 40 years and is currently a columnist for The Jamaica Observer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright©2009 John Maxwell