David de Caires
It is not often that a small society produces someone who leaves an institutional legacy of significance. But so it was with David de Caires, who died ten years ago on November 1. The Stabroek News which he founded was intended to be something more than just an average daily, grinding out the usual news fare, let alone a scurrilous rag attracting a prurient readership. He wanted it to be a newspaper of record.
There were other things of equal if not greater importance in his mind too. When de Caires in company with Ken Gordon of the Trinidad Express approached President Hoyte about starting a private paper in 1986, no one had seen anything of the kind for ten years. Aside from the government owned Guyana Chronicle, there was only the PPP’s Mirror along with the Catholic Standard and some intermittent broadsheets such as Open Word from the WPA in existence. None of them was a daily, and the first two were under severe pressure because Burnham’s government did not even permit them to access gifts of newsprint.
At that time, of course, this was a nation where the political breathing space had been severely restricted, and democratic norms had atrophied owing to the impositions of an autocratic government. de Caires was a natural democrat, and sought the return of a liberal society and the rule of law. He was also committed to an economic environment where private business could flourish. Those kinds of changes, however, required the presence of all the institutions, conventions and laws which made an open society viable, and which included the free expression of opinion and the exchange of ideas.
The founder, Chairman and first Editor-inChief of this newspaper did not enter the profession of journalism directly; he took a detour. He began his career as a solicitor in the days when there was a distinction between barristers and solicitors, and was in a legal partnership with Miles Fitzpatrick for thirty years. Between 1964 and 1967, however, he was intimately involved in the publication of the magazine New World Fortnightly, and this gave a stimulus to his interest in casting around for solutions to Guyana’s seemingly unyielding political problems.
At the time de Caires and Gordon spoke to Hoyte, therefore, the first-named was approaching fifty years old, hardly the usual stage in life to embark on a new vocation. While the President was quite open to a new newspaper, there was one caveat, namely, there would be no foreign exchange for foreign input. Nevertheless, the did manage to start life, if only as a weekly, with the help of a US fund. The ‘flats’ as they were called, were hand-carried to Trinidad by Mrs Doreen de Caires to be printed at the Express after the last copy of that
newspaper had come off the press. The finished papers were then flown back by private aircraft, and went on sale on Friday mornings. At a time of interminable black-outs and a host of other impediments, it was not an easy burden.
The financial arrangement for printing in Trinidad ended after a year, and while de Caires despite his best efforts failed to find a substitute, he did not abandon his attempts, and eventually managed to acquire a press. In stages, therefore, the paper graduated to becoming a daily. Subsequently, a more serviceable press was installed, which despite its financial strain, never caused the Chairman to give up.
It is worth iterating what was said above, namely, that he had committed the newspaper from the first to working for an open society, and the initial step in that process he viewed as free and fair elections, which had been denied since 1968. But he was also desirous that should provide space for the kind of rational political debate to which any open society should aspire, and which was necessary for any return to democracy. In the newspaper’s case, he thought, that could best be achieved through the letters’ column.
Neither the Mirror nor the Catholic Standard had ever had enough newsprint during the Burnham period to include letters from the public at the kind of level which Stabroek News could provide. The late Editor-in-Chief regarded these pages as representing the heart of the newspaper, and even in his later years when he had ceased to involve himself in the day-to-day running of the paper, on most days he would still edit the letter pages himself. An independent newspaper, he believed, could accustom people to think for themselves and form their own opinions, particularly in circumstances where the free expression of views had been inhibited for so long.
He was not, of course, completely naïve, and recognised that critics would accuse the paper of reflecting the interests of those who owned it no matter what it carried. In a policy statement printed in the first edition he addressed this question: the newspaper, he said, would not be “free of any perception of the interests and operations of its owners. No paper is or ever will be, so free. We are free of direction by any outside institution.”
And that remains a cornerstone of SN’s policy: not to be cowed by anyone’s intimidatory or bullying tactics. There is no retreating when a matter of principle related to the rule of law, for example, is concerned. “[T]he free press must see itself as an important arbiter committed to ideals and values that transcend interest groups of one kind or another…” he once said.
And where the profession of journalism itself was concerned, the late Editor-in-Chief held strong views, laying emphasis on responsible and balanced reporting. One should never have an “attitude” to the news, he would say, making a distinction between editorial sympathies which could be legitimately included in a leader column, but which should never colour an editor’s role as a recorder of fact. “To run a newspaper one has to have a bit of a mission,” he once remarked, “that is why I started.”
And when the history of this country is written his contribution to the opening up of the society, to the establishment of independent institutions, to political debate and to support for rational political structures will surely be one of the topics for consideration. Exactly what he would think of the progress or otherwise in the ten years since his death is impossible to say. But on the basis of his own experience, he would know that history cannot be rushed.