David de Caires

Stabroek News Sunday - - LETTERS -

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.

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