Journalism County and Hope: A Twenty Something and an Accidental Professor

Despair hangs heavy like an anvil around the neck — as each moment passes, the shoulder muscles weaken and the arched disposition of its subject becomes more pronounced like a staff’s hook.

The pronouncement by a national newspaper that for every job being advertised 22 people were chasing that position seemed like a fallacy. A thousand more like it! Did people get it? I mean did they get it, when all you really wanted was a job, a job to feel fulfilled.

The twenty-something graduate glanced at the stack of rejections, he’d accumulated. Enough to fill two walls with hue-white makeshift wall paper. Maurice had got so proficient at short-circuiting responses, that he first and only read the last two sentences, before the salutation, “Yours sincerely”. Sincere, indeed. Once he’d received a letter clearly marked for someone else. The rejection industry had become so big and uncaring they couldn’t even bother with the dignity of getting your name right, Maurice thought.

In recent months, he’d become friendly with a senior official — a newspaper man turned media executive, who opined, “Yes, the industry needs people like you”. Several years earlier a quake started to rumble. Women, declared in a major media magazine that they’d had enough. They deserved to be in positions of parity, power and influence, like their male counterparts. It was a public, well-honed campaigned, which Maurice noted with alacrity.

Other groups feeling disenfranchised made their move too, and their appeared for a brief window, some traction, but come a new decade, the door seemed closed again. More women had broken through the ranks, but nearly thirty years on we would read of skulduggery afoot. Public figures were exempt from the hide and seek of salaries, but other women were being underpaid and lied to by their bosses. Carrie Gracie has resigned. The BBC’s China editor did so in heart torn public missive over ‘secretive and illegal’ pay inequality.

Inclement weather, a political maelstrom in recent months, and a recession which seemed never to end hung over Maurice’s roof like Cumulonimbus clouds, but there were other thoughts gnawing at him. Despair has a way of magnifying even the inconsequential into motifs. Was it him, his telling background, his lack of insiders, particularly in an industry which trades on favours and who you know? He would ponder until the funk gradually dissipated and an idea, audacious perhaps, would be born?

What if, Maurice recounts, he went to one of the most dangerous, talked about countries in the world, and started to work from there? South Africa, at the time was Journalism County, just like the US for different reasons would be in 2018. In times of political challenges, the smite of powerful men and industry, the obfuscation of the rule of law, of a basic need for people to be protected and listened to by their government, it is the gift given to the journalists to make sense, to head into harms way, to eke out stories that fulfil an insatiable need for truth. Put power to the pen. There may be inaccuracies in Michael Wollf’s book, but the utility is there, and shared by others — that pen.

The only problem with Maurice’s thought was that all the journalists in the world knew South Africa, and its inexorable inching towards the demise of apartheid ( legalised racial discrimination) was J-county. In years gone, the accidental journalist turned correspondent made their name in Hanoi, the Biafran war, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and China — and the costs were not always favourable.

But Maurice had but one major advantage, if not a number of hidden ones he would come to realise. His blackness made him invisible in a country where a foreign journalist could stand out like a sore thumb. His surname discombobulated in the UK, and though generally foreign to South Africans had an African ring to it — yes, Ghanaian.

And, he had a voice. A science grad turned journalist he’d worked his way through university from schooling in Ghana, became a runner at a media house for several months before they let him report, and then secured a postgraduate degree at one of the country’s top journalism schools in Falmouth. Upon graduating, he’d worked three successive high profile jobs at the BBC, before the barren waste set in. Time and tide waits for no one. South Africa, touch down, April 13th 1991 and what ensued was a turning point.

Four O’clock in afternoon, Vancouver’s air blows across the cabin log structures at Green College. Were it a movie set, you’d imagine wands and wizards a plenty. I’ve run out of money, glancing across a table in my room, emptied of my wallet. Ten Dollars. Ten Dollars!

I begin a lengthy trek to the nearest convenience store at 10 p.m having fallen asleep from Jet lag. A forty minute walk, by internal GPS ensues. My phone could have helped but it’s yet to be connected. It’s drizzling, a relentless tap of water that started hours earlier, but walk I must, mildly despairing at the situation I’ve placed myself in. As my mind drifts I begin to think of Maurice.

Time and fortitude were healers. In the interim years he got to tell his stories, and he’s still doing it. This time though as the accidental professor, passing on knowledge to a new generation and pondering projects of impact, such as this one, with his friend Simone Pennant. Sixty of the UK’s talented black and Asian producers and executives brought under one roof to celebrate their achievements.

It will come to pass, but the strive and tests of those bygone years are templates to put into perspective for modern challenges.

In the next six weeks, I’m being hosted at one of Canada’s most respected universities, within its journalism department. It ranks in the top thirty too in the world.

I am the accidental professor who reminisces Maurice’s intimate memories, and he has a message for me:

Keep running, so long as you’re running, you’re, oxymoronically, not standing still. I’ve ran twice since I arrived three days ago.

Keep challenging yourself, when the mood and trends appear elsewhere. Over the years through necessity Maurice had me learn a multiple number of media pathways. Their appeared little logic; a jack of all trades has no hope of becoming a master of any. But in the summer of 2006 Apple ran two-page profile on their site on Maurice.

Maintain your humility, Maurice tells me. Journalists are like milk producers each delivering something of import to the consumer. You’re no different to any other skilled, or otherwise labour. And humility will often open doors, physically —The Dean of Green College, newly met, might agree.

Be patient with those who don’t know. For when you don’t know, often you genuinely don’t know this itself. Be patient with yourself too. Time, lots of it is your teacher in these intemperate times

Be truthful. That quality calls for transparency. Do what’s right, not necessarily what is considered popular.

And keep learning and talk to yourself — that twenty something more often. The perspective can be informative. Accidents are coincidences you can engineer. Find the space to laugh, even at those times when it all seems too much. And that anvil? Learn to tame it.

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David Dunkley Gyimah heads up the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB in the UK, is a cinema journalist and a former artist in residence at the Southbank Centre. He has 30 years journalism experience, and is the recipient of a number of international awards. He’s the 2017 Visiting Asper Professor of Journalism at the University of British Columbia’s journalism Department. To find out more email me David [at] viewmagazine [dot] tv. He’s giving a series of talks on the subject in Canada, and in the UK next month.

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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