I was terrified. A bomb with no physical impact to buildings, but with unspeakable consequences for human life — we’re at the end of the slide rule for humanity, I remember writing.
I was fifteen in a boarding school in Ghana surrounded by boys that looked like me with no concept of prejudice by colour or discrimination by a person’s race. I wanted to become a journalist, whatever that was.
Five years on, driven by the need to please my father who wanted a Doctor of Pharmacist in the house I’m studying Applied Chemistry in Leicester and I can see it’s going nowhere. What is it with science students, as I scoured the bar at the Students’ Union. That’s an arts student, and that one. You could tell. They knew how to let their hair down. The following day I turned up to Lab lectures with a dyed yellow hair. You should have seen the look on my chemistry lecturer’s face.
I had my first breakthrough to my wishful career by being a pain, hanging around a BBC station for five months until the editor gave me a recorder. It happened on the last day when I’d had enough making coffees and bringing guests to the studio. My report about how local authorities, instructed by the government, would soon end student grants was heard by several people including my chemistry lecturer.
He would only let on the last day we were to see each other three years on. I stood quietly shaking in his office as he decided my fate. “We had a special meeting about you Mr Gyimah. You could so easily have had a 2:1. But that’s water underneath the bridge”. Imagine the scene in a film. The camera zooms in tight to my young trembling face, teeth grinding. Then cuts to my knees oscillating like a pinged tuning fork. Cut to exterior wide shot of Dr Davis’ opaque glass door. Was he going to pass me, or did I just throw three years away?
More reports followed, winging a living on barely any money, a chance to study a post grad in leafy South East England and then a crash. One of them literally. Travelling down the motorway to London in a classic beetle two of our tyres explode. We are missed by whiskers from a torpedo of screeching cars and articulated trucks. When our car stops finally in the fast lane, my friend and driver Max and I hug each other like for a lifetime, voicing how up there someone is looking over us. Then we realise it would be a good idea to get out of the road. That thing about slow motion flashing before your eyes, it’s true.
At postgrad school my lecturer would pull me aside. “Hey David, been hearing about your djing at the local club. I hear you’re good. But if you keep it up, you’re going to fail”. That sounded like one piece of advice too many. A week later £150 a week turned to dust. Gone. It was tough, but I remember the advice of a friend, who scolded me in my under grad days, “Put you head down for a year. The parties will still be there”.
When I graduated a year later, I returned to my local station for a while until the biggest event horizon would fall my way. HR at the BBC in London informed me I was up for an interview for Newsnight. All the previous applications, loads of them without even a sniff of an interview, now Newsnight! News, bloody Night! It’s only the most respected news analysis programme ever.
“You’re not here to do black stories”.
The interview was going well, but towards the end one of the senior execs said something that was as heavy as an anvil as it was well meaning, I thought. “You’re not here to do black stories”. Pregnant silence prevailed momentarily. “Well yeah”, I uttered. I secretly wanted to become a great reporter and knowing Newsnight wasn’t Black London meant I knew I’d be tested on all things. Black London, by the way, was a radio show I co-hosted on the BBC that was aimed at London’s black listeners and I got to speak to artists like Eartha Kitt.
The ensuing years were as tough as sometimes they were exhilarating. Unable to find work in the UK after my Newsnight stint, I moved to South Africa reporting the townships and issues I found were being missed on the news. I somehow possessed superman powers that allowed me access to places. If I said nothing I could be mistaken for coloured, or black. If I said something I could be English or African. I used my choices wisely. I still got accused by an angry Afrikaner farmer for, as an Englishman, being responsible for concentration camps — onne british export, rarely mentioned today.
One of my most memorable moments came working at ABC News with Danny Glover on a township story. The moment was reporting on President Nelson Mandela’s inauguration for a division of the BBC World Service that covered the Caribbeans. Back in the UK, I got the last spot for a group of young Ninja warriors who were about to fight Britain’s tradition in journalism. We lost the battle, but helped others win the war. Video journalism, mobile journalism, journalism with one woman doing everything — that was us. The industry didn’t like us and that’s putting it lightly.
Returning to work across Africa, producing in London for a politics show edited by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s brother, joining Channel 4 News, Breakfast News and then one day, like a serene awakening, it happened.
The stories you give frames people’s mind. It moulds them. It can do their heads in. It can do the heads out. You create the conditions for how people think the world exist because of news. Too much of one thing and not enough of the other skews a generation’s thinking. I knew that, but now it was profound.
We tend to think its PR or spin that scars our insides, forces us to think down a cul de sac. Journalism can masks an ignorance, or sometimes an ineptitude for show business or business as usual. The best it could say is it’s trying to be honest, but that’s not its schtick. It claims perfection and doesn’t like to hear its flaws.
Journalism, to cite Professor Michael Schudson, is a cultural construct informed by literary and societal conventions. Except in the pragmatic world journalism likes to make these invisible. It is as natural as the air we breathe, we’re made to think. And a select demographic can only be trusted with holding the pen to tell news journalism stories because as Walter Lippmann would tell us it’s only the intellectual rigour of a select elite that allows democracy to flourish. They know what’s best for us. If you’re not going to end up in politics and government then you’ll do just as well interpreting the intentions of your kin. On the radio today, a journalist is discussing 4% in borrowing and fiscal rectitude. The club continues outside the hallowed walls of uni.
This construct of journalism almost works if you believe the myth that other lives don’t matter with their stories or that lives can only be explained or understood through the prisms of a small privileged group of people, whom may have little or no understanding of Schudson’s framework on culture, or what Du Bois would refer to as double consciousness.
Journalism is storytelling. Storytelling is drawing on a skill of articulation through the narrator to their audience, acknowledging how words shape minds, how the mind works, how PR, governments and tech companies exploit this, and psychologists are still unravelling the complexities of dense gray matter. The contract should be empathetic to culture, to people. You the storyteller matter borne out by #brexit, Trumpism and the onset of unfamiliar paradigms.
Today, we’re running Hackweek. I’m back in a LAB, a storytelling one which combines my experience and love for storytelling and journalism, for the Sciences and Tech, and the Arts and for finding ways to solve problems using storytelling as the vehicle.
In the interim, all stories in themselves, since learning of the true power of stories, I have become a lecturer, worked for a PhD from University College Dublin in a form of storytelling called Cinema Journalism, experienced the tragedy of a cousin being shot, and a niece having to rebuild her life from an autoimmune diseases and the consequences. I have won a few awards in innovation and journalism e.g. Knight Batten, been made an artist in residence at the South bank Centre creating Obama’s 100 Days visuals for Dr Shirley Thompson, and travelled to regions e.g. Syrian border, Beirut, Russian, and China to tell stories and train journalists. This year I made a visiting professorship at University of British Columbia where I spent almost two months.
I didn’t get to become that great reporter, but indicative of what makes me happy aside from lecturing, last week I took parts of an exhibition showing some of the UK’s most talented producers from ethnic backgrounds to a school in Sutton and Mayor’s reception. This man David P. Davis, I pointed out to the teacher writes for Dr Who. I could see one of the young children I met later processing it. The stories we tell.