25 April 2004

Beset by Eddie Seaga, Betrayed by Mutty Perkins

DESMOND ALLEN Interviews John Maxwell

John Maxwell thinks he knows why Edward Seaga never liked him. Fresh from university in the United States, Seaga, feeling his oats, wrote a piece in The Gleaner, analysing why the People's National Party (PNP) had just lost the 1958 Federal (West Indies) elections, and why they would lose the coming general elections in Jamaica. Maxwell, while still working for Evon Blake's monthly Newsday magazine, fired off an article of his own to the Public Opinion, criticising Seaga's analysis as "scientific balderdash". When Seaga replied to that, Maxwell hit back with another entitled "Pseudo-scientific balderdash".

When the PNP won the 1959 general elections by a landslide, Maxwell felt that his own analysis had held true over Seaga's. "He has never forgiven me for those two articles," Maxwell firmly believes. But this was child's play, compared with what was to come 13 years later when he would face an unconquerable Seaga in a bruising electoral battle for the fearsome West Kingston constituency.

If men are born to a destiny that is designed and scripted somewhere in the heavenlies, John Maxwell must have been such. Although he and Seaga had come to prominence from different directions, fate, it seemed, would have it that the paths of the two men be intertwined and cross at intervals over time. In the period leading up to Independence, Maxwell had gained a reputation as a hard-hitting, fearless reporter, after a meteoric rise rarely known in the hard, unsympathetic world of 1950s Jamaican journalism. Never stopping long enough to think of personal material gratification, Maxwell wielded his pen like a mighty sword, in fact mightier than the sword. In the years to come, it would draw blood, not only of Seaga, but of many others. And the name of John Maxwell would be pronounced with either delight or disdain. It seemed as if Maxwell had determined in his heart that he would have no friends in high places.

NW Manley and Seaga's freedom fighters

The approaching Independence provided the grist for Maxwell's mill. It was foreshadowed by the 'no' vote in the 1961 referendum on whether Jamaica should stay or leave the West Indies Federation. Premier Norman Manley, having lost the referendum, promptly called general elections for April 1962. But just before that, in the final days of his premiership, Manley went off to London for constitutional talks. When he was about to return, Maxwell recalls, Seaga sent in a press release to the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC), calling on his "freedom fighters" from West Kingston to meet Manley and give him a warm reception.

Maxwell was acting as chief editor of the JBC. Neither Hector Bernard, then director of news and public affairs nor Peter Aylen, the general manager could be reached. Deciding that the release was an incitement to violence against the premier, Maxwell refused to air it, backing up his decision with advice from the station's lawyers. RJR, on the other hand, decided to run with it. But the JLP was not finished with the matter.

On an otherwise uneventful morning, Maxwell got a phone call from the attorney-general, J Leslie Cundall. The call was made from Bustamante's house. "Cundall put me onto Robert Lightbourne, who in turn put me onto Bustamante, who afterwards put me onto the commissioner of police. All of them told me that there was nothing wrong with the release and it should be published. I continued to refuse and they were clearly very mad with me," Maxwell recounts. "They said I was being PNP." As he had feared, Maxwell continues, when the premier arrived from London, it was to a warm reception indeed. There was "serious disturbance" at the Victoria Pier on the downtown Kingston waterfront. During the melee, Wills O' Isaacs' gun fell out of his pocket, Maxwell recalls.

No, thank you, Mr Wills O' Isaacs

He also found the accusation - that he had spiked the Seaga press release because he was PNP - to be unfortunate. What they didn't know at the time, Maxwell swears, was that a couple of years before, during the so-called Rasta Rebellion of 1959, as acting chief editor, he had declined to air a speech supplied by Wills O' Isaacs who was then acting premier. The speech had called on the people to round up all the Rastafarians they could find. Maxwell declared that it was an incitement to violence and he would not air it. He sought and received the backing of the JBC lawyer, Leacroft Robinson. Wills O' Isaacs hotly called up Norman Manley who was on vacation and complained. Manley phoned Maxwell, wanting to know why he was holding the speech. Maxwell held his ground and informed the premier that even the lawyer had agreed with his assessment of the speech. Manley said okay and that was the end of the matter.

So at 27, Maxwell had already had run-ins with the powers, defying them without a thought for his own well-being. But the stage was now set for his firing from the JBC.

Busta and Eddie were dressed in black

The JLP won the 1962 elections and Seaga was given the broadcasting portfolio. Bustamante led a delegation to London "to hear what was our coming of age present". In his radio commentary, Maxwell remarked that the British had been "exceedingly mean". He wrote: "After making enormous profits out of Jamaica for over 300 years, they have given us Up Park Camp, the defence force headquarters, which they couldn't take with them anyway, as well as enough money to run the country for 11 days!"

The following Monday, Prime Minister Bustamante arrived at the JBC, with Seaga in tow. Both men were dressed in black and were visibly in a dark mood, Maxwell remembers. "As if they were going to a funeral," he says. They went to see Hector Bernard. He had no comfort for them, telling them that he saw nothing wrong with the comment. "That got Hector into hot waters, too," adds Maxwell. The PM then asked for the chairman of the board, L A Henriques, the noted jeweller. Henriques agreed with them that the commentary was a bad thing. Shortly after, Maxwell received a letter of dismissal.

Maxwell's firing sparked uproar. Morris Cargill, who he names as a good friend while he was alive, defended Maxwell in one of his columns for The Gleaner, noting that he did not agree with him, but upholding his right to make the comment. Theodore Sealy, the editor-in-chief, refused to publish the column. "Cargill then informed him that the next column he wrote for the paper would be after the current one was published. So he stopped writing the column for several years. For him, it was a matter of principle," Maxwell reflects.

There was a stay of execution of the dismissal letter. But a few months down the road, the Government axed the entire JBC board and appointed a new general manager in Mickey Hendriks who carried out the dismissal.

The courage of Peter Abrahams

Maxwell threatened to sue, the station settled with him for a sum equivalent to three months' salary and he went home. Jobless now, the fiery journalist had more serious blows to come. In the middle of this mishap, his marriage broke up. The dark clouds gave way to happier events in November that year (1962). O T Fairclough of Public Opinion sought out Maxwell and offered him the job as editor of the weekly paper. Peter Abrahams had earlier left as editor to edit the West Indian Economist published by Eddie Young.

The name of Peter Abrahams evokes huge admiration from Maxwell. It was Abrahams, he says, who polished his journalistic art and from him that he learnt how to be courageous. Abrahams, a South African, had migrated to Jamaica, after long years battling apartheid. It was because of him, Maxwell reveals, that he was one of a very few editors in the world who thought it worthwhile to publish Nelson Mandela's historic speech at his trial for terrorism. Abraham's unique voice would be remembered long after on RJR and he would also become chairman when the station was nationalised in the 1970s.
But for the moment, Public Opinion was struggling under now editor Clyde Hoyte. Fairclough turned to Maxwell to rescue the paper. The three men discussed it and concluded that if something drastic did not happen, City Printery Limited, the publishers of the paper, would sink. Maxwell reported for work in yet another January - January 1, 1963 - in the midst of an uproar in the country, he says.

"The Government was behaving badly. Ministers were involved in punch-ups. I wrote in Public Opinion that they were behaving as if they had won this country in a lottery." His writings were always followed by threats "to do something to me".

The JBC strike

A year later, Maxwell was again in the thick of things. While he was at the JBC, he had mobilised the staff to join the NWU. Wage negotiations were underway when George Lee and Adrian Rodway prepared and aired a story on the talks. Board chairman, K Ivan Levy, father of the Levys of Jamaica Broilers fame, insisted that the board should have been shown the story before it was aired. They were supported by Seaga. Lee, now the first directly elected mayor of the Portmore Municipality, and Rodway were sacked. Their dismissal triggered the famous JBC strike.

Even though Maxwell was now at Public Opinion, his home was the unofficial strike headquarters. The work stoppage dragged on for thee months and seemed about to peter out. The workers were getting desperate. What could they do now? Maxwell, Milton 'Scully' Scott, Hugh Small, the assistant island supervisor of the NWU and Bill Carr, an Englishman who was lecturing at the UWI, knocked heads together. Drawing on the examples of the American civil rights activists, they turned to passive resistance. A plan was drawn up to block Half-Way-Tree and several other major thoroughfares over one weekend. It was decided they would not tell Michael Manley, who was the NWU island supervisor, fearing that his PNP would not sanction the move.

On the Friday morning before the blockade of Half-Way-Tree, the JBC staff decided to protest by lying down in front of the station on South Odeon Avenue. The demonstrators included people like Monica White, Jean Hill (later Barnes and mother of footballer John Barnes), George Lee, Adrian Rodway, Hugh Gentles and Leslie ChinQuee, among others. They were arrested by the police but were released the same day, in time to join the planned blocking of Half-Way-Tree square.

Maxwell says the square was blocked solid, as members of the public joined the protest. As soon as police dragged away some demonstrators, others took their place. The police resorted to tear-gassing the crowd. One shell hit Maxwell in the back and burnt through his shirt but he was not seriously hurt. The crowd panicked and stampeded out of the square. "We regrouped at the housing department and marched three times around Half-Way-Tree, going along Hagley Park to Eastwood Park Road, up South Odeon Avenue and into the square," Maxwell recounts.

Enter Michael Manley

Later Maxwell received a message from Michael Manley who asked if his support was needed. They met at Emerald Road and he explained to Manley why they had not sought his support in the first place. It was agreed that the NWU island supervisor would join them on the next demonstration - the blocking of King Street, the following day, Saturday. It was a big market day and King Street was already packed with shoppers when the marchers arrived. The police, under the command of Owen Stephenson, were waiting in great numbers, Maxwell notes. The marchers, about 12,000 of them with Manley in their midst, carried out their plan to lie down in the roadway.
By Maxwell's account, half of the JLP Government was there to witness the demonstration. He later learnt from Frank Hill that in a flat panic over fears that the protestors were going to attempt to bring down the administration, the Government had brought in the reserves, doubling the army overnight. Only the Public Opinion reported the events. In 1965, under the signature of G Arthur Brown, financial secretary, later governor of the Bank of Jamaica, an ominous circular was sent to civil servants prohibiting government departments from buying Public Opinion or advertising in the paper. No more printing work should go to City Printery Limited. They had gone for Maxwell's jugular by striking at the life-blood of the newspaper for which he worked. Not even a debate initiated by Florizel Glasspole in the Parliament could get the Government to budge.

Press Association, IAPA turn a blind eye

The Jamaica Press Association (JPA) under Sealy, refused to take up the case and Maxwell turned to the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), the United States-based media watchdog body. IAPA was meeting in Montego Bay. Its Jamaica vice-president was S G Fletcher, managing director of the Gleaner Company. Like the JPA (now the PAJ), IAPA declined to take up the case, saying it was not a press freedom issue. Maxwell was utterly disgusted: "So far as I am concerned, IAPA is and was nothing but a capitalist organisation which had nothing to do with press freedom," he charged. This statement would come back to haunt him.

Meantime, Public Opinion could not withstand the Government ban. The paper was bleeding red ink and Maxwell saw the writing on the wall. Beaten but unbowed, he and Fairclough faced the inevitable truth. Maxwell would have to be sacrificed to save the paper and the printery. Once again, the gladiator was thrown out of the arena. At home doing nothing, Maxwell contemplated the years in journalism, the battles fought and won, the controversies, the threats. It had all come down to this moment. But the author of the Maxwell script was not finished with him yet. Fairclough, his heart of gold swelling, and probably feeling that Maxwell was being unfairly punished, went everywhere, begging and borrowing. "He came to my house and presented me with five months' salary, because he did not want anything to happen to me. That kept me alive for a year." Even in recollection, Maxwell was visibly fighting back the tears.

In the world service of the BBC

In August 1966, Michael Manley told Maxwell he had a space for one person to go on a three-month trade union course in Germany and would he be interested? Maxwell said 'yes'. On his way back at the end of the course, he stopped in London and decided to try out for a three-month summer relief job programme run by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). He took the test, came first and was taken on, along with nine or so others. At the end of the programme, the BBC offered Maxwell a permanent job as a copy taster in their External News Department, the world service of the BBC.

The BBC was eventful for, among other things, an apology he received from a white sub-editor who had hurled a racist comment at Maxwell. Later he extracted a small change there too in the way the Vietnam War was being covered. Maxwell noticed that the Americans were regularly reporting high body counts from a certain Vietnamese province. When he did the math, Maxwell realised that if the Americans were telling the truth, the province should have long ago been de-populated. He pointed this out to the BBC editor-in-chief, David Williams, who agreed that the American claims were mere propaganda and promptly dropped the body counts from the news reports. And Maxwell was soon promoted to senior sub-editor.

London had its special moments. When the JLP Government banned Walter Rodney during the 1968 black power activities at the University of the West Indies, Maxwell, along with Trevor Munroe, Barry Reckord, Dwight Whylie and Selma James, wife of the Trinidadian author, C L R James, led a demonstration to the Jamaican High Commission in the British capital. They were arrested by police and later released.

Who will face Seaga?

This was 1969. He had been at the BBC for four years but Jamaica still stirred in Maxwell's blood. The next year, he took his six-week vacation and came home, with his girlfriend, Mary Kohler. During lunch with Michael Manley and his fiancée, Beverley Anderson, Maxwell was told that the PNP did not have anybody to run in the impending general elections in Western Kingston where Seaga appeared impregnable. Maxwell, half-jokingly, said he would run. Manley said "yes, please".

Another significant thing happened. Sealy also invited them to lunch and told Maxwell he'd like him to succeed him as editor-in-chief of The Gleaner. This nearly shocked the daylights out of Maxwell. He had not seen it coming. Sealy threw in an offer to give him a car and driver for him to travel around the country to re-familiarise himself with Jamaica for six months before taking up the desk job. He would pay him more than he was getting at the BBC. Maxwell liked the offer. But what about people like Ulric Simmonds and Ken Allen who surely were qualified? he asked. Sealy insisted he wanted the man he liked to refer to as "that turbulent journalist". S G Fletcher needed, however, to sign off on the offer.

"Aren't you a socialist?" the Gleaner managing director asked Maxwell at the interview. The reply was 'yes'. Maxwell saw that Fletcher had also remembered how he cursed off the IAPA a few years back. "I have to get back to Mr Sealy and he'll contact you," the Gleaner boss said, concluding the interview. Sealy never contacted Maxwell and he could not reach Sealy. Maxwell ended his vacation and went back to London.

Run John, Run!

Back in England, in his nice two-bedroom flat in Islington and his cushy BBC job, Maxwell mentally rehashed the events of the past six weeks and wondered what he had gotten himself into by volunteering to run against Seaga. Nobody would take his offer seriously anyway. He was wrong. Several months later, Michael Manley was on the line. "They had still not gotten anybody to contest West Kingston. Everybody was afraid. They needed me to run. Again, I said 'I'll do it'."

On March 1, 1971, Maxwell was back in Jamaica with Mary, his wife. The PNP expected the elections to be held during that year. Maxwell set up a constituency office upstairs a place called Maxwell's Bar (no known relations) at Oxford and Beeston streets. West Kingston was ghetto country. The constituency had become what they like to call today a garrison. Nobody seriously expected Maxwell to win. He'd be lucky if he could retain his deposit. The JLP unwittingly set the election date for February 29, 1972, a leap year and the birthday of Edna Manley, Michael Manley's mother.

'Joshua' and the rod of correction

Maxwell says the office was attacked several times and at least one campaign meeting was shot up. On election day, Seaga and a group of his supporters massed in front of his office to face him down. When the votes were tallied, Maxwell was, predictably, blown out of the water. But he laughs heartily now when he recalls that while Seaga had gotten more than 100 per cent of the votes in some Tivoli boxes, "John Maxwell got all five votes in the East Street box".

But the PNP had won by a landslide under the charismatic Michael 'Joshua' Manley, who had mystified the campaign mass meetings and the country with a "rod of correction", a promise that "Better must come" and an insignia that "The word is love".

After the elections, Maxwell again went into a slump. He was editing the PNP paper called the New Nation but that wasn't doing very well, and he wasn't being paid much, when he was paid at all. Then Dwight Whylie, who was by then general manager of the JBC, invited him to do some work for the station. Maxwell came up with a television current affairs programme named Press Conference which was later renamed Firing Line. A panel of journalists would ask questions of a newsmaker guest, under the guidance of a moderator. Maxwell easily dominated with his tough line of questioning. He didn't know it yet, but the programme would cost him his friendship with Wilmot 'Mutty' Perkins.

Why O Mutty, why?

The moderator at the time was deemed to be a poor one and Maxwell suggested to Whylie that Perkins be invited to take over the programme. Whylie agreed and Perkins accepted. Maxwell claims that on his first night on the show, Mutty refused to allow him to ask any questions. Here he was, the star of the show and the moderator, a friend whom he had recommended, was doing everything to block him. He couldn't understand it! After 45 fruitless minutes of trying to get in his questions, Maxwell stormed off the show, cursing the day he thought of suggesting Mutty for moderator. From then on, things have never been the same between the two.

And alas! We're running out of space. A newspaper is no substitute for a book and the John Maxwell story is vast. We'll therefore have to fast-forward a bit now - to the birth of Public Eye, the father of the modern talk shows, and for which he is perhaps best known.

The Public Eye

In 1974, Hector Bernard went to Maxwell, saying he had an idea for an afternoon talk show that should be news-based, and he wanted him to design something. Maxwell came up with the Public Eye, which first aired on February 4 that year. It wasn't long before the programme became the most listened and the highest earner for the station. What started it off was a discussion with Gillian Munroe, wife of Trevor Munroe, and Rosina Wiltshire, who had done a study on the working conditions of domestic helpers. What they found shamed Jamaica: sexual assaults, beatings, modern day slavery and other horrors. Maxwell then invited helpers to call and called they did. It was like a firestorm, he remembers. Their stories of shame had people glued to Public Eye. Only RJR's soap, Dulcimena surpassed his listenership which, at one point, was a whopping 64 per cent.

Fired from the JBC.again

The programme never looked back. Maxwell's reputation as an acerbic, penetrating and opinionated journalist cemented. He suffered no fool gladly, cutting off callers with a dismissive "rubbish". He took on causes, like police brutality, better conditions for workers, helpers and the voiceless. He never stopped until he had whipped up enough mass support to free Michael Bernard off Death Row for a murder he had not committed. But the Public Eye era too would end in his firing when a dispute with General Manager Whylie came to a head. Manley was angered by the dismissal but said he would not interfere in the affairs of the JBC, and Maxwell was out.

Out in the cold once more, he wrote speeches for Manley and chaired several of the state environmental agencies, notably the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA), forerunner to the National Environment and Planning Agency.

In 1979, he went back to the JBC as head of current affairs under the affable Wycliffe Bennett, and from there, with Franklin McDonald of the fledgling Office of Disaster Preparedness and Richard Thelwell, his cousin who ran the Natural Resources Conservation Department, masterminded the first mass evacuation of people from Portmore as Hurricane Allen powered towards the island in 1980. Then came the 1980 general elections. Maxwell was declared an "apparatchik of the PNP".

Seaga becomes prime minister

On election night, October 30, Maxwell was sweating like a pig on television. People said this was because his party was losing and some said he bawled down the place. He has no recollection of him crying and says he was sweating profusely because the air conditioning unit was out and the studio was packed with people. What he remembers saying was that "Mr Seaga is now my prime minister and I will give him the respect I have given every prime minister". Four days later, he received a letter of termination from the JBC.

But the Maxwell-Seaga saga had a happy ending of sorts. While at the NRCA, Maxwell had gotten the Government to agree to declare the entire Jamaica a watershed, meaning that no trees or forests should be burnt without state permission. The Ministerial Order was made but remained unsigned and was overtaken by the elections. When Seaga took over, he signed the Order. "At long last we had done something together for Jamaica," Maxwell says with deep satisfaction.

The 1980s would be tough. His wife, Mary left him and returned to England with their two children - Matthew, who is now director of a small corporate communication company, and Katy, a film animator. Maxwell gave up drinking, having concluded that "I had done enough for the industry" and now contemplates hexing the cigarette demon. Since 1991, Maxwell is to be found lecturing in ethics and legal issues in journalism at the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (Carimac) where he met the beautiful Dutch woman, Dr Marjan deBruin. She later became director of the institute, succeeding Professor Aggrey Brown. He treasures the Sandals Eco-Journalism award which he beat out the young journalistic Turks to get in 2002, at age 68. And he writes, as if his life depended on it, a compellingly vexatious weekly column, Common Sense, in the Sunday Observer. Above all, he remains the social activist he has been all his life.

So how will future men speak John Maxwell's name? Will they remember him for the unyielding commitment to personal integrity and the iron will that faced down prime ministers and men of the high order? Eli Matalon, the former PNP security minister, clearly driven to distraction, once described him as "an over-educated Rasta".

Or will he be known for a lifetime of devotion to a penniless craft whose only nobility might be that it watches fiercely over democracy and free expression? He can't retire yet, he says, because he can't afford to. Will they say that he gave hope to thousands of powerless domestic helpers - many slaving away in shameless households - by inspiring a national minimum wage? Surely, they won't forget his feistiness and aggression in the pursuit of his own truths. It really won't matter what they say. What is important is that they will speak the name of this John William Maxwell.