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Ode to Grenfell

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him – Mark Antony

OUTSIDE the media, few people know or think much about the Guardian Media chairman, Grenfell Kissoon, and even those within the industry think little of him, but I’m hoping that, by my writing this honest appreciation, everyone will know him for what he is; few individuals encapsulate human choices, and their consequences for the soul, as starkly as Grenfell.

Since he began running the Ansa-McAl radio stations in 1994 – and instantly turned loss to profit, by slashing costs like Freddy Krueger slashes throats – Grenfell has stamped his authority all over the companies, and the people, under him.

Idealists – and, sadly, I’m one, but I’m learning realism pretty quickly nowadays – often delude themselves that newspapers are different from most businesses because readers choose a daily because of a heartfelt sense of connection: they trust us.

But Grenfell has always known a newspaper’s success is not based on its language, but its arithmetic: save a pile of money on rent – or on columnists’ wages – and you are on the way to profit. Grenfell changed the Trinidad Guardian, the oldest, most respected paper in Trinidad, in exactly the same way Rupert Murdoch changed the London Times, and won exactly the same powerful reaction from his readers and employees.

Under his management, everything that distinguished the Guardian from its two daily competitors, changed. The Guardian, a broadsheet for nearly 100 years, shrank to a tabloid, making it no different from the Express or Newsday, which is obviously a great advantage to Grenfell.

Again on his watch, the offices of the Guardian, a national newspaper, were relocated from Port of Spain to the far more culturally, economically and politically important Chaguanas. (Who needs Independence Square when you’ve got Food Basket car park?) The other dailies, unwisely, chose not to follow this stunning Grenfellian example of journalistic perspicacity, as they almost always do. (I suspect they remained in Port of Spain, despite its disadvantages, just to spite him, but time will prove Grenfell to be right, as he unfailingly is on all things media; wait and see: Newsday will yet operate out of the Medford gas station and the Express will go cap-in-hand to DirecTV, begging for office space in Mulchan Suechan Rd.)

Clowns who know a bit about writing but don’t understand the first principles of business – and, again, I confess I was in their sad number before being schooled by my own Grenfell experience – roundly condemned the move. Physically removing itself from the capital city would cement the Guardian’s seemingly permanent third place in the daily stakes, clamoured the ignoramuses, but they might be surprised how many huge national stories break in Chaguanas; why, just last year, there were those murders in Enterprise Village; and, sooner or later, there is bound to be a big story on the Old Southern Main Rd.

Any newsroom anywhere in the world is defined by excited noise, the clatter of reporters scampering to get to Parliament, the Hall of Justice, the prime minister’s office etc; the Guardian’s Chaguanas newsroom is so quiet you can hear a pin drop; on a carpet. But, then, it was like that in Port of Spain, too: so intense is the atmosphere of concentration Grenfell created for Guardian workers, it could be a concentration home-away-from-home. Guardian staff have powerful feelings about their chairman: there is every bit as much admiration flowing from the staff upwards to Grenfell as there is respect.

Grenfell can also be as sensitive as he is powerful. On that awful day when Trinidad changed forever with the kidnapping of Anthony Sabga III, the grandson of the Guardian’s proprietor, Grenfell sought to kill the story, rather than run it and upset the family. Yes, Norman Sabga himself overruled Grenfell’s considerate decision after a phone call from the then news editor, who pointed out the Guardian would be the only daily national not to lead with the kidnap, but that’s the essence of Grenfell: he put the feelings of the family ahead of a huge news story; few men have that sort of testicular fortitude.

Grenfell also recently showed how much he cared for Guardian readers when he stopped my column without giving them any notice – but then, he extended me the same delicate courtesy. I only found out last Monday that I had been dropped, after six years. No email, no phone call, no WhatsApp from Grenfell or the paper; but it was a good move. Had I known I was going, I might have written a goodbye column; Grenfell’s thoughtfulness spared me, and Guardian readers, a pointless formality; and I take personal pleasure in knowing the paper has moved that much closer to profit by saving what they used to pay me.

Taking his own approach to its logical extreme, Grenfell will one day have to fire himself to save the paper but, until then, money has to be found somehow to pay the Guardian’s really valuable contributors, who know so much about writing, like Kevin Ramnarine and Sat Maharaj; I’m hoping Grenfell uses some of the cash he saves on me to bring back Dr Selwyn Cudjoe – though someone of that level of ability may be unnecessary, given that the paper already has, and pays top dollar for, one professor already, the incredible Hamid Ghany, a man with precisely the same amount of integrity, human decency, empathy and self-denial as Grenfell himself; if they entered a “Mr Personality” competition, they would draw!

But I have no hard feelings. When a man of Grenfell’s calibre fires you, you feel good about yourself. Like Mark Antony, mutatis mutandis, I come to praise Grenfell, not to bury him.

BC Pires is learning arithmetic the hard way, by being in a zero sum game and finding out, through gunfire, he is the quenk

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