After the Bell: A letter to the editor on high, Jim Jones
Allow me to pay humble tribute briefly to one of my former editors, Jim Jones, who died last Sunday at the age of 81, and to do that terrible thing: speculate about how things might have been different.
Jim Jones was editor of Business Day over the crucial period of South Africa’s transition to democracy for almost exactly a decade. I held a whole bunch of posts under him, including parliamentary correspondent, political correspondent, London correspondent and business editor. I think neither he nor I could work out what to do with me! But it allowed me to see him at work from a variety of different angles, and that’s a rare and wonderful thing.
Jim was an all-round excellent person, kind to young journalists, tough when he needed to be. He had a very sharp sense of news, he was enormously good-humoured and mischievous and honestly, the newsroom really liked him.
He was originally a mining engineer, not a journalist by training, but he caught on fast. He loved a gossipy story and was responsible for many cracking stories himself.
I suspect I was not one of his favourites. The best newsrooms consist of very different people with enormously different skill sets, and I always thought it was a mark of his broadmindedness that he kept giving me new jobs even though I might have been low on his totem pole. Jim was casual, flexible and modest about his perspectives; I tended to be overly passionate and perhaps a bit too fixed.
But later, I came to learn very directly just how difficult it is to keep a newspaper loosely on track in heady political times. His relaxed good humour was a wonderful lesson for me; he sapped the tension out of the room by being full of jocularity and latitude.
Having served very briefly as editor of Business Day, I can say it’s just brutal being the editor. People don’t see it because you are often in the background. But it’s brutal on your time and your relationships because it’s complicated, very immediate and very demanding. How Jim and his successor, Peter Bruce, kept it up for a decade apiece, I just don’t know, but I’m full of respect that they did.
Jim had one big advantage: he presided over the salad days of newspapers in the 1990s. Business Day ran to 80 pages on some days in that era, and its circulation reached its highest point under his editorship. The decline of the newspaper was something all of his successors have had to deal with, and trust me, working in a declining organisation adds another dimension of difficulty. It is just not pleasant.
Jim did, at one point, do me a great honour: he entrusted his daughter’s journalistic education to me for a single day. His daughter, Polly, was considering a career in journalism and came to the office one day. I was assigned caretaker duties. It happened to be a big news day because the Transkei’s army commander, General Bantu Holomisa, was rumoured to have installed himself as head of state. We happened to have Holomisa’s office phone number, which I dialled incessantly with no luck.
I assigned Polly to keep dialling the number at regular intervals. “Good journalism,” I told Polly high-handedly, “is in direct proportion to the number of people you speak to, and hence the number of phone calls you make.
“Keep calling that number,” I told her and wandered off.
When I came back, Polly told me Holomisa had answered. I almost dropped my coffee on my feet. “What did you ask him?” I enquired urgently. She said she asked whether there was a coup going on. “He said ‘no’. So I hung up.”
We never managed to raise him again during the day, and of course, there had been a coup, but he apparently didn’t consider it that. The next day I was relieved of my journalism education duties.
Fun aside — and there was plenty of that — the crucial imponderable is this: In his obituary of Jim Jones in Business Day, former deputy editor Alan Fine points out that Jim considered his mission, like many in the business world at the time, to be a facilitator in helping the ANC learn about business. But Jim added another aspect: it was also the job of the paper to help business learn how to operate in a nonracial democracy and how to relate to the ANC.
Wonderfully put: great mission. But I can’t help wondering now, all these years later, why we, the staff and subsequent editors did such a bad job. If that was our mission, I think we failed. The ANC is still the profoundly anti-business organisation it always was, except to the extent that business might be useful in executing its political ambitions, which are distinctly anti-free market.
Despite a mountain of examples of how business is broadly a force for good all over the planet, the organisation just doesn’t get it. Broadly speaking, I think the ANC in its heart of hearts, believes that business is, at root, a retrogressive force — and that fortunately, the party is the antidote. Business, on the other hand, has profoundly changed over the years, but to my overly critical eye, not sufficiently.
Or perhaps we didn’t fail: perhaps we did as good a job as could be expected in the circumstances — it’s hard to prove, or disprove, a hypothetical. I think the truth of it is that we, like much of SA, lost our compass a bit in that heady, happy moment of the glorious transition to democracy.
We should try not to make that mistake again. DM