Cecil Griffith, AA, October 29, 1928 - January 29, 2007
Stabroek News
February 4, 2007

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Cecil Alweyn Griffith, AA, former President of the Guyana Press Association and Chief News Editor of the Guyana Broadcasting Corporation, died on January 29, aged 78.

When Georgetown's Town Clerk wrote a letter accusing him of bias against the Mayor and City Council and of "breaching the rules of journalism" in his popular City Council Round-up column published in the Stabroek News newspaper last September, Cecil Griffith became angry. Very angry.

In an uncharacteristically uncharitable tone, the veteran journalist retorted: "Madam… I shall forgive you because other parts of your missive displayed an abysmal ignorance of journalism and its practice and also what is expected of a newspaper columnist. What I found very offensive was the line you took in questioning my professional competence. I hear what goes on from a good vantage point in the [City Council] chamber and then write about it, which is something you will never appreciate…You ought to have been grateful for this, and may I remind you that there are many persons out there who have thanked me for the exposé."

Cecil Griffith would permit no one to question his professional competence, diligence and experience. He was proud to be a journalist, took pains to express himself correctly and was pleased with his work. His sole passion in life was to practise his vocation and to earn the esteem of his peers. This could not be compromised. His performance could not be impugned.

Cecil Griffith was a graduate of the old school. He belonged to the generation of mid-century journalists among whom were stalwarts such as Charles Chichester, Henry Josiah, Julian Mendes and Cecil 'Bruiser' Thomas - who are now all dead - and others who comprised the élite corps of progenitors of the present-day press. He was a survivor and, to the end of his days, considered himself a custodian of orthodoxy and guardian of propriety against mediocrity and the crassness of charlatans.

Born in the quiet quasi-town of Bartica on October 29, 1928, Cecil Alweyn Griffith started his career in Georgetown as a linotype operator in the foreign-owned Argosy newspaper nearly sixty years ago. It was the editor of the time, CD Kirton, who believed that Griffith had potential and who encouraged him to join the editorial staff as a junior reporter. His hours were long, work was hard, pay was small and promotion was slow. To literate locals like himself who could not afford the expense of overseas tertiary education in the 1940s, writing, next to preaching or teaching, was one of the few agreeable avenues of endeavour. He therefore joined the crew of able and ambitious but underpaid and overworked reporters who toiled for the big three dailies - Daily Argosy, Daily Chronicle and Guiana Graphic.

As a journeyman journalist, Cecil Griffith would have had to wear a suit, clean shirt and a tie to be admitted to major official events and public offices; he worked six ten-hour days a week; could be fined for making factual errors in a story and could be dismissed for infractions such as unpunctuality or insubordination to his superiors.

He trod a lonely road along which he acquired the rudiments of shorthand and typewriting and covered street beats such as the courts, hospitals, fires and traffic accidents before advancing to sessions of the Supreme Court, Legislative Council, Chamber of Commerce and the Georgetown Town Council, as it then was. Eventually, if he was good enough, he would graduate to being permitted to interact with decision-makers in trade unions, political parties and the civil service before being 'taken off the streets' and appointed to do desk work as a sub-editor or editor.

Such was the stern school in which Cecil Griffith inculcated the elements of journalism. Lessons learnt were never forgotten and, for the rest of his life, he adhered to the habits of accurate reports, correct facts, careful language, natty dress, quiet speech, polite manners, pleasant demeanour, and hard work.

These were the qualities which earned him promotion to senior reporter, a status which he retained after Peter Taylor bought out the Argosy, merging it with his own paper the Evening Post, to create the Evening Post and Sunday Argosy. These were the qualities too which earned him the position of managing editor of the Guyana Broadcasting Service (GBS) and chief news editor of the Guyana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC); for which he was elected to the presidency of the Guyana Press Association; and for which he was invited to be the first editor of the independent Stabroek News newspaper in 1986.

These were the qualities which earned him the Golden Arrow of Achievement (AA) national award from the Government of Guyana in 1993. For his sterling contribution to print and broadcast journalism and the wider media fraternity, he was also awarded the 60th anniversary silver brooch by the Guyana Press Association in 2005.

Cecil Griffith will also be remembered for his convincing contributions to the 1981 Cabinet-appointed committee convened to "examine certain problems facing journalists and other media and information personnel." Along with McDonald Dash and Courtney Gibson, he was able to project his philosophy of the press onto the largely state-owned media scene. He insisted on proper entry standards and training programmes for all journalists and the improvement of working conditions, including providing properly ventilated newsrooms, restrooms and canteens. He also advocated a code of behaviour which laid down standards for apparel, discipline, punctuality, professional conduct, social etiquette and adequate pay for news personnel. This was classical Cecil Griffith!

Nevertheless, when the orthodoxy of the time was socialism, his news editing at GBC was not always in harmony with the mood of the administration. He had various "run-ins," as he called them, with the government over how news about North Korea, China and East Germany was handled, and on occasion came into conflict with more than one minister of information. Following the airing of an unfavourable news item about China which had emanated from Japan, he found himself summoned at midnight to the Residence, where he was grilled by President Burnham and a few of his ministers and officials. Griffith enlarged on the difficulty of getting foreign news at a time when the subscriptions to all the news agencies had been suspended, and Burnham at least appeared at the time to accept this explanation.

However, in 1985 he was asked to leave the radio station, because he "wasn't in step with the policy of the government." He was given two months leave, after which he became a local stringer for the Caribbean Service of Voice of America (VOA), his first assignment, as he liked to relate, being to report on the death of Burnham.

Never rich, he did not own a car and still ambled daily from his Laluni Street, Queenstown apartment to assignments. Journalism was his life and he never stopped working even after he had retired. At the mature age of 58 years, he accepted the appointment as first editor of the privately-owned Stabroek News newspaper, although only for two months. Whether from wont or want, he kept on working. First, for VOA until it wound up operations in the 1990s, then as a columnist for City Council Roundup for the Stabroek News and, eventually, as host of the One on One programme on the National Communications Network.

With his dry wit, sharp pen and unflappable temperament, Cecil Griffith became the principal purveyor of municipal news to the public through his popular column City Council Round Up. In his inimitably elegant and entertaining style, he wrote critically of the councillors whom he sardonically called the "city fathers and mothers." Always referring to himself in the third person as "this column," he broke news about stun guns for the abattoir; trials of street vendors; promises of bicycle patrols; repairs to the roads; the Mayor's "frequent flyer" foreign travels and, inevitably, the councillors' foibles.

In one of his more droll, histrionic columns in March last year, he declaimed: "Never before in the history of municipal governance in Guyana has there been such a display of antagonism and bad blood between his worship, the mayor of the capital city of Guyana and city hall with the public being given a front seat as the war of words unfolds in the newspapers. Somebody has got to give! Who will it be…? Such was the Griffith style!

Though ageing, Cecil Griffith never allowed himself to become anachronistic. He loved to regale the young with tales of yesteryear if only to encourage them to uphold the timeless values of professional conduct, to upgrade their competence for the future and to uproot the quackery that threatens journalism today.

He never wanted anything more than to be a professional. That he was, leaving a living legacy of skill, service and style.

Sunday, February 11th 2007

In the obituary for Cecil Griffith which appeared on page 11A in last week's Sunday Stabroek, we gave his date of birth as October 29, 1928. In fact he was born on October 29, 1933. We apologize for the error.