Sunday, September 20, 2020

Bill Jones – a rebel with a cause dies

On a happy day, you could hear his whistling and humming from 50 paces. The founding publisher of the Botswana Guardian and Midweek Sun, William Jones who died in London on Friday, would find fun in almost anything; whether it was the windfall of advertising or a silly take on a news story.

The Octogenarian who designated himself Group Chairman of the Botswana Guardian and Midweek Sun liked to slip into dialogue from “Arrogant Aussie: The Rupert Murdoch story” as he lugged his bulging briefcase out of the office on Friday, leaving the editorial team struggling with the Botswana Guardian deadline.
In a favourite bit, he would peep through the door into the newsroom on his way out, mimicking Rupert Murdoch he would ask: “Outsa, what are you wasting the trees on today?” The designation and the play acting provide a clue into how Jones saw himself:

Botswana’s answer to the famous Australian American media mogul.
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of William Jones’ career was that he became far better known as a cold-hearted businessman, than the influential publisher who established a space for critical and free thinking in Botswana that he believed he was.

Many who left the Guardian unceremoniously remember the maverick who would always be sitting with a frown behind his table, flipping through the pages on the Botswana Guardian and stopping every so often to measure an advert and punch the figure into his calculator: A ruthless businessman who thought nothing of showing his editors and managers the door whenever the numbers did not add up. He was up against a ruthless opponent and could not afford to brook weakness.

However, those tracing back the history of Botswana’s commercial media invariably end with Jones’ adventure into a country where the state still considered the media an extension of the executive, and a newspaper that did not toe the line could disappear almost without trace: no shouts of protest, farewell editorials, or souvenir editions.

In 1982 The Examiner, a young and vibrant paper known for its vociferous and colorful attacks against the government, published its last issue and then ceased to exist, leaving many observers perplexed. The closure of the paper – which had for a while been the most outspoken critic of the government – passed with little fuss in a country where most of the media pandered to the state.

This, however, did not turn off Jones who a few months later in 1983 launched the Botswana Guardian. It was soon to be followed in 1984 by the rival Daily Gazette, which he famously called “the Yellow Menace” because of its then yellow banner. Next was a commercialized publication of Mmegi wa Dikgang, in 1988.┬á

These developments wrestled monopoly of the press away from the state – which did its best to resist – giving a voice to alternative groupings which identified with the workers’ struggle and the South African liberation movement.

In 1985, two years after its first edition hit the streets, the Botswana Guardian published the first expose of corruption at the Botswana Housing Corporation under the watch of then Minister of Local Government, Chapson Butale, who saw six of his board members jump ship, sending the CEO, (J) Richardson, on forced sick leave back to London, also causing accountant, David Mokokong, to depart.

It was game on, and the nascent private press had to face the hostility of the government, the ruling party and the government’s own media empire. William Jones and his two titles had the worst of it. His first non Motswana editor, Charles Mogale, who took over from Kgosinkwe Moesi, was declared a prohibited immigrant in 1987.

Under President Quett Masire, between 1985 and 1995, five foreign journalists and two Botswana Guardian editors were declared PIs. 
Mxolisi Mxgashe, a South African refugee-journalist, who had reported on the 1984 elections and on the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) sluggish response to a South African Defence Force (SADF) raid into Botswana, was declared persona non grata in September 1985 after a period of incarceration.

Gwen Ansell was also slapped with a presidential decree declaring him a prohibited immigrant.

A Zambian journalist, John Mukela, was also declared PI in August 1987, only two months after being named editor of the Botswana Guardian.

There was a sense in the media circle that William Jones was the main target of the government’s fury. It did not come as a surprise when in the 90s, government tried to push through the Mass Media Bill which stated that 80 percent of the shares in the private press should be owned locally.

Jones, who was a British national, owned 100% of the Botswana Guardian and Midweek Sun. He ran a tight ship, and despite pressure from government, he never tempered with the papers’ editorial independence.

I was his longest serving editor, and the only one who outstayed him at the Botswana Guardian and Midweek Sun. There were times when we were the best of friends and other times when our relationship was so strained we would pass each other in the passage without so much as a “hello.” Even then, he never gave in to the impulse to interfere with the newspapers’ editorial independence.

Once we fought over a lead story that appeared on the front page of the Botswana Guardian under the headline, “the shrinking president.” He felt that the story was disrespectful of the president. I insisted that it wasn’t. After a long and heated argument we struck a compromise. That as the publisher of the Botswana Guardian, he would write a “letter to the editor” distancing himself from the story. As the guardian of the paper’s editorial, I wrote a “letter from the editor” differing with the publisher. The ink on our letters had hardly dried when government instructed all parastatals and government departments to withdraw advertising from the Botswana Guardian and the Midweek Sun. We watched the two titles grow thinner and thinner everyday until the only parastal adverts we had were from Debswana. The then Managing Director, the late Louis Nchindo, defied the advertising ban and even gave an interview to the Botswana Gazette stating that the ban was illegal. Every week, before the papers went to press, we would sit waiting for Debswana adverts. Jones would walk into my office asking: “Outsa, where is Nichindo (Nchindo).”

Just when the two papers were on their last leg, we decided to challenge the advertising boycott in court. It was during the heat of the fight with government that Jones’ house was broken into, and the intruders cut of his finger. He felt that he had overstayed his welcome, and it was now time to pack for Perth.

He sold the company to CEBET, a partnership between Mmegi Publishing and CEBES and British company, in a controversial deal and relocated to Australia. Jones, however, could not get the ink and Botswana out of his system. He would later return to Botswana to help set up the Echo newspaper.

Jones believed in the Botswana Guardian and the Midweek Sun, and thought nothing of throwing all his money at defending their pride. A very competitive businessman, he told the then two managers of the Botswana Guardian Sunday football team, Ernest Molome and Albert Mokopanye not to spare any expenses in ensuring that the team always won. He suggested that the Botswana Guardian Sunday football team should spend money in recruiting players from super league teams like Gaborone United, Notwane and Township Rollers.

A trained accountant who grew up in an orphanage, Jones life seemed to have been determined by his love for numbers and his experience at the orphanage. He was a generous philanthropist who gave generously to orphans and the under privileged. Every year, he would throw a party for tens of orphans and their social welfare caretakers where he handed out school uniforms and shoes to students who could not afford to buy their own.

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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.