A Tribute to Hugh Cholmondeley
To say that Hugh Neville John Cholmondeley was a golden voice of broadcasting in Guyana in the 1960’s and early 1970’s is to speak a truth but not to tell the whole story. While he had a voice that commanded attention, it was his recognition that broadcasting had a key role to play in enlightening society that distinguished him.
In 1968, he became the first general manager of the Guyana Broadcasting Service (GBS). In that role, he set about two important and standard setting tasks. The first was to establish a team of outstanding broadcasters in Guyana who would extend the boundaries of radio beyond a purveyor of entertainment into the realm of debate on national issues; of investigative broadcast journalism; of reflecting the society through documentaries; and “live” coverage of national events when and as they happened. His early radio documentary series ” was path breaking.
“Action Line” – a live, call-in programme, open to the public was an early feature of GBS which began broadcasting on October 1, 1968 to the theme song “Puppet on a String”. It was Hugh’s philosophy that GBS would be the “puppet” and the public would pull its strings. “Action Line” became the bane of many politicians’ lives, but it also served as a vehicle for change. People raised real issues that affected their daily lives in a public discourse that authorities could not ignore.
Grappling with the political issues of the post-independence period was a difficult task. GBS was government-owned, but recognising that it should not be government-controlled, Hugh established its financial independence by programming that made it profitable through advertising. He also tried to establish balance in the station’s political coverage. He initiated interrogative programmes such as “live” interviews, which he and I conducted, with the then Prime Minister Forbes Burnham and the then Opposition Leader Cheddie Jagan.
Beyond his own talent as a broadcaster, it was as a broadcast administrator that Hugh displayed consummate skill. To carry out the vision he had for GBS, he recruited what could now be regarded as a star-studded cast of broadcasters including Vic Insanally, Clairmont Taitt, Beverley-Ann Rodrigues, Matthew Allen, Wordsworth McAndrew, Terry Holder, Keith Barnwell, Christopher Deane, Carlton James, Ken Corsbie and (at the risk of being immodest) Ron Sanders. In the newsroom, Cecil Griffith led a team of experienced news and sports reporters, among whom were Reds Pereira and Bruiser Thomas.
It should be recalled that throughout this period, Guyana did not have television. Across the country, people relied on radio for information and entertainment. Further, GBS had no monopoly. It competed with Radio Demerara, headed by Rafiq Khan (one of Hugh’s mentors). To succeed and fulfil its role, GBS required a respected leader – and that Hugh undoubtedly was. We followed him willingly and joyfully.
He left GBS in early 1973 when I succeeded him as General Manager and programme Director. He moved on to concentrate on important work in regional broadcasting that he had begun in 1968. He had worked diligently to help establish the Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU) to bring the region closer together through joint and shared programming by radio and television stations. Among another of his path-breaking initiatives was “Horizons”, a Sunday at Noon live broadcast simultaneously by radio stations in Guyana, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago.
He had also been working on establishing the Caribbean News Agency (CANA) to replace Reuters as the mechanism for news exchange between Caribbean countries. For decades, Caribbean countries received news about each other from the headquarters of news agencies in London, New York and Paris. CANA made the links direct, and Hugh played a vital role in its conception and implementation. He has left the region the legacy of those two still surviving institutions whose potential for enhancing regional integration remains great.
He became the Caribbean representative for UNESCO and in that position, he presented projects for funding that aided communication throughout the region. His paths and mine crossed again at that time while I served on the Executive Board of UNESCO and on the Board of the International Programme for the Development of Communication. Hugh was an indefatigable champion of Caribbean communication causes at every meeting.
Eventually, he moved on to do work for the UN in Somalia at a time of grave conflict. Always fretful about Guyana, he also played a role in assisting the three CARICOM negotiators (Sonny Ramphal, Alister McIntyre and Henry Forde) when the “Herdmanston Accord” was fashioned in 1997-1998 to secure a peaceful resolution of a political conflict that followed the 1997 general elections. To his death, he remained a Guyanese patriot deeply concerned about the need and importance for official machinery that would ameliorate party political discord and set the country on the path of public peace, racial tolerance and equity of treatment of all Guyanese.
Guyana and the Caribbean has lost an outstanding son who will long be remembered by those whose lives he touched indelibly.