Sunday, October 13, 2019

Training in foreign news reporting in the digital noisy age.

ana couldn’t believe her misfortune whilst setting up in one of the world’s hot zones, Ukraine’s Maidan Square. It’s quiet now. Five months earlier it was under siege; a battle zone between government security forces and protestors against president Ukrainian PresidentViktor Yanukovych,
She’d checked and doubled checked everything before she left London; equipment, risk assessment, pre-shoot research script, but now one of her contacts had bailed on her.
When you’re on your own and a chunk of your programme idea falls away your options are either to can the idea or improvise to save it whilst evaluating the risks. Great improvisation comes from a canny instinct and understanding craft skills. You can’t make up what you don’t know proficiently. Today tech calls that agile production.
Back in London, Oana’s grafting would earn her report high praise. Rare footage taken by a videojournalist she acquired provided unseen knowledge behind the bloody protest. She graduated from her Masters and duly found work at the BBC and made a number of special reports from Poland. Her desire was always to work for the international arm of a network and become a foreign reporter. Somewhere in the world, I know she’s doing just that.

The Foreign News Reporter Paradox

By definition reporting from a foreign land makes you a foreign news reporter particularly in the digital age where everyone is a potential broadcaster and no one needs to vet your skills. In his promo, multi-award winning mojo Yusuf Omar explains:
I wanted to be a foreign correspondent in Syria and they said I was too young. I wanted to tell stories across Africa and they said it was too dangerous…
Thus Omar did what legions before him would do, he went it alone reporting for his citizen journalism outfit. The big or brand named publishers may have alluded him, but he probably gives that short shrift now as he travels the world delivering workshops on journalism with a mobile phone, as well as acquiring celebrity status.
In practise, and by convention (if you listen to convention) becoming a foreign reporter, or to use its much less loaded word, “international reporter” for a named publisher calls on an expert understanding and analysis of a country’s socio-politics, or at least how to source it.
Being around the block enough for industry figures to have a measure of your ethics and professional standards which will be tested. Meanwhile you sport unkempt grey hairs suggesting you have skin in the game and sharp elbows — a firm desirable. Being an international reporter is not for the meek. You may taking the OCEANs test find you’re not cut out for its rough and tumble.
Viewed as the plumb of plumb jobs, with all its romanticised travel, daring-dos and hotel hopping, it’s small wonder scores of reporters want a crack at it. In reality writes Tony Grant editor of BBC Radio 4’s flag ship programme, From our own correspondent, it’s far from it.
The job involves a great deal of hanging around, often late at night or early on the morning, waiting for people to arrive at airports or to emerge from hospitals or courts clutching statement.
After stints at BBC Newsnight, and reporting on BBC 2’s Reportage in the early 1990s, I too felt the itch. Naturally, after several rejections I became aware no one was going to hire a Chemistry and Maths grad with a penchant for African politics. Hence, I made my own way to one of the world’s trouble news spots, South Africa, and slowly but methodically listened and learned.

Eventually I would be reporting for the BBC World Service, its African and Caribbean Service and BBC Radio 4 documentaries. By the time I’d left South Africa filing my last report covering President Mandela’s inauguration the Head of Studies at Chatham House, Professor Jack Spence would invite me to become one of its youngest full members. Twenty-five years later, I’m still a member.

Skills and Knowledge
What I learned becoming an international reporter has been put into practice countless times helping a new generation and whilst age is not a defining quality, craft skills and embedded knowledge of a subject do matter.
Tamer, written about here in 2007, had come from Gaza to gain an MA in journalism. With the course barely over, he told me he was going for a job as Gaza correspondent for the soon-to-be launched BBC Arabic service.
There were two major skillsets he’d learned. Here’s what you do I advised. At the age of 24-years Tamer returned the next day to break the news. “Mr David I’m now the BBC’s correspondent from Gaza”. He beat a field of experienced practitioners. He did it.
Today those technical skillsets have changed in a new digital era, but the underlying principles and artistic skills remains in tact.

This is the storyverse, which you’ll want to master. It correlates with the workflow of storytelling, digital tools and pre-visualising how to proceed in the digital noise age where disinformation is rife.

What you see and how you interpret events is framed by your cognitive thinking — the black box; your approach and dissemination of knowledge. Skills can be easily acquired. A few classes mastering camera work, or shooting on mobile is enough to get you up and running, the knowledge of how framing and camera movement affects the audience takes longer.
There are competing interests, but one of the first things is to develop an idea of your audience’s persona. A butcher sells meat, a lawyer legal services, as a journalist you sell stories. Buzzfeed and Vice magazine’s case studies are informative and worth studying. There are several ways to build a likely audience’s profile, perhaps from surveys. In the digital noise era which I’ll explain in a future post, I’ll show how you can get even more granular.
Next in competing interests are ideas. Creative ideas and problem solving, two highly ranked characteristics in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 data, have a direct impact on your audience’s needs.
When I landed in South Africa for the first time and each time I travel on a story I ask to be taken to a popular coffee shop or pub, where you can hold a decent conversation. I usually take a curio which can easily start off a conversation. In South Africa, as a genuine Rugby fan, I’d wear an England shirt. The sight of a black man, wearing England colours would often spark incredulity before the archetypal question. “Are there black people in England?” or “Why are you here?”
The next thing was to analyse nupes and trend extrapolate their output; a pattern soon emerges about what the region’s main newspaper or digital publishers produce for their audiences. This can be significant but also requires caution. If Buzzfeed or Vice followed the popular signage they would not have been successful as they are. There’s a swathe of untapped readers that publishers are vying for.
The third for this post is style and form for your audience. Over the last two decades several branches of journalism have emerged, each of them a reaction to a deficiency in the market. I’d like to think, amongst them there are very few that are platform agnostic and deal with story structure.

For dye-in-the-wool videojournalists that would be cinema journalism — a craft that subsumes all other forms in its quest to tell stories. A crude analogy to imagine is its fictional form. Films like The Big Short, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and The Kingdom (below) are three different movies that incorporate styles in seen in data, Tik-Tok and motion graphics. The Kingdom’s opening sequence is still one of the best journalistic stories told, which can be achieved using after affects. You can find more about videojournalism and cinema journalism in my medium posts and this short film here .

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Five life lessons learned; the importance of relearning

When asked about his talent, his awards, his performances, he stopped looked the interviewer in the eye and simply said: “I just wanna work, man!”

Society sets a series of de facto rules. Who get’s to make their way draws currency from its bank. It’s a loan with varying interest. Other side, it’s an application which more often will be denied. So you build your own imaginary reserve. And slowly, inexorably work to a plan that seems ad hoc, but there’s meaning, because like the actor: “You just wanna work”.

We listen to stories because they give us something to anchor. Sometimes these stories are stars lighting up a hidden destiny.

I once had a meeting with the foreign affairs editor of the BBC in the BBC canteen. After perusing my CV for a moment, he asked somewhat confused: “So, what is it you do?”

You see my CV reflected a myriad of interests, which could either suggests the convention of a lack of focus, or an interest in many things. I grew up working in my active imagination. I was a foreign correpondent, a firefighter, an at one time a milkman, then I wanted to become an artist, but my father wanted a doctor. I got so far as Chemistry and maths.

These aspirations; I didn’t quite make firefighter and milkman, I lasted two days before my parents told the milkman a child of nine going out on milk runs, was well, not right. But if I have learned one thing, you’ll either conform to what people want, or you’ll forever chase lights with moments of fulfilment.

I do these, not because of anything than I just wanna work. So since my encounter with the BBC head, I chase them lights, often hoping and have taken people with me.
  1. Give yourself different experiences. I once dived with British and Turkish navy divers into a world war one wreck off the coast of Turkey. Thirty metres down, I was trapped by a thermocline and ran out of air. I don’t advocate that, but in the process somebody from the BBC was interested to hear my thoughts.
  1. Collaborate, share your gifts. It won’t always be accepted, but that’s not the point: I imagined with a friend what it would be to shine a light on the incredible array of people who are talented. We created the leaders’ list, sixty of the UK’s leading BAME producers.
  1. Humility is the key to people giving you their success. My friendship with a senior tv figure would result in an invitation to a dinner, and whilst eating, a tower of a man appeared. We stood. I said hello, shook his hand, and like many was and still am mesmerised by him. It was President Nelson Mandela.
  1. Search for them stories: I’ve loved stories from the time my mum would rerun Doris Day’s Calamity Jane. That love has fuelled me towards coding, a different form of journalism storytelling, and photojournalism which my peers have recognised through international awards. But, I just wanted to work.
  1. Live life with the certainties that uncertainties is but a rock in your path. I recall my foster parents, my boarding school, my parents and mum who recently passed. She was a figure of hope. We shape our world by the way we let society frame those conventions. Each journey can finish like you want it to, when your imaginary reserves materialises as they will. It all starts with that simple commitment; I just wanna work.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The wonderful story of student standing on street for a job reminds me of the extreme lengths for my big break

David Tyoember, a besuited Chemistry undergrad, stands outside London Tube stations with a placard looking for a job. It's not the first time it's been done, but it still takes gumption. Robert Toffel, a veteran investor was exiting the station, took a photo and his CV, and with David's permission shared it on Linkedin.

His story went viral. David has since been inundated with job offers, and today following press interest is on Sky News. The future looks bright. Last year 22-year-old Mohamed Elbarkey, also suited, graduated with 2:1 in Aerospace Engineering from Southampton University. He was outside Canary Wharf with a sign. His message contoured to the struggle he'd endured: "Came as a refugee, just graduated from UCL in Rocket science". What's not to love about this story?

Last year too Reggie Nelson (below) fascinated by the lifestyle and the homes of people he saw as successful, he decided to knock on every single door and ask what they did to make it. It paid off. In all three cases success was a derring-do away. How far would you go and what would you do to get that job?

The three mentioned here and undoubtedly there are more found themselves trapped by the imperfections within conventional job hunting, and perhaps even more frustrated by what they could do to find a job in the competitive market. Then they got creative and it worked. Why? You could seek a myriad reason.

Whilst the three examples don’t by any means exemplify the spectrum of extents to which a young person would go to find a job, it says something about character, confidence and resilience, but that doesn't seem enough. During a visit to a publisher in central London, seven Masters students are entertained by an editor of a well known woman's magazine.

She, the editor, expresses an admiration for creativity. As we wrap up and leave one of the student asks me: "David, I've brought my CV with me, should I give it to her?" Earlier that week I had told the students how in pursuit of a job I would carry a CV in my breast pocket and dole them out, even, at night clubs where I knew lots of TV people went. The student did, and after her work experience was kept on.

Industry conventionalises the accepted method and approach when it comes to job searches through HR. However, it remains an imperfect system. HR faced with stacks of applicants has specific criteria in mind. A well polished presented CV is a requisite, but there are nuances that shape decisions. A lack of connections to the potential job, or your surname alone, as BBC discovered, puts candidates from ethnic backgrounds at a disadvantage.

BBC Media Editor Amol Rajan asked the question in an insightful BBC documentary “How to break into the Elites: Why are working class kids passed over for top jobs?” Lack of networks, contacts, confidence, their mannerism, dress sense and the dynamics of an unwritten game said one of Rajan's interviewees. A sort of finishing school is required. When a student of mine found herself being invited to an industry dinner at a media festival, I couldn't have been more happier for her. Take lots of CVs and cards. You're about to face a captive audience for 2 hours.

At Bafta, a young black woman struck up the courage to ask the star documentary maker Neil Crombie, who produces Grayson Perry, how she could get her doc on TV. "Great !", I said to her afterwards when Crombie publicly offered to put her in touch with Channel 4. "But ask too if he can email or ring through the introduction and if he wouldn't mind a meet up to mentor you".

No alt text provided for this image Job searching can be soul destroying, but Tyoember shows "you dare you increase the odds of winning", which made me reflect on my journey back in 1988 and which continued into the 90s. I studied Applied Chemistry, like Tyoember, but for love or money afterwards I couldn’t find a job. I had one interview for a chemical company and I was wearing an ill-fitted suit. That did not go well. I desperately wanted to work in media.

A clever decision, truly not, but that's where my heart was. The rejection letters poured in. I had enough to plaster two walls, which I did. Sometimes the replies were kind, others pointed to flaws they made you feel were the size of golfball boils on your face. I quietly knew I could work on a couple of things. "You know you have an African accent, and your intonation...", someone told me, which essentially meant if you're planning a broadcast career in the UK, forget it. I tried for the African service and got rejected too.

There comes a point when you have nothing, absolutely no more to lose. Your dignity has itself been shot, but you cling to it as the facade of your being. One thing I was always aware of, I liked people, was personable and could hold a conversation when I needed. Then I did two things that changed my fortune. Firstly, I wrote a courteous but firm letter to the BBC requesting why I was always overlooked.

They, after several weeks, responded and called me for an interview. Except it wasn't an ordinary interview. Several BBC executives would interview me, as they were being observed to find out what I was doing wrong or whether they were missing something. Some months later, I was called to an interview for a job I applied for. The post was researcher, BBC Newsnight - the BBC's flagship news programme. I got the job.

I talked about my letter and BBC experience. The immense joy of that was tempered by fact that after the contract post I was out of a job and couldn't find another one. It's wrenching when you're in that despairing state. I don't think I'd ever contemplated standing outside a station, or knocking on doors, but had an idea. Where was the biggest challenging story in the world at that moment? Amongst a small number you could include South Africa (SA).

How far would I go to get a job? Would I go to South Africa? I didn't know anyone there and couldn't afford the fare. Then, I found someone in the newspapers and wrote to him. He wrote back. My friends warned me about fraternising with Afrikaners (whose politicians drove apartheid).

It was as if all Afrikaners were the same, which was ridiculous, but I had nothing more to lose. A recession in 1991 was beginning to bite in Britain. I then wrote a letter to British Airways explaining what I wanted to do. They wrote back. One of its senior UK marketers met me in a pub in Brixton, South London. We had a pint and he gave my guilt-edge free tickets to go to SA.

When I got to the country, South Africa Airways matched British Airway's hospitality with unlimited travel around the country. I would come back to the UK for some months and then return for almost two years. On the ground, broadcasters who would not even reply to my letters were now asking me to produce some broadcasts. In 1994, on Mandela's inauguration, I wrapped up one of my last reports broadcasting on the BBC World Service.

It's a moment I will always savour. I had survived some tricky moments, become a bit more wiser and come to know more about a place and people I'd read from afar. But I learned too a lesson about me. This proved to be a turning point. Other challenges would surface again and again, but the experience of Guillaume Apollinaire's poem 'Come to the edge' had empowered me.

I’ll be adding David’s story to my lectures when I talk to students about job searches: How far would you go to get that job? What would you give? No one owes you. It’s not personal. Finesse the CV. And you can’t win it if you’re not in it. People will chuckle, some smile, some even belly ache laugh, but it’s you and what you want. Few things come easy.

No one get’s there without sacrifice. You can be the best in the world, but you need to come into the light from behind the bushel. Give and you’ll get back. And then there's the sense of humour in all of this, as if that sounds too far fetched. Up for an interview with a large exporter, my friend Sandra summoned the courage from loads of rejections to apply for the Comms job.

Her favourite suit and heels were readied. Upon entering the interview room, with the chief executive, personnel and operations manager seated, she momentarily baulked, her confidence gave way and so did her step. Her 3-inch heels got entangled on the carpet, snapped, and she was sent flying across the room splayed out inelegantly in front of the panel.

She says, she stayed on the floor for a beat, stood up calmly, looked back at her heels and then the panel and dryly said: "Well I've made a right old heel of that, haven't I?" The panel were now in tears of laughter and admiration. She got the job. Be yourself and never forget the gifts you have, even when those times are hard. No alt text provided for this image

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah speaking at Apple's flag ship store in London. He's a senior lecturer at the Journalism School in Cardiff and a Co-investigator on future of News projects. He's an advisor for the British Library's News Project. More on David here

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Futurologists of stories

I wanted to become a journalist, but instead I'm more a futurologist.  My PhD looks at cognitive practices of storytelling. My experience inspires my writings, from conflict zones in apartheid South Africa, the borders of Syria, to tech speaking at Apple and international events.

Here's the next years

Monday, May 27, 2019

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

The sclerosis eviscerating the UK is accelerating. The PM Theresa May has resigned. The charge is she had cloth ears, inadequate social skills and political capital to bring together a majority of people to accept her terms to leave the EU.
Her last speech at Downing Street, a eulogy for historian’s first draft, was so skewed with references of her generosity that you coughing back into your pint wouldn’t be unbecoming.
She failed, but in her mind she was smited. Forces on her own side did her in. What happens next? An SOS call sign is being lit.
A new tory to be PM is being sought. The field is widening. Old adversaries will face one another e.g. Gove vs Johnson and the tories’ 100, 000 members will close the deal. What a deal it is?
The mood now is towards Brexit by any means necessary. On October 31st deal or no deal, a majority of all the contenders for the game of thorned thrones are in unison. But the chances of a deal seem so slim from any of the UK’s vantage points.
That’s not the half of it, political guru John Curtice’s analysis or not. Conservatives flocked from Ukip to Brexit to leave the EU. Once the UK leaves ( is this a given?) they’ll flock back into the Tory ranks ( sorry Fge) where age old policies bind them. The next PM will have to be as calculating and the rest as Daenerys to win back the faithful.
The thinking from those ready to pull away the harness on the parachute is Great Britain can fly without the help of a canopy. Britain like the Marvel’s Hulk can land with aplomb and ram its way to whatever it pleases.
In Britain many are patriots. I could say all, but you’d ask me for evidence? “Many’ is a safe estimate. The issues scaring the bejesus out of many is what happens to economy, when Britain severs ties with the EU and its 69 partners? Britain will cope, is the response.
What happens to doctors and nurses believing they’re no longer welcome. There’s already in nurses a drop by 87% from 6,400 in 2016/17 to 800 in 2017/18 coming from the EU.
Britain will cope, is the response.
The police force suffering cuts over the years and facing a surge in crime looks to a response post-Brexit, for which there’s no panacea in sight. An officer writing in the Guardian explains his anxieties and fears. 20,000 cuts to front line policing has the force teetering on well-being.
Britain will cope.
Writing in the Observer columnist Nick Cohen says
The right has nothing to say about tariffs destroying the car and steel industries and wiping out agricultural exports. Nothing about the service sector, which comprises 80% of our economy, and will find leaving the single market hard enough, let alone a fall into the fire.
Supposedly too Britain will cope.
Britain will regain its fishing territories with staunch defence by officials policing waters. The farming industry, however, will be seeking from government the shortfall in EU subsidised budgets.
So here’s the scenario, worst case, which looms closer. October 31st Britain leaves. The reigning PM banishes the back-stop, N.Ireland holds its breath. What happens next as the PM and cohorts batten down for a cup of tea with their best china does not bear thinking.
The service industry finds itself overwhelmed. Goods and produce in the shops face acute shortages. Health service might only see essential patients, but lack of funds means they’ll be asking for money (pre-privatisation).
The press, having done their job, now really come into their own without readers sensing the rich irony. All that is going wrong is helping to sell more newspapers. Tensions loom between generations of Black, Asian, Minority and Ethnic — who are British — as coarsened nationalists, what with the pressures of the police force, see themselves as taking the law in their hands.
Anyone who would rather have physically done nothing e.g.intervene for those in distress, confront the ugliness in public attitude, make a stand, will now find themselves facing their conscious and having to take sides.
My God What have we done! will be a common refrain. How did we get here? What could we have done to prevent it? And how do we safeguard the next generation, just how?
The warped thinking from commentators advocating a hard leave is, things might get worse, but they’ll get better. That might be the case, but for how long, and how deep?
But no worries. Leave means Leave is the rallying cry and so it’s likely to be so. Great Britain will leave, and then the a reality unrealised will unfold.
So yes Britain needs help my friend. How, we’re not quite sure yet.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Twenty five years ago, the world held its breath; one country in the palm of the human-verse

Photo Award winning photojournalist, Yannis Kontos - for more of his amazing photos go here
Twenty five years ago, a generation or so ago, we watched, some chewed their nails, others cradled their heads in open palms. Was this it? Was this the moment that humanity would be the victor?
A pariah state, South Africa, that had been ostracised from the world because it legally and plaintively viewed non-whites, black people in particular, as sub human had its chance to put the past behind it.
Apartheid, the word does not easily trip of the tongue today alongside other inequities, but it was ugly, fearsome, and real. To socialise, to challenge, to be, to walk down the road and dare hold the hand of someone white incurred wrath, abuse and assaults from white, even sometimes blacks trying to figure out what they were witnessing.
This, the tail end even of Apartheid (1994). I was walking behind a friend; a Londoner, a model, who’d had a child with a South African. They were nonchalant as they strode downtown Joburg. Me, six paces behind could see the orbit of red emotions flaring towards them.
I’d been in South Africa now for little over 18 months, a strategic attempt on my part two years earlier to get a front row seat to the biggest international story of the decade thus far.
I’d left London, part direct thought; other, escaping the toxicity of a climate in which a mini UK recession meant if you were a young reporter searching for work, if you were a young black reporter searching for work expect lean times ahead.
I had spent eight years previously in Ghana, growing up under a regime that festered corruption, counteracted by coups. This clip here was heard live.
In the late 1990s when I did a job for Ghana TV and they asked me how they could pay me, I asked for the Jerry John Rawling’s recording (above) of the coup on that day.
South Africa was closing in on the eye of the prize and there were many forces, hidden and some known, politicking and threatening all sorts. I was fortunate in my education.
My sojourn to SA prompted by an on-air exchange with its ambassador led to a triumvirate friendship with different figures: a leading theatre director and his friends which included diplomats, a cadre of young progressives black and white, and ANC activists and journalists. Something that would help in creating a raft of programmes in 1992, such as this for the domestic broadcaster, “Through the Eyes of a Child”.

I got to know a world which was uniquely complex, but I could navigate by how I opened my mouth. Shut, I could be any black South African, though many took me for coloured. Open with a London accent I was British. Open with my Ghanaian accent I was an African foreigner. I could, with the help of my friends like Milton Nkosi, get in and out of Townships, and if the feeling overcame me engage in Kwame Nkrumah’s ideals of African empowerment.
Every student, at least in my college in Ghana, was taught about Nkrumah and history told us about Mandela and many of his colleagues whom either schooled in Ghana or had a great affinity with the country.
Strangely, South Africa’s ultimate story was one that precluded others. An irony of mega proportions. Perhaps, it being the catch of any foreign news outlet, and everyone who was anyone was in South Africa, meant the big guns only were allowed in town.
At a Mandela press conference when I was working for ABC News as a producer, and terrifyingly asked the first three questions, this was evident. I was the only black british broadcast journalist, or one of a handful on the ground. If you were there too, please ping me, I’d like to apologies and correct my myth. Diversity wasn’t a badge of note back then, but think today about looking through the archives and how the world is shaped by narratives.
I earned my spurs reporting South Africa from the 1980s on BBC Radio Leicester, attending various Wembley live band conferences, opened by (Sir) Lenny Henry and British pop.

The narratives weren’t a wrongun, but nuance is something you need when reporting, otherwise translated as a having a different world view. Five years later when I produced and directed Africa’s first co-production under the exec production of Edward Boateng, then head of CNN Africa, now Ghana’s Ambassador to China, we looked to at how each country could report through the lens of its own culture, language and historicity.
Twenty-five years ago then, South Africa’s gathered in long unwinding queues to vote in their first election. The day before violence threatened captured below in reports to the BBC World Service.
The day before, a 40 minute documentary would air on BBC Radio 4. A fitting honest tribute, I think, to a country and people anyone could easily fall in love with. It stands as one of the only international documentaries played on domestic South African radio.

Twenty five years ago we held our breath. The elections passed. Nelson Mandela became president and South Africa titled the earth’s axis to humanism.

But as I would find out from many South Africans five years later in a Channel 4 News videojournalist piece, there had been a political transformation, but not a social one. Today, South Africans go to the poll. The world again is watching, thought with less scrutiny around race, but wealth; wealth, its distribution connected to race, nepotism, corruption and class.
And looming in the distance, less we dare not speak its name are the forces that are wanting to tilt the Ukraine, UK, Europe and US away from humanism. Twenty five years ago they South Africa held the world in their palm. Where will they be in another twenty five years?
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is an international award winning journalist and the first Brit to win the coveted Knight Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism. He’s an artist, creative and technologist; a former artist in residence at the Southbank Centre, and was one of the younger members in the 1990s to join Chatham House. He’s been a journalist for thirty years and is currently based at te Cardiff School of Journalism. He’s behind the Cinema Journalism movement. More here

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Game of Journalism. The Battle of Ideas. Lost notes uncovered that changes the game

In the end, the executives would have a change of heart not because their better selves could see the moral bankruptcy of their decision, but somehow they were made to feel like lesser men. Standing in front of them, cutting a lone figure, a 34-year-old, whose history making would be all the remarkable for what he aimed to achieve. Antonius Gvilielmus Amo Afer was not asking for pity or that the Christian faith of the facing men regard him and his kind worthy, but that that those judging him take a look at themselves.

It was a bold move. One that struck at the masculinity and civility of these intellects. Rationale and empathy would prevail during this time of great knowledge growth. This story may sound like another man facing a stern panel of judges, in say, America’s three strike system, looking for clemency, but this is much more. Much, much, more. Amo’s deft move would perhaps suggest a new thinking fit for modern times.

Today, society, men and women in boardrooms and broadcast executive suites resist attempts to recruit men and women from diverse backgrounds. The methodology over the years has morphed from morality, generosity, it’s the right thing to do, to a business proposition. Netflix’s juggernaut and its growth which has been demonstrated to be inclusive is evidence, but in the UK the dial has rarely shifted.

 Amo was a philosopher. His vision also brings forward historical precedence to question one of the most epoch philosophical statements about life and being in history. In 1734 this polymath Ghanaian stood in front of his examiners in Germany to defend his PhD thesis. He was a lone African intellectual in Europe; a sequence of unusual events resulted in him being one of the most learned men of his time. He spoke Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, and Dutch. He had a degree in law and studied at the University of Wittenberg, specialising in philosophy, history, and medicine. Yet chances are you may not have heard of him. His PhD thesis Of the Apatheia of the Human Mind, encapsulated thoughts from previous works ‘‘The Rights of Moors in Europe” otherwise the “Rights of an African in Eighteenth Century Europe”.

This was the period of Enlightenment, the launch of rationalism, Cartesianism Vs Leibeiziniam and the Church’s waning stranglehold on power. Amo’s defence, from Gottfried Ludewig’s Universal Historie published in 1744, was this. They, learned men, could hardly align themselves with Roman values by not acknowledging the rights of the individual. “Mysteriously”, writes Howard University’s Dr. Marilyn Sephocle, his thesis disappeared. His other works: The Apathy of the Human Mind and his treatise on mathematics, remain.

Amo was born in the Gold Coast ( now Ghana), enslaved or gifted to gentry Duke Anton Ulric, and then his son August Wilhelm. His ascent to professor at Halle University and then Jena was the impossible feat made possible. But when his patrons died, and French racism seared through the land, in 1747/51 he returned to Ghana and lived out his life as a hermit. Lewis R. Gordon writes in “An Introduction to Africana Philosophy” about France that: King Louis XVI saw it necessary to enforce a new law in 1777 called Police des Noirs. As opposed to the previous two laws that applied to black slaves only, the Police des Noirs focused on all nonwhites. Entry into France was prohibited to all blacks and people of color regardless of their status as slaves or as freedmen.

Why, amongst the cannons of philosophy, Descarte, Kant, Schelling, Hegel and Hume to name a few, does Amo not prefigure? Either he wasn’t that good, yet scholarly texts dispute this, or historians ignored him because he was black, or that his ideas were explosive for his audience? These reasons resonate in modern times within industries that systematically ignore others for their ideas and the potential of a workforce from diverse backgrounds. Hume’s racism was well documented, Kant’s surety of the inferiority of blacks because of the heat ( really!), known too, so draw your own conclusions.

“I think therefore I am” is one of the resounding philosophical statements, which has informed generations since, yet we learn of how Amo elegantly pulled this apart, and in the process emphasised an African situatedness from the metaphysics of Akan, a Ghanaian language. This is breathtaking and gets to the heart of culture, language and intellect. Marshall McLuhan, a 20th century media scholar notes in Understanding Media “Each mother tongue teaches its users a way of seeing and feeling the world, and of acting of the world, that is unique”. Another idiom points to how journalism could be blindsided within the universal language, English. “If you want to know the temperature of water, don’t ask a fish”, says McLuhan. Language shapes shared ideas, shapes narrative, story and subsequently this multi-billion construct called news.

To Amo, “I think therefore I am”, writes one of this century’s enduring African philosophers Kwasi Wiredu is problematic for Akans — one of Ghana’s many people. Wiredu writes:

He (Akan) or she would be compelled to ask, ‘‘You are what? Where?” Wo ho” is the Akan rendition of ‘‘exist”. Without the ‘‘ho”, which means ‘‘there”, in other words, ‘‘some place”, all meaning is lost. ‘‘Wo”, standing alone, does not in any way correspond to the existential sense of the verb ‘‘to be”, which has no place in Akan syntax or semantics. [Return], now, to ‘‘I think, therefore I am”, and consider the existential component of that attempted message as it comes across in Akan. 

Wiredu continues:

In that medium the information communicated can only be that I am there, at some place; which means that spatial location is essential to the idea of my existence. It is scarcely necessary to point out that this is diametrically opposed to Descartes’ construal of the particular cogitation under scrutiny. As far as he is concerned, the alleged fact that one can doubt all spatial existences and yet at the same time be absolutely certain of one’s existence under the dispensation of the Cogito implied that the ‘‘I”, the ego, exists as a spiritual, non-spatial, immaterial entity. The incongruity of this sequence of thought, quite apart from any non sequiturs, must leap to the Akan eye. 

And concludes:

There is, of course, nothing sacrosanct about the linguistic categories of Akan thought. But, given the prima facie incoherence of the Cartesian suggestion within the Akan conceptual framework, an Akan thinker who scrutinizes the matter in his or her own language must feel the need for in´Čünitely more proof of intelligibility than if s/he contemplated it in English or some cognate language. 

If you’re a storyteller, or work in news, this has profound meaning for how African storytelling at its root, through language, differs in many ways to European forms. I’ve been learning Mandarin and there are comparisons too with the “I”. In a previous posts I spoke about the Akan expressions “sankofa” that points to the ineluctable thread of memory, the past, space and its influence on the present for Ghanaians. Chinese culture’s relationship with the past too such as Confucianism and its impact, not widely taught, on the likes of Kant warrants attention.

As CGTN in London, China’s global network is setting out to launch a super network. How might they promote a different sensibility to news creation and stories, as thus far the adoption of current western ideas invariably flattens cultural values.

Take this example of how the avoidance of “fake news” and false witness is embedded in Ghanaian culture. A couple of week’s ago, I learned from my cousin that his mother had died. Ghanaian tradition calls for certain protocols, so my siblings and I set off to visit my cousin, whom by deference, because of his age, we call uncle. Once greeted at my uncle’s door, we filed in with drinks, something for the wake keeping that will be shared by close family. We sat down caught up with old news and then when the momentum of the conversation dropped my Western sensibilities led me to state earnestly why we had come.

Ghanaian tradition demands the converse my uncle gently reminded me. It was my uncle’s prerogative to enquire in a sombre tone: “what’s the purpose of your visit?” Such formalities remove any ambiguity as my uncle would go onto explain whether you’re here under other pretenses. Are you being sought after and seek shelter? Are you in danger? No I answered and in responding made my second faux pas when I noted the news and how sorry we were. Traditionally my uncle reminded us you should ask that you’ve heard some news and you want to know whether it’s true. That’s in spite of the fact my uncle had told me earlier on the phone.

Yet such face-to-face verification removes doubt or hearsay. If there was ever a cultural moment that by its very nature arrested false news or fake, this was it enshrined within culture. This thing we do with television, produced as a social tool bringing people together, has been engineered to prey on our fears. I have spoke at length about this from depth manipulators e.g. Edward Bernays and political spinsters.

Watch here too the response from a Ghanaian masters student about western journalism from the question I posed, “If”, recorded in 2006.

Like many cultures, Ghanaians have a complex advanced diverse culture, which is often overlooked, or ignored for its simplicity. Amo reminds us, as does Professor Wiredu, and indeed my uncle what we’re missing. The Johari window’s unknown unknowns renders us impotent, without us knowing it. Journalism deserves a systems thinking approach. It strikes me too that the China-African pact gaining in currency speaks to what philosophically and culturally is common ground, that’s being awakened. Journalism should do the same.

The author Dr David Dunkley Gyimah gained his doctorate from University College Dublin which researched, amongst other things, cognition in storytelling and the science of thinking. He is the first Brit to win a (US) Knight Batten Award. The Guardian and Storyful were subsequent winners. Originally an Applied Chemistry grad, he would work for the BBC, Channel 4 News and ABC and become one of the Southbank Centre’s first batch of artists in residence under Jude Kelly OBE. David is designated a leading videojournalist and is one of the top 20 writers in journalism on @medium platform. He is at the Cardiff School of Journalism.