“To be sure, the Mirror and other Choko newspapers had lost their impact more than a decade ago, because of the absence of leadership, which led to the lack of innovation and creativity even as the digital revolution became all-pervasive.
“[…] Choko’s successors—journalists included—did not appreciate that the TNT Mirror, in particular, was not just another newspaper, but a crusader, a dogged left-leaning campaigner on behalf of the downtrodden and dispossessed.”
Former TNT Mirror editor and CNMG CEO Ken Ali reflects on the legacy of late media pioneer Patrick “Choko” Chookingo, after last week’s closure of the TNT News Centre:
Patrick “Choko” Chookolingo was a hardy and revolutionary journalist and media proprietor who died a generation ago and who is now seldom mentioned in industry discussions. That changed briefly last week, when the remaining newspapers in Choko’s once dynamic and profitable stable, including the TNT Mirror, limped to an ignominious shutdown.
Some practitioners of his era invoked his name, mainly with respect and emotion.
I enter the discussion—as someone who edited four of his newspapers during a 25-year tenure at his organisation—largely to comment on the distress of his once-formidable and influential newspapers now arriving at their torturous end.
To be sure, the Mirror and other Choko newspapers had lost their impact more than a decade ago, because of the absence of leadership, which led to the lack of innovation and creativity even as the digital revolution became all-pervasive.
In the United States, newspapers have collectively lost 80 per cent of their advertising revenue over the past few years; in this country, the myopic bosses at the TNT Mirror failed to reinvent the paper.
Instead, the current operators—the large Choko brood was split down the middle—handed the papers to tired media journeymen at the end of their respective careers, who did not appreciate the fast-evolving sector and did not have the skill and energy to implement change.
The weekly press had become irrelevant and obsolete in the current social media crush where anyone with fingertips can be a publisher—and in real time, too. More than that, the TNT Mirror became a political poison pen while the PNM was in political opposition, and was edited by party loyalist Maxie Cuffie.
The fiercely independent Choko would have baulked at the misuse and squandering of his treasured brand.
Choko’s successors—journalists included—did not appreciate that the TNT Mirror, in particular, was not just another newspaper, but a crusader, a dogged left-leaning campaigner on behalf of the downtrodden and dispossessed.
The crafty publisher had an ideological bent and kept faith with the working masses. Choko carefully surrounded himself with journalists who had anti-establishment profiles and he picked up populist causes and called out society’s sacred cows.
It was a communal project and we all sang from the same hymn book, even as we were influenced by our peculiar social and cultural circumstances. Choko fostered teamwork and provided decisive leadership and vision.
It was not a publish-and-be-damned approach, although there were some critical—and costly—errors.
The establishment of the TNT Mirror in 1982 was itself Choko’s visionary response to the evolving media landscape.
He had managed and edited The Bomb newspaper from 1970, at the invitation and with initial funding from Bhadase Sagan Maraj. He had insisted on editorial autonomy.
In the absence of a parliamentary opposition from 1971 to 1976, Choko represented the working class, producing a newspaper with unprecedented sales, one that was lapped up by the hoity-toity, even if they denied it.
He fearlessly targeted maximum leader Dr Eric Williams. Unable to tame Choko, Williams occasionally passed him notes in an effort to influence his editorial judgement.
But by 1982 (Williams had died the previous year), the wily Choko realised that an increasingly sophisticated society had outlived The Bomb. He called his bushy-tailed troops for the launch of the TNT Mirror, which was meant to be more measured and thoughtful, even as it held our leaders’ feet to the fire.
We wrote some of the finest investigative pieces of any generation, and certainly did more substantive work than much of the fare in today’s media.
At Raffique Shah’s prodding in 1983, the newspaper launched the annual Mirror Marathon, whose influence went way beyond the 26.2 mile-distance of the race and which bolstered the paper’s image.
When the thin-skinned NAR regime refused to release ample foreign exchange for the purchase of newsprint and spare parts, readers rallied to the newspaper’s side. Justice Anthony Lucky upheld the paper’s legal claim, citing the constitutional provision of freedom of the press.
Choko died on Father’s Day weekend in 1986, with the nation in the throes of fast-moving social and political changes; months later, the PNM was kicked out of office for the first time in the 30 years of self-government.
With his foresight and expertise, Choko would surely have re-made his media empire and avoided its wretched demise. Under his tutelage, his journalists were imbued with social consciousness and an acute awareness of the reader’s right to know.
I was galled, therefore, when a High Court judge, presiding in the sensational murder trials of Dole Chadee and his gang, censored the media.
In a couple of articles, the next edition of the TNT Mirror hinted at the media gag. I was summarily hauled before the selfsame judge, and in the most dramatic example of a kangaroo court, I was hastily tried and dumped in jail. I was later vindicated by the Appeal Court and the Privy Council.
Law students in several jurisdictions study the historic case of the Trinidad and Tobago newspaper editor who was jailed for contempt of court.
Choko had been jailed years before for an article headlined “The Judge’s Wife” in The Bomb.
In the absence of leadership, most dyed-in-the-wool TNT Mirror scribes fled over the years, each soaring to other industry successes, even as we acknowledged the life-long impact of Choko’s pioneering brand and his personal guidance.
The closure of his newspapers marks the passing of a remarkable media era, even if the colourful, daredevil and inventive leader was never decorated with a national honour and still does not enjoy in death the general respect he deserves.
Warts and all, Choko’s fascinating career and life’s work deserves critical academic and media analyses.
The old Choko would have loved that.