Mister Commonwealth still going strong at 90

As officials in London and Valletta continue preparing for the November 2015 CHOGM in Malta, friends and admirers of Derek Ingram - the man known in media circles around the world as ’Mister Commonwealth’ - have a far easier, and much more pleasant job at hand - Getting ready to mark this great journalist’s landmark birthday on June 20.

Derek Ingram at his home in London. (Picture: Trevor Grundy)
Derek Ingram at his home in London. (Picture: Trevor Grundy)

Derek will be 90. And like Johnnie Walker – the whisky he likes to sip with friends now and again after a hard day’s work at his office home in London – he’s going strong. Very.

Derek Ingram needs no introduction to anyone familiar with the inside workings of the Commonwealth Secretariat, or the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA).

Special award

Until back problems slowed him down, Derek was one of the Commonwealth’s prime movers and shakers, a regular contributor to ‘The Roundtable’ magazine and the founder and first editor in 1967 of a news and feature agency – Gemini – that helped change the way the largely Western industrialised world saw and related to the so-called Third World.

Awarded an MBE by the Queen for his services to journalism and the Commonwealth, Derek was in 2012 given a special award marking his outstanding services to the Commonwealth by Nexus Strategic Partnership.

And it would probably embarrass him to know that there are many of his friends in Commonwealth circles, who believe a knighthood is long overdue.

A snippet of the Derek Ingram story is contained in Richard Bourne’s excellent book” News on a knife-edge: Gemini journalism and a global agenda” (John Libbey,1995).

Bourne writes: “Only child of a North London middle class family, Ingram had had a precocious career in war-time and post-war Fleet Street. He was sub-editor of the stories on the front page of the Daily Sketch at the age of 17, and was being paid the enormous sum of six guineas a week when he was called up at 18 in 1943. When he went to his medical before entering the Navy, and the doctor asked him what he was earning, the doctor was so surprised that he stopped the queue and went across to tell a colleague.

In the last year of the war he served in the Mediterranean. . . soon after the war ended he joined Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express, before switching to Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail in 1949. There he climbed steadily from sub-editing to Chief Sub- Editor, Night Editor, Assistant Editor and Deputy Editor.”

Partners in Adventure

There are many who believe Derek would have reached the top of the British media ladder had he not embraced a cause. It was to alert those in power to the pressures, political, social, economic and racial, building-up in colonies that were soon to become fully-fledged independent countries.

Derek summed up his strong belief in the Commonwealth in his 1960 book ’Partners in Adventure.’

At a time when the threat of nuclear war was real and racial discrimination was in so many parts of the world, he wrote –“Two problems above all torture our minds in this second half of the 20th century. The first is the atomic threat to our civilization; the second the relationship between the black man and the white. The greatest single factor about the Commonwealth idea is that it transcends all racial barriers.”

As a journalist, editor of Gemini and later on as President of the CJA, Derek Ingram covered twenty CHOGMs. He wrote clearly about the main issues facing the organisation and a time when Commonwealth leaders were obsessed with two explosive issues – white rule in southern Rhodesia and apartheid in South Africa.

After receiving a Commonwealth Press Union (CPU) award for his services to Commonwealth journalism in 1978, Derek and a group of working journalists set up the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA). He became its first president and remains active in the organisation today.

Painful back

Were it not for a nagging and sometimes very painful back, he would be on the plane to Malta in time for the 2015 CHOGM (November 26-29 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta).

Malta is a country small in size but great in importance, a former British colony awarded the George Cross by King George V1 for the outstanding courage its leaders and residents showed while fighting on the Allied side against nearly Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany during World War Two.

Derek was stationed in Malta for part of the war while serving with the Royal Navy.

So there is a special place in his heart for that country and its warm, welcoming people whose history is second to none in the always fascinating story of mankind. The importance of Gemini should never be under-rated. Bourne’s book should be read by any Commonwealth student of media affairs.

Gemini was founded in 1967 and Derek edited it until 1993.

Understanding gap

For almost 30 years it existed with a tiny staff and it somehow kept going sometimes on little more than the sniff of a financial oil rag. It put out some excellent stories – and the occasional scoop – which helped bridge an understanding gap between the industrialised North and the developing, often struggling- to- survive South.

Said Bourne: “To a considerable extent he (Derek Ingram) envisaged it as a Commonwealth news service although he avoided using the term. It was a product of his own campaigning and his frustration that first the British Government and then the Commonwealth Secretariat – which did not have an information programme for the first five years after its existence in 1965 – were doing so little to make the modern Commonwealth known.”

This lack of information about the men and women who have worked so hard and fought for so long to transform the post –World War Two British Empire into modern Commonwealth states continues to anger Derek Ingram.

In an interview I conducted with him at his home in Marylebone for the Africa Service of the the Berlin-based radio station, Deutsche Welle in 2009, he lamented the fact that young people in the United Kingdom, know so little about the Commonwealth, what it does and how it works.

Loss of direction

He said: “If I go to the Solomon Islands or Botswana, I find that the Commonwealth is on the national curriculum. Until recently, that was not the case here. So many people, particularly politicians, pay homage to the Commonwealth and say’More must be done’ but they don’t do anything, so they don’t get their constituents interested in how it works and the valuable work it does.”

During an interview with a reporter from ‘Global’ magazine (third quarter 2012) he was asked if he believes that the Commonwealth has lost direction following the fall of apartheid in South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990. He said: “I know that’s what quite a lot of people say. It was simply that there wasn’t a big issue in the same way as South Africa, which was such a big international issue. Climate change and those sort of things are crucially important but they don’t make the headlines in the way that apartheid did.”

Today, the Commonwealth is once again in search of another Big Idea.

If the Malta CHOGM in November can find it, package it and then market it to the rest of the world – drawing in the European Union especially – then that would be the best possible landmark birthday present for Derek Ingram, a man who has dedicated so much of his life to the Commonwealth which – against all odds and in the face of all doubters and cynics –he continues to believe in heart and soul. – Trevor Grundy is a member of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Journalists Association. He lived and worked as a reporter in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa from 1966-1996.

Post published in: Analysis

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