Ken Owen died yesterday, just a few weeks after his 80th birthday. The legendary editor played a pivotal role in the lives of so many journalists who worked under him at various newspapers.
I have asked some of those people to share anecdotes, thoughts and experiences they had of Owen. And then I have posted the farewell speech he gave at his 80th birthday in Cape Town in February. It should be required reading.
The editor, the agent provocateur
I was the entertainment editor of the Sunday Times Cape Metro when I first met Ken Owen. Having been Tertius Myburgh’s last appointment before he left the Sunday Times to take up a position as ambassador to Washington, I was terrified I would be the first to go when the new editor swept in and swept clean. Far from it. Owen was the editor who gave me one of the biggest breaks in my career when he appointed me to work in the Sunday Times’ London office under Cherilyn Ireton, a life-changing experience. On one occasion he visited the office, he asked that I take him to lunch. There, he interrogated me on my experience working in London. When I mentioned I was surprised there were so few women editors of national newspapers, he said, “If women want to be editors, they should join women’s magazines…” I was aghast, initially. Then I realised he was being deliberately provocative, that he wanted me to challenge him, which I did. It was a memorable lunch, to say the least.
But it was long after I’d left the Sunday Times that I experienced a different Ken Owen. I was editing The Big Issue South Africa and the publication was going through tough times. I needed to talk to someone who could look at it dispassionately and perhaps steer me towards ways in which we could become more sustainable. I called Owen, then living in Cape Town. He didn’t hesitate in inviting me over and not only listening to the problems we faced, and advising me, but also opening up his contact book and calling his connections to help.
I did laugh when I walked into the entrance of the Waterfront flat he was living in. There hung the bloody great angry painting that had hung in his office. Simply can’t remember the artist. But as I walked in he stopped me. “Remember this?” he asked. And gave a great big dirty laugh. I have no doubt the painting was hung there to intimidate all who entered, and that he enjoyed every minute. Long live, Ken Owen, long live. – Glenda Nevill
The legend and the mensch
There was Ken the legendary newsman and then the lesser-known Ken the mensch. I knew and valued both. Editorial conferences with legendary Ken were memorable. They could be invigorating intellectual sparring contests or encounters that were as abrasive, intimidating and provocative his political writing. I remember many occasions when section editors were dismissed from the meeting for having inadequate diaries. We would re-gather only when that was rectified. As much as we hated it, his judgement was mostly right.
Ken the mensch was the family man and friend. If you want a glimpse of how highly his extended family rated him, read the well-researched speech his stepson Richard Moultrie gave at his 80th birthday last month. I kept in touch with Ken the mensch after his retirement from the Sunday Times. On occasions when we did get together we would talk about newspaper life and it always saddened me that he felt much of his time in the industry had been wasted. He had a long memory and there were still things that niggled him. It was a relief to hear from him after his party when he had said his formal goodbyes that he felt healed, that past issues no longer mattered. He seemed finally at peace with both parts of his life. – Cherilyn Ireton
An editor for times of transition
Owen and his editorial team accomplished a remarkable thing. They took the populist Sunday Times from its majority white readership and turned it into a serious newspaper with a reputation and a majority black readership. He did this by demanding the best of his staff. He despised those who disliked liberty, grasping politicians – the ‘Gucci revolutionaries’ and toadying businessmen alike.
Having an editor like this at the helm of the Sunday Times during the transition was critical. The nation could look to the paper to tell the truth, however unpalatable, about the emerging new order. Sometimes this meant dismissing irrational fears about change and sometimes it meant challenging the complacent assumptions about the new order’s commitment to a free society. – Ray Hartley
No room for mediocrity
With Ken Owen there was no room for mediocrity and he demanded excellence and got the best out of his staff. As brilliant as he was as an editor and incisive political commentator, he was equally harsh and brutal to those who got on his wrong side, which wasn’t hard. You always knew where you stood with him and as someone once wrote – I think it was when he retired as editor of the Sunday Times – he was not one to stab you in the back; instead he would come straight at you and stick the knife in your gut. Love him or hate him, he was a brilliant editor and helped shape the career of many journalists, me included, even though we clashed regularly when I worked for him. – Ray Joseph
Tread carefully when dealing with people’s lives
One of South Africa’s newspaper greats is no more, but I will always cherish the lessons I learnt from him as a reporter at the Sunday Times when he was editor.
I was a fledgling reporter – having just stepped off a plane from sewing my wild oats overseas – when I was fortunate enough to be offered a job working with Gwen Gill (another late great newspaper person) on her consumer column.
She warned me when I went in to meet Ken Owen to concretise my job that he could be a bit abrasive. But he smiled and chatted and we discovered we had both spent time on the same kibbutz in Israel.
Later, I got to see the tough side when he would come into the newsroom and decimate the then news editor for doing things he didn’t approve of. He was hectic and, witnessing that on a regular basis, I was pretty terrified of him.
I recall a senior journalist convincing me that it was quite silly to be afraid of him because, like everyone, he has to go to the toilet. The image of that convinced me he was human.
The biggest lesson I learnt from him was the power we as journalists wield and that we must always treat people we write about with respect. I was working on a story about a teenager who was killed outside a downtown Johannesburg club. He was apparently a ‘skinhead’ and was killed by a ‘goth’ (two trendy sub-cultures at the time). I got lots of information about this from friends, the police and others who knew both parties. His devastated parents, however, said he was definitely not a skinhead and just liked wearing his hair short. I could feel their pain and that his being a skinhead was something they didn’t want to deal with. Before I left them, I ask for photographs and they gave me the only two they had and made me promise to return them.
I was conscious of their pain when I wrote the story, but the sub-editor wasn’t and there were a number of changes made that made the story a more sensational read (although it was pretty sensational as it was), but altered the facts that would exacerbate the parents pain.
I was so angry and, after a family member contacted Ken Owen, so was the editor. Fortunately, the paper trail cleared me, but he insisted I take the photographs back. As luck would have it, we could only find one of the two. I was not happy to take the photographs back because knew these people hated me. But I did and I learnt the lesson Ken Owen wanted me to learn and that was I needed to see their pain so I would always tread carefully when dealing with people’s lives as a journalist. What a valuable lesson!
Rest in Peace, KO! Your legend lives on! – Peta Krost Maunder
All you do is put one word after the other
I was the first journalist to be given the tag ‘Special Writer’ for the Sunday Times by Ken Owen. But soon after my appointment he shredded feature I had written saying, “You write too well to be a journalist.”
He also claimed, “Writing is very easy; people make too much of a fuss about it.”
“All you do,” he said, “is put one word after the other… it’s that simple.”
I admired his matter-of-fact approach as an editor but I was saddened when he viciously attacked Tertius Myburgh in an obituary, in effect calling Myburgh a poser and pseud, when in fact it was Tertius who gave Owen a job as a columnist on the Sunday Times when Owen was fired from as Editor Business Day. I thought Owen owed Tertius more than that. – Evelyn Holtzhausen
KEN OWEN’S SPEECH AT THE CELEBRATION OF HIS 80th BIRTHDAY ON 21/2/2015
I did not want to make this speech. I told Kate I had become an old fart in the wrong century, and I had nothing to say, but Kate: said, “Say something to offend everyone!”
That’s not easy. How in heaven do you offend Hugh Corder when he forgives you even before you have sinned?
But let me try. I’ll start by saying that as I look back on my life I think I have always tried to find and hold the middle ground —between Hitler and Stalin, between left and right, between Afrikaans and English, between black and white.
It started when I was very young with two episodes that framed my life.
The first was at the end of the war when I was about 10. My mother used to give me a sixpence for bus fare from where we lived, below the slag heaps of Iscor in Pretoria West, to the public library just east of Church Square. But I preferred to walk back and use half the fare, a tickey, to take out a second book.
Just west of Church Square was a row of shabby little shops, probably run by refugee Jews from the thirties. One of them had pasted in his window the first pictures of the Nazi death camps, whether Auschwitz, or Majdanek, or some other camp, I do not know. I stared at the pictures in absolute horror. My idea of war was Biggles and flying Spitfires. Nothing had prepared me for mass graves, or piles of corpses, and emaciated people reaching through barbed wire. It was a horror I had never imagined and I don’t think I ever recovered. On my bookshelf you will still find the Auschwitz chronicle, essentially a list of the names of Jews who went to Auschwitz and the dates when they died.
I became obsessed with the camps and read everything I could on the subject, starting with Lord Russell’s early history of Nazi atrocities.
That episode was the first stake in the ground. I hated the Nazis, and all their spawn
The second episode came five years later when I was 15. I took from the town library in Lydenburg a book titled “I Chose Freedom” by Victor Kravchenko. It described his incarceration in the slave camps of Kolyma, and his escape. Kolyma lies just north of the Kamchatka Peninsula, mostly in the Arctic Circle, where the temperature drops to -60 degrees centigrade, and the climate is too harsh even for the Russians. The area is populated only by a few indigenous hunters– Eskimos or Indians, I would call them, and by renegades. They saved Kravchenko’s life, taking him into their warm huts. I was fascinated by his account of having to fill his mouth with snow before going indoors, lest his teeth crack.
Kravchenko convinced me that the Communists were an exact mirror image of the Nazis, no less brutal, no less part of an inhumane system, no less evil. Morally and politically, they were the same putrid thing. I hated them as I hated the Nazis.
That was the second stake in the ground.
And between these stakes I have lived my life.
For years I wandered around Anglo Saxon countries asking if anybody had read Kravchenko. Nobody had.
In France it was different. The book was a best seller, to the outrage of the intellectual Left, led by Jean-Paul Sartre, who was then a Communist. The Soviets were furious and fed scurrilous stories about Kravchenko to its fellow travelers and French Communists in an attempt to discredit him and his book.
Kravchenko sued for libel in what turned out to be a spectacular show trial. The Soviet embassy sat behind the defense, feeding information to witnesses. They flew Kravchenko’s former wife from Moscow to testify that he was a drunk, a liar and a wife beater. In the witness stand she was a drab figure, looking demoralised and frightened.
Under cross-examination she disintegrated completely, the defense called for an adjournment, and that night she was flown back to Moscow, never to be heard of again. So Kravchenko won his case but such was the domination of Paris’s intellectual life by the left that he was awarded damages of one franc, or it may have been ten — a derisory amount. Kravchenko left France in disgust for the US, and never returned.
In faraway Lydenburg I knew nothing of this but my views hardened as I read more — This was a time when visitors to Russia were still crying out, “I have seen the future and it works!”, while five million Ukranians were starving to death. But Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” drew a different picture. Later Menachem Begin’s “White Nights” confirmed what Kravchenko had said. In the end, Solzhenitsyn put an end to the argument with “The Gulag Archipelago”. And Khrushchev confirmed it all in his denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress.
As you can imagine, my view that the Communists were no different from the Nazis put me outside the intellectual mainstream of my time. Often I found myself standing alone, but I had no other choice. All my life I played my hand as it was dealt.
I noted with some scorn that more passion was aroused by McCarthyism than by the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Don’t get me wrong. Margaret Chase Smith, Republican senator for Maine, was one of my heroes because she stood up to McCarthy when Bobby Kennedy was still grovelling. But I saw the whole affair as a display of cowardice by folk in Hollywood, most of whom ratted on each other. In time, the American system swung back into balance and McCarthy was destroyed.
The invasion of Hungary was different — the brutal military suppression of a people to subject them to what I might call left wing Nazism. But few intellectuals were much upset. A few left the Communist Party, Sartre shuffled right wards to democratic socialism, and the issue faded away. The intellectual mainstream went back to attacking western imperialism and American capitalism, and life went on undisturbed until the invasion of Prague. Then back to attacking capitalism and imperialism. I wanted no part of it.
Other things happened.
In 1964, the year of Mississippi Burning, I worked in Mississippi as a volunteer for SNCC, which was headed by Stokely Carmichael, who was I think Black Panther. My part was mainly to ride about in “integrated cars”, as we called them, and to sing “We shall overcome” in various country churches.
However, Mississippi showed me how much courage, discipline and training went into eliciting the latent violence of the system without responding with counter-violence. I became a great admirer of Martin Luther King and through him of Gandhi, the Mahatma. Both rejected armed struggle in favour of passive resistance, both demanded discipline, and both worked in a framework of liberty and equality.
Algeria was a moral problem of the fifties in which I followed Camus, again not the phony revolutionary theory of Sartre. Sympathy for the Algerians did not preclude the hope that if revolutionary violence could be avoided, a solution might be negotiated that would make it possible for the one million French colons to stay in Algeria as useful citizens. You can see the relevance to South Africa.
In New York I heard a Hungarian say: “In the West the throwing of a stone is a political act, in the East it is a lamentable breakdown of self-discipline.” I understood what he meant.
I won’t bore you any further except say that these experiences hardened into a few ideas:
- I was hostile to romantic theories of revolution, so popular at the time, Che Guevara and all that.
- I came to believe that the manner of liberation would determine the character of the post-revolutionary government.
- I was convinced that success of armed struggle could only occur after civil war and would condemn us to totalitarian government by a vanguard party, which would impose democratic centralism on us; would deploy cadres to all positions of power; would subject the judiciary and the legislature to the will of the party; would centralize control of the economy; and enforce its will by controlling the security agencies.
That, essentially, is what we have got. I watch with amusement as that trio of old-style commies, Ebrahim Patel, Rob Davies, and in the presidency, Jeff Radebe, try simultaneously to govern the country, centralize control of the economy, and overthrow international capitalism. It’s ambitious!
Six people in the NEC decide who goes to form the majority in Parliament. The same six control the security agencies, one appoints the judges. Together they deploy cadres to fill all important posts. Once in five years we get a chance to voice our disapproval, a futile exercise. The ideology and intellectual framework constructed by armed struggle is what I feared when I tried to unmask the communist conspiracy behind the ANC and was accused of looking for reds under the bed.
So you see I was far out of the mainstream, with some funny consequences. When I was appointed to try to rescue the Rand Daily Mail after the mess Alistair Sparks had made of it, the Black Sash organized a public protest against my appointment. The main speaker was — wait for it — John Kane-Berman, who denounced me as too far right to sully the precious Rand Daily Mail.
En Kyk hoe lyk hy nou!
Have I offended you all? I’ll spell it out: if you were more passionate about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg than about Hungary, then shame on you. If you have ever condoned or accepted armed struggle, then shame on you. And here’s the one to catch you all, if you have never worried about Reds under the bed, then shame on you. Finally, if you have been part of the Left consensus, then shame on you.
All offended? Even Hugh Corder? OK, Kate? Offensive enough?
I have two more brief things to say. The first is something I have never said in public for fear of the harm it would do if I started drinking again, but I say it now: I would not have reached the age of 40, or even 36 but for the tender and loving care I received from a bunch of drunks when I crawled into Alcoholics Anonymous 45 years ago.
Lastly, I have had a fantastic life with Kate, full of adventure and love and endeavour. For much of it I have been guided by William the Silent: it is not necessary to hope in order to undertake, it is not necessary to succeed in order to persevere. But Kate was sent from Mount Olympus or somewhere to teach me to love, to see beauty, to read well, to widen my horizons, to give me a rich new life including 4 step-children who have been unfailingly kind to me, and she widened our circle of friends to the point where we could not have them all here tonight. It has been a fairy book love story.
I am so grateful to you all my friends for coming here tonight, for what is probably my last gathering, and while it is a joy to see you, I must say to you that I relinquish life easily, and I hope gracefully. It is time to go.
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