Jamaica’s ‘Bad Boy’ of Journalism opens up on several hot issues.
On January 17, some of Jamaica and the world’s most influential people, Muhammad Ali, Michelle Obama, Stephen Vasciannie, Shabba Ranx and the notorious Al Capone all celebrate their birthday. Little did the world know that in 1989 in St. Ann on a little island in the Caribbean Sea, some would welcome or regret the arrival of another Capricorn – Abka Fitz-Henley. Abka is well known in online and electronic media circles as the “Breaking NewsBoss”. The 27 year old is the senior journalist at Nationwide News Network. During his approximately 5 and a 1/2 years at Nationwide he has on several occasions served as acting Editor.
He is the current holder of Jamaican Journalism’s two most coveted prizes. Abka is the reigning Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) Journalist of the Year. A few weeks before that award he was given the prestigious Jamaica Broilers Fair Play Awards first place 2016 trophy.
During his first year in the profession Abka claimed the Young Journalist of the Year award. The 2013 Caribbean Blog Awards trophy for outstanding coverage of the Vybz Kartel murder trialis among his accolades.
Loyal, ambitious, fearless, practical and determined – his stone faced demeanor could make him a great professional power player one day. That said, Abka describes himself as “a contradiction perhaps”, shy, bold, aloof, engaging and carefree. He was home schooled until age 12, a phase which he lists as the most important and influential phase of his education. A bright spark he passes six (6) CXCs at age 12 and a year later had thirteen passes under his name. “I never had a TV growing up, mainly because my father seems to have thought that a live streaming of the BBC World Service via his shortwave radio was good enough. I didn’t watch cartoons. Can’t make sense of them to this day. From age 7 perhaps I really looked forward to the newspapers coming home” he recounted.
Family life was straddled between St. Andrew and St. Ann. A brother to seven siblings, he recounts that he is perhaps the ‘outlaw’ of the family, most of whom are quiet, church going people who hail from the renown Fitz-Henley clan. With a big grin Abka mused – “I party, drink, am pretty loud at the domino table or when I have had a few rum on the rocks. I don’t know what got a hold of me but they tolerate me and I love them dearly.”
An avid sports fan he considers Brian Lara as the greatest. He had aspirations to be a better batsman than Lara one day but alas such pursuits took a backseat to his true calling in journalism.
Photography by Craig Harley
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
In 2011, he was in the legal and investigative department at the Office of the Public Defender when he received a call from his bonafide friend and brother Dennis Brooks. Head honcho at Nationwide, Cliff Hughes, wanted somebody who did not necessarily have a background in Journalism but had an astute knowledge of current affairs and could bring something different to the table. Acting on Mr. Brooks’ recommendation, Cliff’s interview methodology was a languid discussion on world affairs. The conversation flowed. Hughes offered a contract and he accepted; the rest was history.
“I give a lot of credit to Cliff. He gave me a chance in the profession when I am certain many other media manager’s would not have elected to have given me a similar opportunity.” The penchant for harnessing talent is part of his legacy. In my case, my professional educational pursuits was in the legal field, here was a 20+ year old with no experience in media and he made a call in my favour. I don’t think he regrets it, hope not.” – Abka reflected.
PANACHE: How do you get so much highly ‘classified’ information? What is your process? What’s your secret? We don’t expect a confession but we’re still going to ask…
Abka Fitz-Henley: By never answering questions like these. Folks regularly ask me similar questions over a drink. Most recently “How you know say Ellington did ago resign, who sent you Warmington’s swearing in photo ..how you know Audley tax package before him announce it”. The questions sometimes come over drinks. I suppose when I am relaxed in order to see whether I will spill. Never. Pretty serious about that, the answer to the above is between my God and me. Good try though.
You have a track record of delivering credible news, being the ‘breaking news boss’ and being trusted by your listeners. Is that a hard standard to live by?
AFH: No. Once prior to confirmation you abide by certain principles and processes and treat all information as highly suspect but potentially true – you will be fine.
How do you feel about winning the prestigious Fairplay Awards first place and the PAJ Journalist of the Year Award?
AFH: Honoured. I tell you I never start out in search of awards & it doesn’t weigh on my mind when pursuing a story but seeing as they’ve come, I am grateful. In the case of the Fairplay Awards, the Carimac Director, Professor Hopeton Dunn led that panel which found favour with my work. Former PAJ President and media veteran Patrick Harley led a panel which included another former President Byron Buckley. In their wisdom they chose to give me the Journalist of the Year award. Very distinguished gentlemen, both former Gleaner Journalists, who cannot be accused of not knowing what good journalism is. It is a nice feeling that they considered my work worthy.
Why didn’t you smile when you received both awards ? Some people found that odd.
AFH: Well part of it is, though feeling honoured and appreciative, I don’t get excited over a lot of things. From my childhood I was encouraged to remain calm and keep cool in situations where folks are excited. I am very much programmed that way. I suppose it hasn’t left me. I think Emz (Emily Shields) made me grin alot on the occasion of the Fairplay Award. She’s hilarious. So hey, there were some smiles there.
What was the highlight of 2016 for you?
AFH: When my youngest sister got all distinctions in CSEC. She is among the top performers in the Caribbean. Still doing very well and I am so proud of her. She makes my days.
You’ve had your online squabbles and near legal battles with persons online and offline. What are your thoughts or the lessons learnt when you reflect on those experiences?
AFH: Take criticisms and praise in stride and I get both. When you say legal battles I suppose you mean the Khia Duncan episode.
I pursued that for two reasons. Her allegation about being hacked was unfounded. She apologized and admitted that she blundered. The second reason is when I had told her to retract she said never mess with a Duncan. That did it for me. I thought that comment reflected classism and a sense of entitlement. I resent classism. So I decided I would send her a message for all those people in Jamaica who face classism but have to suck it up.
We are fine now though. I met her once while covering Imani Duncan’s nomination. We took a few photos. I have nothing against her and I hear she is a nice person. Passionate about her politics and that is her right.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing in 2016. You received flak on social media for tweeting a section of former St. George’s Captain Dominic James’ autopsy results which showed cause of death. What happened there? Did the criticisms surprise you?
AFH: Well much of the country was wondering what caused Dominic, an outstanding young man, to die so suddenly. Prior to my tweet which showed cause of death, management instructed me to write the story and gave the directive that it must be the lead story at 5:00pm and it was. I saw how reputed international media in the UK and the US leaked gory details of Michael Jackson and Prince’s autopsy but I thought to myself that in this case all we’d be disclosing that was not already known is cause of death.
I hoped it would stir discussion and lead folks to demand that processes be put in place where never again would a student have a serious condition over time and it not be detected & they lose their life while engaging in sports. But that was not the reaction I got from some people. Even some very well thinking persons felt it insensitive. So after listening to feedback from those people, I issued an unequivocal apology via twitter because the intention is never to offend well thinking people and I understood why some folks were offended. Some felt it was okay.
Were you taking one for the team?
AFH: Whether it was my taking one for the team or not, I won’t get into that, I stand by my unequivocal apology.
How do your sources know they can trust you? What assurances do you give?
AFH: That comes over time. People can tell if you are trustworthy or not you know. In my case I think it is known that I am zero tolerant regarding issues concerning the identity of my source. Between me and God. On one occasion this year, on the despicable public prompting of a senior broadcaster, the Police visited Nationwide and questioned me about my source. I declined to say one word to them in that regard. The Police left and said they suspected they’d have gotten no where with their line of questioning and to be frank if they asked me the same question a trillion times I would not answer. Waste of my time. Waste of their time.
In your line of work, you have interviewed a wide cross section of Jamaica’s leaders over the years. How do you define great leadership?
AFH: The courage to do what is right even when it is unpopular. That distinguishes the bad from the good and the good from the great.
What advice would you give to young journalists?
AFH: Don’t wake up wanting to be liked. It is fine to be despised by power brokers or sycophants. Also there is actually honest money to be made in media once you apply yourself and produce consistently.
There are pros and cons in every field… what is the ugly side of the work you do that people do not know about or see? If there is one thing you would like for them to know and understand what would it be?
AFH: Not really. The part of the work some people consider ugly is the part I enjoy the most. That is heading into tough inner city communities and reasoning with the people. Whether Jungle, Tivoli, Waterhouse, Mountain View, Mocho or Bedward Gardens. I respect their survival. When a few of the politicians or private sector people are being difficult about availing of their time I sometimes quip, “Hey there are some poor people out there who will be glad to talk to me and I happy to speak to them. Have a good day!”
When you are covering a story, do you feel that your role is just to tell the story?
AFH: For news, you tell the story and give appropriate context regardless of your views. You have to be unemotive and disconnected enough to do that. However, part of what I do is commentary though – because I do co-hosting from time to time and analysis is very key to that aspect of my work.
In particular, around election time, we did hear of death threats reaching you— even an alleged ‘stoning’ incident at Parliament. What is it like working under that cloud that people out there want to hurt you?
AFH: That was a pebble that hit me really. Didn’t hurt and I didn’t want to make a big deal of it but Cliff and the team felt very strongly that an end should be put to the stream of vitriol that was coming my way from one particular camp, if even to prevent another Journalist in this country from going through that.
People would message me and say do not come to this event they are planning to attack you. Once a man turned up at PNP HQ and told my colleague Rohan Powell he is here to “box Abka down”. Also after leaving the press conference I saw my name written in what appeared to be bloodstains on my car. It could have been ketchup. I haven’t said much of this publicly because I hate being the news and negative attention.
Anyway, Cliff wrote to the PNP President about the series of incidents. To this day she has not said a word in response. I really like her as a person, she oozes charm and charisma and when I met her a few years ago she would remember even the most minor detail of a previous conversation. I respect that she has reached one of the highest office in the land, especially so in a sometimes sexist and classist society, but I am disappointed she didn’t say a word to get the folks who were after me to stop.
Finally the elusive laugh emerges from a light moment on set
You were in the news after being threatened following Vybz Kartel’s trial ? Tell us about that
AFH: One weekend Security at Nationwide reported receiving calls from folks who had some not so nice things to say about what they would do with me. I think those may have been his supporters. He communicated with me via Tom Tavares-Finson though and we were cool. I do listen to his music and I am sure he listens to my reports at 5:00pm if prisoners are allowed radio. We are okay. During the trial while he was being led out of the dock he quipped to me ‘Fitz yu nu si everybody in ya tun prosecutor’. I think he felt he got a raw deal, Prosecutors I am sure feel he got what he deserved. We’ll see how it plays out.
Some in government (JLP or PNP) may have a view of you being a ‘red flag’ or ‘unruly member of the press’ or an ‘antagonist’ even to go as far as a ‘pitbull journalist’. Others may view your reporting as either biased or unfair. Do you consider how you report the news to be editorializing? What are your views on that?
AFH: That is propoganda. I have never done the chase down a person and shove a mic in their face thing. I prefer being dignified. Yeah, some folks will forget that Dudus scandal was first disclosed on Nationwide, or that stories I worked on led to Robertson being under pressure, also Henry and Wint’s resignation. If you ask those guys they probably say I am PNP. Also on the other side rabid supporters may soon forget we were instrumental in holding Ferguson and Azan accountable leading to them being separated from their Ministry due to questionable performance. Those people will say I am a LabouriteBut it is the nature of the work and the country we live in. Too much work is there to be done for me to be preoccupied with who thinks what though.
Which politicians have been your most challenging interviewees?
AFH: Edward Seaga, Omar Davies, Ronald Thwaites and Bruce Golding. They are on point. Shrewd and their use of the language is precise and skillful. I usually prepare when I am going to interview them because if you are not on form you will be quickly embarrassed.
Do you enjoy getting under people’s skin?
AFH: Ha ha sometimes, sometimes not. For example in the case of the outgoing Commissioner of Police sometimes I am surprised he reacts on air so sensitively to questions not intended to get under his skin but he is a good man. His is a job that comes with pressure and I am sure he is trying his best.
Do you find it hard to know who to trust?
AFH: I trust 2 persons and God. That is it. So it is not too hard.
How do you define loyalty?
AFH: Prepared to take what Cham refers to as‘a dozen’ for the other person or the cause at any given time.
What are the top 3 values you hold dearest in your relationships?
AFH: Professional: Courage, Integrity, Accuracy.
Personal: Compassion, Integrity, Loyalty.
What is your mission in life Mr. Fitz-Henley?
AFH: To do a story which gets assistance for a homeless kid who was contemplating suicide and had nothing to eat. He or she gets assistance and turns Prime Minister or Private Sector Organization of Jamaica President or something big …someday or he or she breaks Usain’s records or betters one of Shelly-Ann’s performances. I could retire after that.
Do you have any regrets in life?
AFH: No. Life is there to be lived. Regret is a waste of time.
Has there been any event/story in Jamaica that you would consider a badge of shame for the country? Or where our journalists as a group failed their profession?
AFH: I think the handling, by the powers that be, of the Dudus affair, especially with the lives lost, was a tremendous low point in our history; FINSAC, Green Bay, Street People scandal. Those are a few more.
What reporting have you done that makes you the proudest?
AFH: Disclosing the dead babies scandal because I am of the view that significant effort was put into hiding it. I can’t bring back the children to the affected families or erase their deep pain, wish I could, but at least the story gave mothers who were suffering quietly a voice and have given them a shot at compensation. The then PM addressed the Nation and said the deaths could have been prevented. There was improvement to neo natal facilities in Jamaica and the then PM Simpson Miller apologized.
What makes you happy Abka?
AFH: When I go into the streets and a taximan or a vendor says “yute don’t stop fight fi wi. Wi like weh yu a do”. In that moment I remember …it’s worth it and that is what it is all about. Effecting positive change and being accurate and fair in the process.
Do you sleep?
AFH: Definition of that word please ..what is that? Haha
Any final words?
AFH: No. Silence cannot be misquoted and I have already said a lot.|P|
The views expressed here are solely those of Abka Fitz-Henley in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of PANACHE Magazine.