Trevor Phillips 'bigs up' Guyana in lecture at Coventry Cathedral
- tells story of quick flight of his big brother Ron from Burnham's Guyana
By John Mair in London
February 6, 2007
One of the leading figures in British public life, Trevor Phillips last Thursday delivered the Inaugural Coventry Cathedral lecture on 'The Media and Morality' to an audience of some 400. Phillips, now chair of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, is of Guyanese origin and was educated in Guyana. He made much of that in his controversial speech. Much of the talk was concerned with berating some of the British media, and Channel Four in particular, for their woeful weak reaction to the recent 'racist' row in 'Celebrity Big Brother' involving an Indian Bollywood actress and three white English women. He called for the Channel Four management to shape up or ship out if they were not to take responsibility for their own programmes.
But he set it all in the context of his Guyanese heritage and his experiences as a schoolboy at Queen's College, Georgetown "the finest school there or we like to think anywhere", he claimed. His point was to show how: "In the UK our stability and democratic safeguards can often make us forget what a serious business politics is. But I grew up with politics that understood how crucial it was that citizens had the right version of reality." A different reality to that on British television screens.
Phillips experienced Bunham's repressive methods at firsthand on several occasions. Once was when he initiated a school strike and was led-at gunpoint-to air his grievances to the country's then education minister Shirley Field-Ridley. His delegation was locked in military barracks while waiting to be summoned to her presence. "This early experience made me rather keen on politics," he told his audience of Coventry University staff, students and others "and may be the source of what some think is my rather gung ho attitude to public affairs."
Worse was the experience of his oldest brother Ron Phillips who returned to Guyana to become Forbes Burhnam's chief information officer. "He half jokingly referred to himself as the chief censor," Phillips remarked. "My brother was a man of great intellectual ability and devastating charm. There are those who believed he could become one of the leaders of our country. I too rather thought that was possible." So far, so good until Ron fell out with LFS-the Kabaka.
The teenage Phillips's suspicions should have been aroused when his mother and his aunt, who lived with Ron, quietly moved to New York. They were quickly followed overnight by a fleeing Ron. "He left Guyana pretty much overnight, and secretly, with just the clothes he stood up inā€¦..it isn't too hard to guess why a popular public figure living in a dictatorship flees without ceremony," Phillips intoned from the Coventry Cathedral pulpit. "It eventually became clear to me that the censor had himself been censured for failing to ensure that the media told the right story for the government." This very prominent son of Guyana has never before, to the knowledge of this writer, told that personal story in public.
On the more positive side of the modern Guyana and its diaspora, he saluted the fellow achievers among the so called Guyanese mafia in the UK: Lord Alli, Lady Amos, Lord Ouseley, Colleen Harris, Eddy Grant and Mark Ramprakash. Phillips, unlike others, was not for shying away from the 'mafia' moniker even though "it is true from time to time people who run into one or the other of our number meet some misfortune, but people are sometimes unlucky aren't they?" he joked.
The Capo di tutti Capi of the GM continued with the analogy saying that John Mair "my old friend and colleague" who had invited him to deliver this lecture, was the "Mario Puzo of the Guyanese mafia-a sort of licensed chronicler."
The audience in this most serene of settings was truly multicultural: black, brown white and yellow; the real world, however intruded as the background noise outside the Cathedral was provided by the whirr of police helicopters accompanying a convoy of jail vans taking three alleged British Muslim terrorists, arrested pre-dawn the day before in Birmingham, to the local magistrates court to be arraigned for further questioning.
Whatever the noises off, Trevor Phillips is never afraid to speak his mind on either the media or morality. For that, he was mobbed by well wishers after the speech.