A larger-than-life individual
Ira Philip was a newsman who eventually became part of the larger Bermudian story he covered for so many years.
During a career that spanned almost seven decades, his journalistic beats encompassed everything from politics to sport, from cultural history to glittering social events.
But no matter what story he was chasing, he demonstrated the same vigour, tenacity and what’s been called joie de journalism — a hearty delight in his craft, combined with an unfailing determination to do whatever job was at hand to the very best of his ability.
It was this old-school professionalism and reliability paired with open-ended curiosity that made Ira Philip a journalistic constant throughout the changing, and sometimes turbulent, times he reported on.
He embarked on his journalistic career at the old Bermuda Recorder newspaper.
Published from 1925 until 1975 as a “newspaper in the interest of the coloured people of Bermuda”, Philip parlayed a passionate youthful interest in current affairs, a precocious knowledge of local history and his practical abilities as “the fastest Pitman Shorthand Writer on the Island” into an apprenticeship at the Recorder.
Published out of a building near the junction of Court Street and Church Street when Philip joined the staff, he served as both a parliamentary and general news reporter from 1948 through the 1960s.
This period, of course, coincided with the largely peaceful revolution, which led to the emergence of modern Bermuda. Stories touching on everything from racial desegregation to universal suffrage to the introduction of the two-party Westminster political system became fixtures in his daily news diary.
Philip became renowned for his political coverage during this time: his robust reporting was, as he later said, “half editorial and half otherwise”, with a decidedly black slant.
But it wasn’t just the major stories of the day that animated him — the 1959 Theatre Boycott, the promulgation of a new constitution in 1968 and the accompanying arrival of an entirely new political order; the riots that sporadically disrupted Bermuda’s trademark tranquility during an era of accelerated social, political and economic change.
He also enthusiastically pursued stories in more minor keys — human interest and community material that provided the grace notes to the Recorder’s pioneering coverage of a black Bermuda experience that had historically gone under-reported by the island’s other media.
“The Recorder developed a personality and a soul that gave dignity and opportunity to the black people of Bermuda that was not forthcoming from other sources,” he once told local historian and writer Meredith Ebbin. “It celebrated their achievements, mourned their losses, defended their rights and articulated their needs.”
In the 1960s, his time at The Bermuda Recorder overlapped with a new position as news director and, later, station manager at the North Shore-based Capital Broadcasting Company’s ZFB radio and television stations.
One of the first black-owned and operated broadcasting companies in the western hemisphere, businessman Montague Sheppard’s Capital Broadcasting was in some ways to television and radio what the Recorder was to Bermuda’s print media.
But not in every respect.
Philip was proud that ZFB’s news team drew almost exclusively from a Bermudian talent pool and turned its cameras on aspects of life on the island that had not previously received much in the way of coverage from the local broadcast media.
However, unlike the semi-editorialising approach he took to the major issues of the day in the 1950s and early 1960s at the Recorder, a type of advocacy journalism he viewed as an occupational and social necessity given the unsettled times, he adopted a far more impartial style at ZFB.
The times they had a-changed enough for him to oversee a news team that worked on a broad, and broadly inclusive, canvas.
“When I went to broadcasting, I took a different stance,” he once said. “There’s always been this black/white issue in Bermuda, and I realised my competitors were more white than anything else and they expected ZFB to be black — but we came out being neutral.
“In the newsroom, we didn’t care who was making the news that particular day — if it was news, it was news. We’re not talking about stuff that would offend the sensitivities of individuals; it was actually wholesome, community-based news and we didn’t rely on police handouts to fill the airtime.”
This same kind of wide-ranging reportage coloured his work for the weekly Mid-Ocean News when he began contributing to that newspaper starting in the 1980s. The subjects of the pen-portraits he provided were often Bermuda’s unsung and sometimes unnoticed heroes, those whose contributions have done so much to shape the character of our community.
But he also turned his pen to other topics, including historically significant individuals and institutions, and explored some of Bermudian culture’s lesser-known highways, byways and folkways. After the Mid-Ocean News folded in 2009, he brought his popular “Island Notebook” column to The Royal Gazette and it remained a regular fixture in our pages until failing health finally stilled his prolific pen in the early part of 2017.
Ira Philip was many things in his long life — a historian who filled a bookshelf with his volumes on a rich variety of local subjects — including the definitive biography of Bermuda cricket legend Alma “Champ” Hunt, a one-time colleague at the Recorder — a trade unionist; a civil rights activist; a Progressive Labour Party senator; a pillar of Bermuda freemasonry; and, of course, an ardent and unapologetic supporter of his beloved Somerset Cricket Club.
But he saw himself as a journalist above all else — and, rarely seen in public without his notebook and camera, that’s how he was viewed by the majority of Bermudians whose paths he crossed.
And while he certainly never lacked for admirers, Philip was always quick to point out that as a practising journalist in tiny Bermuda, it was all too easy to make enemies.
This was an occupational hazard he viewed as unavoidable given the snug confines and sometimes claustrophobic nature of the community, and it was one he was stoically prepared to endure for the sake of retaining his professional objectivity.
“If I’ve made any enemies, it was [as a] broadcaster because I tried to be non-racial,” he noted in a 1999 interview. “A friend today can be your enemy tomorrow when you’re a journalist, when you’re reporting the news.
“People wanted me to take a stand, they wanted me to be partial … but we just had to be neutral, and that’s a very, very important position to take.
“Now, I just relax and let the hotheads [handle the more controversial issues] … I’m engrossed in other things now.”
Ira Philip’s death this week marks the passing not just of a larger-than-life individual, but also of the largely bygone media era he came to embody. For throughout his long career he not only covered his times, he also made an indelible personal mark on them.
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