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  Val Irvine McCalla (1943–2002), by Lennox Smillie Val Irvine McCalla (1943–2002), by Lennox Smillie
McCalla, Val Irvine (1943–2002), newspaper publisher, was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on 3 October 1943, the son of Jocelyn McCalla, tailor. He was educated at Kingston College, one of Jamaica's more prestigious secondary schools. He left, however, at the age of fifteen, before the round of exams which would have taken the more academically able pupils on to higher education. Instead he migrated to Britain, where he arrived in 1959. His first step was to join the Royal Air Force. He said later that a perforated eardrum ended his dream of being a pilot, but his lack of academic qualifications may also have been a barrier. In the event he worked for five years in RAF supplies and in the process picked up some bookkeeping skills. On 5 April 1962, aged eighteen, he married the nineteen-year-old Diane Samuels, daughter of Samuel Samuels, hairdresser, of Stepney, east London. They had two sons.

After leaving the RAF in the mid-1960s McCalla worked in a variety of bookkeeping and accountancy positions. His big break came in the late 1970s, when his son David went to work for the East End News, a radical newspaper based in the docklands area of east London. McCalla lived in Bethnal Green, and he soon volunteered for a part-time post in the office, later taking on the role of editor of the newspaper's ‘black’ section, ‘Black Voices’. After 1979 the Conservative Party held decisive sway in parliament, the political left was in disarray, and London's ‘municipal socialists’ were desperately casting about for allies in their struggle to oppose Thatcherism. McCalla saw his opportunity in this environment. When East End News reached a funding crisis in 1982 McCalla left, and together with some of the former staff set up The Voice in Bow.

In its early years The Voice barely matched the circulation of its closest rivals, the Westindian World and the Caribbean Times. On the other hand, the Westindian World was racked by internal rivalries, lacked advertising revenue, and was enmeshed in expensive lawsuits. The situation of the Caribbean Times was marginally healthier, but the political interests of its backers meant that its content was dominated by news about the politics of the Caribbean, the Middle East, and southern Africa. In addition, both of these papers were uninhibited about printing stories critical of discriminatory practices in various local authorities; and both were extremely sceptical about local politicians' appeals for black support. The Voice, by comparison, had no prior commitments to the politics of the black communities, and consequently was able to adopt a stance which focused largely on gossip and news items about black showbiz figures. Its supporters on the ‘Town Hall left’, alienated by the militancy and unreliability of The Voice's rivals, embraced McCalla's business-oriented approach with relief. For the first few years The Voice owed its existence to the financial backbone established by revenue from local authority advertising, along with the support and aid of Ken Livingstone's Greater London council. The quid pro quo was an uncomplicated support for the municipal left, and an avoidance of issues which brought black people into conflict with their town halls. The Voice's later claim to a campaigning reputation was established after its move to Brixton and in particular following its publication of a picture of the body of Wayne Douglas, a young black man who died in police custody in 1995; The Voice was then widely accused of inciting the riots which broke out the following night. Even then the paper's radicalism was largely at the expense of the Metropolitan Police force, which had become vulnerable to criticism throughout the decade.

By the mid-1980s The Voice, buoyed up by its municipal backing, was the dominant force in the market for black publications. This still did not represent huge numbers. It took another few years, for instance, for sales to reach 50,000. McCalla's strategy for increasing circulation was to adopt the style and content of a tabloid like The Sun, while allying the paper with the attitudes of black youths in the local street culture. Typically, The Voice presented a hostile or indifferent face to any black individuals or organizations which it could describe as ‘middle class’. The strategy was a two-edged sword. The Voice could claim to ‘speak for’ disadvantaged black youth in the inner cities. As a result it continued to benefit hugely from the support of the municipal left, and from the growing patronage of corporate salesmen engaged in expanding the pop culture market for their products. At the same time, the paper's style and content placed it at a distance from the aspirations of their parents, and alienated the ambitious young black people who were increasingly part of the inner-city student population. For most of its life The Voice had little time for the activities of black British politicians, campaigners, activists, or artists, preferring instead to interpret ‘black success’ in terms of its headlines about African-American showbiz figures. McCalla's indifference to the resulting frustration provoked a serious crisis, when a staff member, Joe Harker, left to start his own paper. Harker had a clear perception of the gap in the market and his paper, the Black Briton, was designed to appeal to those elements McCalla had dismissed. This was more or less what McCalla himself had done in the previous decade, but he viewed Harker's defection as disloyal and he set out to destroy the Black Briton's prospects by starting a broadsheet, the Weekly Journal, to serve the same niche market. After the Black Briton collapsed the Weekly Journal was quietly abandoned.

The Voice made McCalla a millionaire. He fostered an impression of ruthless business efficiency by his arbitrary behaviour, and he was a famously unpredictable boss. At various times he owned a boat, and a racehorse (named after the American singer Catfish Keith), and arrived at the paper's offices in Brixton in a Mercedes driven by a white chauffeur. His most successful editor, Steve Pope, described him as having ‘a bit of the black Citizen Kane’ in him (The Guardian, 24 Aug 2002). It is hard, however, to avoid the conclusion that he simply had no idea what to do with the resources created by the exercise of his own opportunism. Outside of the cushion of local authority financing which guaranteed The Voice's existence, all his other business ventures failed. He started a glossy magazine, Chic, which soon folded. He bought another glossy, Pride, then sold it when it failed to establish itself. His sheer dependence on local authority advertising was highlighted in the wake of The Voice's attack on the footballer Justin Fashanu, who announced in 1990 that he was gay. Adopting a tone of sneering condemnation, The Voice interviewed Fashanu's brother John, who condemned his lifestyle. The local councils which had supported the paper for so long objected to the homophobia of the coverage, and threatened to withdraw their advertising. McCalla capitulated immediately, and as a symbol of his contrition sacrificed his editor, Steve Pope.

McCalla's legacy was ambiguous and in some ways deeply troubling. His business acumen was displayed in the shrewdness with which he secured the paper's finances and gave it a populist position which commanded the loyalty of his backers and attracted new ones. Nevertheless The Voice was perceived in many quarters as the cheerleader for a process in which a large swathe of society began to take young black people as a metaphor for the most unpleasant aspects of pop and street culture—guns, drugs, homophobia, and sexism—and the self-image it seemed to be peddling to the black communities isolated them within the boundaries of this marginal world.

McCalla loyalists pointed to The Voice's role in providing an important point of reference for black people who wished to enter the media. It is true that the paper's backbone consisted of talented black graduates such as Pope, and the sociologist Tony Sewell. It wasn't unusual, either, for black journalism students to pitch up at The Voice looking for (poorly paid) freelance work or voluntary work experience. However, the majority of black workers in the mainstream media came through different routes—local radio and TV, specialist magazines, or BBC and higher education training schemes. Ironically, Joe Harker, whose Black Briton McCalla had elbowed out of the market, went on to work for The Guardian, helping to institute the most sympathetic and knowledgeable coverage of ethnic minority issues in the mainstream press. In comparison, the most successful of McCalla's former staff tended to have been graduates who had their origins or upbringing outside of the centres where the majority of black people lived; and, as it turned out, their practice and subsequent careers frequently displayed little sympathy or solidarity with the majority of the black population. For them, The Voice seems to have been a stepping stone in their careers, rather than an outlet for the issues which affected the black communities. This was a trajectory encouraged by McCalla's own attitudes. He had no obvious social or philosophical connections to any formal or informal groupings within the black community, and he made no apparent effort to cultivate them. He became rich because of his relationship to the black communities, but he made no perceptible effort to help in the building of an infrastructure to support black business and cultural activities. His headquarters were within yards of Brixton's drug-dealing arena, but he seemed indifferent to his paper's potential for moral leadership. There is no doubt, however, that his brainchild, The Voice, was a major achievement which challenged and altered attitudes to black people in the media and beyond, and helped to insert a new and vital strand into Britain's cultural industries.

McCalla's first marriage ended in divorce, and on 23 June 1990 he married Linda Dhesi, a 26-year-old secretary, and daughter of Parkash Dhesi, engineer. They had two daughters. After their birth McCalla spent more time at home, in Seaford, Sussex, and was less closely involved in the day-to-day running of his newspaper. He died on 22 August 2002 at Eastbourne District General Hospital of a gastrointestinal haemorrhage and cirrhosis of the liver. He was survived by his wife, Linda, their two daughters, and the two sons of his first marriage. He left an estate valued at almost £7 million.

Mike Phillips

Sources  

The Guardian (24 Aug 2002) · The Voice (25 Aug 2002) · The Times (27 Aug 2002) · The Independent (29 Aug 2002) · personal knowledge (2006) · private information (2006) · m. certs. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, interview with F. Dennis, H713/01


Likenesses  

L. Smillie, photograph, Camera Press, London [see illus.] · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£6,960,530: probate, 12 Aug 2003, CGPLA Eng. & Wales