It’s not uncommon to hear the public refer to certain journalists as icons or pioneers. Few actually are. Ivan Johnson had the privilege of being both.
The Punch founder, who was feared in political circles, operated with the premise that journalists should be watch dogs, not lap dogs. So, for more than three decades, he and his publication kept guard.
Those in the political arena foolish enough to go to war with a man who bought his ink by the barrel and his paper by the ton, did so at their own peril.
Most people would be surprised to know this, but I have never met Ivan. Not once. In fact, I’ve never even heard his voice.
The first time I saw him was at a Bahamas Press Club award ceremony in 2018 when he received the Pioneer Award for his newspaper. Deservedly so.
I stared at him from a distance and tried to talk myself into going over to say hello. But, the introvert in me took over and I kept my distance. If I’m being honest, I was also gripped by fear.
Ivan hired me in December 2017 on a trial run. I had approached The Punch with the idea of writing a humour column. I love satire and wanted the opportunity to flex my creative muscles on a new platform. But, I knew I couldn’t do that type of writing just anywhere.
I needed to be in an environment that was not only creative, but courageous – one that would allow me to speak truthfully and fearlessly without feeling I would be reprimanded for pissing off the wrong politician.
I knew this type of work would not be at home anywhere but The Punch.
Ivan gave me six months. If I could develop an audience in that time, I could stay.
I didn’t even need six months.
During the early days, I kept expecting to get a call or email reprimanding me for something I wrote. I’ve worked in news organisations where stories were routinely killed not because they were inaccurate, but because some politician didn’t like what was said, so I figured The Punch would be no different. I am so happy to report that that call never came.
Ivan allowed me to speak – or rather, write – boldly, so long as it was factual. And if that truth came with a slice of humour, all the better.
I recall dropping off a Christmas card thanking him for giving me the privilege of writing for his paper – the very paper that esteemed colleagues like Nicki Kelly and the late, great P. Anthony White had written for.
I was over the moon to hear reports that Ivan really enjoyed reading my columns. It was the ultimate endorsement of my talent because it was coming from a man who was not only extremely gifted with the pen, but worked for some of the top newspapers in the UK.
It also came from a man who pulled no punches when it came to telling you how he really felt.
A Polarising Figure
There was no middle ground with Ivan. You either loved him or you hated him. The pendulum swung wide.
He was revered by those who demanded accountability from our leaders and hated by those unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of his pen. No one was immune.
Even the highbrow who felt it was beneath them to be caught with a copy of The Punch couldn’t help but sneak glances of the front page or hide away in their offices scouring through the ever salacious Grapevine, to make sure they weren’t fodder for that week’s publication.
Many knew Ivan’s work, but he was quite enigmatic. For years, while working as a news reporter and subsequently, an editor, my news team, would reach out to him for interviews. He always respectfully declined. Even his talk show host friends had no luck getting him in front of a microphone. It added to his mystique.
I even remember media colleagues asking one another if they had ever met him.
He Was Truly Fearless
When you print the truth you’re bound to make a lot of enemies. And if you print their personal business or expose their corruption, even worse.
Politicians weren’t the only ones who found themselves in The Punch’s pages. Journalists, civil servants, drug kingpins and low-level street thugs also got the front page treatment complete with alliterative headline.
As a result, Ivan received his fair share of death threats. In 2013, police were called to the newspaper’s Farrington Road headquarters to detonate a hand grenade that was thrown into The Punch’s building. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
Ivan was a disrupter, a thinker and a real newsman. Many critics foolishly discount The Punch’s contribution to Bahamian history and its culture because it’s a tabloid. But, it was that tabloid that broke some of this nation’s most groundbreaking stories.
How I Learned Of Ivan’s Passing
Monday evening, I got a call from my brother asking if I had heard any news that Ivan had died. He wasn’t sure, but was hearing whispers of his passing.
Panic immediately set in. I started texting everyone I knew for answers. While reaching out to my Punch family, a family friend confirmed the news. It was true.
I felt numb. Absolutely numb. The news felt surreal. Many of you won’t believe this, but just two weeks ago, Ivan popped into my head. I don’t know why.
As I mentioned earlier, I had never spoken to him, nor did we know each other personally. But, there he was on my mind.
While thinking about him, I started to wonder what would happen to The Punch when he died. It was such a weird thing to contemplate, especially considering it came out of nowhere.
This publication today is a testament to the well-oiled machine that Ivan has left in his wake. I don’t know what the future holds, but Ivan left behind seasoned professionals, talented staff and writers who are capable of ensuring his legacy lives on and that The Punch remains this nation’s watchdog.
I want to send my sincere condolences to the entire Johnson family and to The Punch family. They are hurting.
I suspect many of his foes are today breathing a collective sigh of relief. But, so many more are in mourning over this loss. I happen to be one of them.
Ivan, thank you for giving me and so many other Bahamians the opportunity of a lifetime. Maybe in another life I’ll have the courage to come over and say hello.
Your legend will never die. You read it here first.