Farewell to a pioneer – a tribute from the Vanuatu Daily Post

Marc Neil-Jones bows out as Pacific Santa ... but he is a free press legend in Vanuatu. Image: VDP

Report by Dan McGarry, an op-ed in the Vanuatu Daily Post today.

“I have been lucky,” said Marc Neil-Jones in his valedictory speech on Thursday. “I came to Vanuatu only 4 years after cyclone Uma had destroyed the place.

“I came here in 1989 with $8000 and one of those small early Macintosh computers and the first Apple laser printer.”

Out of that Mac came an institution that has effectively defined Vanuatu’s region-leading reputation for media freedom.

Since he arrived in Vanuatu from Papua New Guinea 26 years ago, Marc’s swashbuckling approach to life and his fearless dedication for the truth—to say nothing of his apparently immortal mullet—have created a legend almost bigger than a man can be. We celebrate his life and his achievements today.

The Vanuatu Daily Post ... online today: "First with the news."
The Vanuatu Daily Post … online today: “First with the news.”
The Vanuatu Daily Post … online today: “First with the news.”

If you run a Google search for “Marc Neil-Jones”, the very first image to appear is of a rather punch-drunk man with a bloody nose and a split lip. Marc has gone—literally and metaphorically—toe-to-toe with countless powerful figures in his time. And although his health has suffered of late, he has emerged the victor in every confrontation.He has been deported, imprisoned, beaten… and threatened with lawsuits so often that he reacts to each new lawyer’s letter with nothing more than a quiet smile, like someone hearing news of an old friend.

Some claim that he’s drunk kava with more prime ministers than any other man. In his time away from the office his raillery and joie-de-vivre left many young women breathless and, often enough, scandalised.

But he brought that same passion and intensity to his work. Without his unique mix of affability and panache, it’s doubtful that the media in Vanuatu would have evolved as it has.

Many exploits
His friends and colleagues may choose to remember Marc’s many exploits, or his spontaneous, finger-waving harangues on the topic of the moment. But his legacy runs deeper than many people appreciate.

Back in 1993, Marc Neil-Jones persuaded then-Prime Minister Maxime Carlot Korman to allow him to open a proper newspaper, the first of its kind in Vanuatu.

Until then, only a government rag existed, and its coverage of politics and current events was… staid, to say the least. It was Marc’s taste for scandal and imbroglio that led him into the newspaper business, but it was his deeply-held sense of decency and desire for fairness that created the newspaper you’re reading today.

Marc’s unselfishness is often overlooked. Despite a notable affection for his own voice, he is a careful listener, and is never too proud to pass up a good idea. It’s no accident that his newsroom is packed with talent.

With well over 100 years collective professional experience dating back to before Independence, each and every one of the cast of characters that feed this newspaper every day have learned a thing or two about objectivity, fairness and devotion to the truth from this remarkable man.

Alone, Marc may not be possessed of unerring business acumen, but in 22 years of partnership with local businessman Gene Wong—the two are friends from back in Papua New Guinea—their enterprise has moved from strength to strength. Even in the wake of cyclone Pam’s devastation and the subsequent economic downturn, the Daily Post and Buzz FM remain profitable.

It is impossible to measure the social wealth that this man has helped create. Without a newspaper of record, one could argue that Vanuatu’s path over the years would have been a different one.

Bribery trials
At the height of tension during the recent criminal bribery trials, a Solomon Islands policeman turned to a Ni Vanuatu colleague and said, ‘Mate, if this were Honiara, half the town would be on fire by now.’

But this is Port Vila, not Honiara; and not to put too fine a point on it, if people here have learned to love ethics, fairness and the rule of law, they learned most of it in the pages of the Daily Post.

Marc Neil-Jones has faced increasing health challenges in recent years, and on Thursday, he formally announced his retirement. He is a pioneer, a champion of media freedom and a member of a truly elite—and far too small—club of fearless defenders of the truth in the Pacific islands.

The only thing that keeps this column from ending on a sad note is the knowledge that we who remain at work here will still benefit from this man’s wit and wisdom. We’re glad we’ve got you, Marc.

We owe you everything.

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