[This article was written for the Commonwealth Journalists Association and shared with the Round Table.]
The death of Patsy Robertson on 18 August 2020, only two years after the death of her friend Derek Ingram, is a reminder of how much Commonwealth journalism owes to a handful of stalwarts who see enduring value in the Commonwealth and the power of free, honest expression. However unlike Derek, Patsy, a Jamaican, was only briefly a journalist.
After graduating in New York at the end of the fifties, she was taken on as a young reporter in Kingston by the Jamaica Gleaner where her charm and energy won friends. It was a period when reporters would go down to the harbour to interview celebrities, shipping in from London and New York. But with independence in 1962 other opportunities beckoned. She joined the newly established Jamaican High Commission in London as an information officer and from there, three years later, she was lured to the new Commonwealth Secretariat by Arnold Smith, first Secretary-General.
This was an inspired move. For almost 30 years, under three Secretaries-General, she was the voice of the Commonwealth, establishing rapport with journalists throughout the world, supporting young ones, and notably working as the spokesperson of Shridath Ramphal in his epic battles with the Thatcher government over Rhodesia-Zimbabwe and apartheid South Africa. Just as you knew that information from Bernard Ingham was as good as talking to Margaret Thatcher, so if you listened to Patsy Robertson you could trust that it was precisely what Ramphal thought.
She rose to be head of information at the Secretariat, but never lost her affinity with journalists. She was with Ramphal at the Dalhousie University conference in 1978, of Commonwealth professionals, which led Ingram, Patrick Keatley and others to found the CJA. She supported Derek in finding solutions for his Gemini News Service, when it temporarily ceased publication, and she managed the Commonwealth Media Development Fund to train young journalists. In all this she remained affable, amusing, elegant.
After retiring from the Secretariat in the early 90s she had another spell in New York, a city she loved, doing information work for UN Women, attending the Beijing women’s conference in 1995. But she never really retired, chairing trustees of the Ramphal Institute from 2007 until her death, active on widows’ rights, trustee variously of the Thomson Foundation and the Commonwealth Press Union Trust, and much-loved Chair of the Commonwealth Association, the body of former employees of the Commonwealth Secretariat and Foundation.
She was passionate for developing countries, and also a huge admirer of the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth. Until very recently she refused to obtain a British passport, her commitment to Jamaica requiring her to trudge round European consulates whenever she wanted to cross the Channel. Where others saw civil society links as the road to the survival of the Commonwealth she emphasised the importance of governments, and the collective decisions of governments. She was saddened by the withering away of Meetings of Heads of Government, recalling the lengthy informal discussions they had in the 70s and 80s.
She died just ten days short of her 87th birthday, leaving three adult children and one grandson; her husband predeceased her. Tributes have poured in since her death, with people recalling acts of kindness, her sense of humour, and all they had learnt from her. Working with her at the Ramphal Institute I was one of the many beneficiaries of her friendship and knowledge. Sir Shridath Ramphal, writing immediately after news reached him in Barbados, summed up the feelings of many – ”The Commonwealth sky clouded over as Patsy Robertson left us an hour ago.”
Patsy Robertson obituary – The Guardian UK (added on 26/08/2020)
Patsy Robertson Remembered For Eloquence, Competence, Charm – Jamaica Gleaner (added September 2020)
Editorial | Patsy Robertson – A Doyen Of Diplomacy And Press Freedom – Jamaica Gleaner (added September 2020)
If ever someone deserved to be honoured by Jamaica, it’s Patsy Robertson – Richard Bernal, Jamaica Observer (added September 2020)
Scrutinising the Commonwealth future again – June 2020
Derek Ingram remembered – November 2018
Patsy Robertson takes part in a Round Table discussion on the UK, the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Summit 2018 – From 2017
Patsy Robertson writes for the Round Table – Bishnodat (Vishnu) Persad, the Ramphal years and the Caribbean – 2016