From a small, east London council flat in 1982, Val McCalla started the weekly newspaper, the Voice, which went on become the mouthpiece of Britain’s black community and made him a multi-millionaire.
Launched at the Notting Hill Carnival that August, it grew into the most popular and important black newspaper in this country.
From initial sales of only 4,000, within eight years the Voice was selling more than 53,000 copies a week – and turning over a small fortune in job recruitment advertising.
Its birth was an inspired vision by McCalla. He saw that Britain’s national press gave scant coverage to black issues – and that when it did, it was usually negative.There were a couple of black-orientated publications which appealed to an older generation of Caribbean immigrants, whose notion of “home” lay thousands of miles away. But for a younger generation of British-born blacks, there was nothing.
McCalla identified the emerging culture of the black British identity and honed it into tabloid form.
Helped with start-up money from the Greater London Council, his paper quickly established itself as an important campaigner against all forms of racism. For local authorities, and voluntary sector organisations concerned about the lack of ethnic minorities in their ranks, it became a valuable recruitment tool. This led to pages of job advertising.
The job of campaigning black newspaper publisher was far removed from McCalla’s early ambitions. He studied accountancy at Kingston College in Jamaica, and arrived in England in May 1959, aged 15, with dreams of being a pilot.
He joined the R.A.F, but his plans were soon grounded by a perforated eardrum. He spent five years in the supplies section, where he picked up book-keeping skills.
After leaving the R.A.F in the mid-1960s, he worked in a variety of accounts and book-keeping positions, before volunteering to go part-time on a radical community newspaper, “East End News”, based near his flat in Bethnal Green.
The newspaper bug took a grip, and, within a few years, “The Voice” had risen from idea into reality.
Despite considerable financial success, McCalla lived a modest life and kept a low profile; there was no vast country mansion or Italian sports car. After being stopped by police several times in his Sussex neighborhood, he traded in his Mercedes for a Volvo and lamented that, despite his money, he was like many other black males in Britain, still a victim of prejudice.
Today his legacy stretches further than the pages of his newspaper. Many of the black journalists working in mainstream media today got their first break at the Voice. Among them are the television reporter Martin Bashir and the senior programme producer Sharon Ali. People met and got married through the personal pages of the Voice. People found employment via recruitment adverts. Institutionally racist organisations were put under pressure. Yet, more that anything else, black Britons were given a National voice for the very first time.
Val McCalla died on August 22, 2002 of liver failure.