Farewell my dear friend

Marc Wadsworth

I knew the late journalist Sarah Olowe for 20 years. She died in London, after a sudden illness, on December 22, aged 45.

Sarah was not only a trade union colleague in the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) but a friend. When I first met her, I was taken aback by her grace and style. Sarah's character was as intricate as her signature finely-braided hair. She reminded me of one of those beautiful priceless Benin bronzes from Nigeria, her country of origin.

Sarah, a philosophy graduate, had the mind of a lawyer and the pen of a first class journalist. She was forthright, brave and feisty.

As activists in the London Television branch and the union's race relations working party - before we managed to get rid of its patronising title and turn it into the Black Members Council  — we quickly bonded and formed a close working relationship. Sarah went on to Chair the Black Members' Council. Her commitment to the advancement of Black journalists was second to none. She also chaired the NUJ's Equality Council and was a member of the Ethics Council and Broadcasting Industrial Council.

Sarah magnanimously handed over the baton of Chair of the Black Members Council to me. Unfortunately, at a time of sectarianism in the NUJ, we both had to battle against a clique of men who took control of the Black Members' Council. The careerist leader of this gang, Jim Boumelha, went on to become the President of the International Federation of Journalists.

Sarah backed my successful campaign to get on the NUJ's ruling National Executive and I supported her when she also got elected to it and later her bid to become the union's first Black female deputy general secretary  — which she so nearly pulled off against all the odds.

I greatly admired Sarah's refusal to fit the stereotype some white people have of Black women. She wasn't ghetto, spoke crystal-clear BBC English, loved champagne, and also had a fondness for horse riding and the delicious dim sum Chinese bites to which she introduced me. Sarah also liked classical music and socialising.

She was a BBC Radio 4 reporter and presenter, on programmes including Today in Parliament and, as a freelance, wrote features for the Financial Times, Sunday Times, Caribbean Times. In 1990, the book she edited, Against the Tide, about the experiences of Black people in the Inner London Education Authority in London, was published. She was also editor of Facing the Challenge, a record of a convention held by Black British councillors.

Sarah reported from Nigeria, South Africa, USA, China, Switzerland and Japan. Amid all the trade union politicking in which Sarah and I were involved, we also found time to be good friends. That's when I discovered Sarah generosity towards her friends and colleagues.

She fearlessly fought many battles against race and sex discrimination which benefited others. Once, when I was unexpectedly dropped by BBC World Television as one of their on-screen press reviewers Sarah  — who was an assistant producer on the programme  — put her job at risk by tipping me off that someone had put on the computer system  'do not use' against my name.

Sarah's whistle-blowing allowed me to fight the BBC, through the NUJ, and win an apology and compensation for this gross act of political censorship at a time when I had a high profile as an anti-racist campaigner.
Some time later, when the BBC refused to renew Sarah's fixed term contract, she took the corporation to an employment tribunal. As ever, Sarah did not see her struggle against the Beeb in solely personal terms but broadened it out to include other Black people.

She pointed out that Radio 4 had no core Black presenters and certainly, until Sarah had worked on the flag ship station, no Black freelance ones either.

Sarah told me that she was Radio Four's second Black presenter after Moira Stewart, more than 10 years before her. Zeba Khan was the third Black presenter but lasted less than a year before getting the sack.
The reason Olowe was given by Radio Four bosses for their failure to re-use her was that her voice was not suitable. But she countered, at the tribunal:  "In my experience claiming that someone's voice is not suited to Radio Four is their general catch-all excuse which is used as and when it suits Radio Four. This excuse is never usually used once someone is already doing the job …"

She added:  "You never hear a West Country, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Jamaican or Indian accent reading Radio Four News. Any accents which are heard are very mild. Radio Four is supposed to present on behalf of the nation. I do speak Radio Four-ese so I would like to know what their real excuse is."

I jumped at the chance when Sarah asked me to write a testimonial and get publicity for her legal battle against Chicago's Drake hotel, in the Hilton group, whose security had held her in a room and threatened to strip search her. It was appalling treatment for a dignified, proud Black woman, and she eventually won thousands of pounds in compensation, after a long legal battle.

My words about Sarah then are just as relevant now when I paid tribute to her as an accomplished writer and broadcaster who was highly respected in journalism. Sarah's breadth of skills as an author, contributor to newspapers and magazines, radio and television won the admiration of colleagues and the public alike. She was a pioneer for Black people in mainstream radio and television where she held positions of considerable journalistic responsibility.

Farewell, Sarah. You may have left the material world, as my mother would say, but you have gone to a better place. After the funeral last month, Sarah's younger sister, Grady, consoled me with poignant words, just like my dear friend would have. She said:  "Her existence in this space as we know her is over. I know, I saw the shell that housed Sarah's spirit, mind and thoughts put into the ground. But, of course the repercussions of her life are still with us."

Your deeds and indomitable spirit will live on forever, particularly in your beloved son.