When mass media is put to death, who should cry?

Every so often, everyone experiences a W H Auden Funeral Blues Moment. Sometimes it is a personal tragedy. But, occasionally, it is a collective wider disaster. 

John Donne (1572–1631) says, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

A blow against the mass media vibrates beyond individual media entities. It is a blow against society itself.

It is difficult not to interpret this week’s Kenya government circular restricting State advertising to one media house as an intentional blow against the independent media, for perceived sins. 

Yet, it is a collective tragedy. Nobody; not even the apparent beneficiary, should find any level of comfort in it.

Of course Chinua Achebe writes of collective tragedy in Things Fall Apart, “A proud heart can survive a general failure, because such a tragedy does not prick its pride. It is difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.”

Universal tragedy, regardless, is a monumental disaster. It reminds us of grief in Auden’s elegy “Stop all the clocks.” Also known as, “Funeral Blues” Stop all the clocks is a portrait of the immensity of collective grief.  

Such moments call upon us to “stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.”

They invite us to silent reflection about our circumstances.  

They call upon us to “prevent the dog from barking, with a juicy bone; silence the pianos, and bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.”

We are asked to “let aeroplanes circle, moaning overhead, scribbling the sky with the message, ‘He is dead,’” and to “put crepe bows round the white necks of public doves.”

Even the police are invited to share in this collective grief, by “wearing black cotton gloves.”

Whatever prompted Auden to write such tragic and pithy verse in the 1930s, it remains relevant, nearly a century later. But it has ominous twists.

Society’s watchdogs are either silenced with juicy bones or, alternatively, put to death. 

The clocks that should tell us about our times are stopped; the phones silenced. The message must go everywhere, “He is dead.”

But who dies, when the watchdog that is the mass media is put to death? Who should cry? Is it just the perceived beneficiaries from a particular media house, or is it a wider public tragedy? 

You see, advertising is at once the fuel, coolant and oil that keeps the media house running.

To remove it is to place the house on the death row. If, in the process, the State creates a couple of official mouthpieces as the only entities allowed to survive, then society should be very afraid.

All the terrible things unchecked power can do lie in wait. It is the starting whistle for a tragic rat race between the empire and all agents of freedom. But it is a war against freedom itself. In history, the objective has been to remove good governance and scrutiny. 

History demonstrates that the blow will eventually move from one institution to the next, and from one person to the next.

We are reminded of the Nazi torture chambers Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), reflecting about his tragedy. 

“First they came for socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for trade unionists, and I did not speak out . . . Then they came for Jews... Then they came for me...”

The State may wish to reflect on the democratic gains the country has made over the years and rescind their reversal and negation.

If not, Kenya must with Auden, “Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, pour away the ocean, sweep the wood, for nothing now can ever come to good.” 

Dr Muluka is a strategic communications advisor