“Another one bites the dust,” a blogger tweeted after two more media houses announced plans to lay off their staff last week. Two others, including the Standard Group, have issued redundancy notices.
For media, the last couple of years haven’t been easy; the last two, the worst of all. Up until the Covid-19 pandemic, media seemed to be navigating the terrain brought about by a hostile administration, technological disruption and the changing patterns and preferences of news consumption.
Then the pandemic struck and everything – the gains, the well-thought-out plans - all went up in flames. I joined media in the early years of President Mwai Kibaki’s administration. The next 10 years were glorious, not just for the media, but also for the economy. Media could operate with less and less State encumbrances and since private enterprise was thriving, there was a corresponding growth in media buying.
I recall (with much nostalgia) the push and pull between the Editorial and Commercial department every Thursday afternoon for space and the predatory advert buying from the big advertisers, especially if in the same space like finance and telcos and the FMCGs. In the midst of all (save for the infamous raid on The Standard in 2006) government and media maintained a healthy distance, notwithstanding that the biggest advertisement pie came from government. We all made money in the end and we were all happy. Kenya’s is the touchstone of media across Africa.
When the Uhuru-Ruto administration took over in 2013, it never made it a secret that it considered the media an enemy. They went to media with a wrecking ball - the Government Advertisement Agency (GAA).
GAA was created to distort the political system and tilt public opinion by chilling the freedom of information and expression. Under the guise of saving Sh2 billion government ad spend, Fred Matiangi’s (then ICT CS) brainchild has led to colossal losses as media houses have shrivelled leading to job losses, lost livelihoods and lost opportunity cost to investors.
The world over, government’s role is the provision of basic services that support economic exchange. Nothing else. Students of public policy know too well that government intervention, rather than ensure equity and efficiency, causes distortion due to political corruption and the absence of perfect information in government decision-making.
By and large, media is a public good; the market doesn’t provide public goods at a socially optimal level. The policy decision of the last administration has led to a market failure. Market failures result in an equilibrium that is inefficient and sub-optimal for society.
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Don’t be lied to, media is down, but not yet out. Not that we - media practitioners - are without blame.
“An unthinking press is not good for Singapore,” said Goh Chok-Tang, the successor of the famed founder of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew. He was right.
Media and journalists must move away from the gazement and bewilderment of events and the elites. A media that cannot stand up to the thumping by the political class; that is overawed by the chutzpah and the showmanship of the political class soon loses its moral standing in society.
Why, for example, was media loath to question by the political consensus or the stalemate that held in the last four years or the entrenchment of transactional politics characterised by back-room deal-making and wearisome shadow-boxing?
If the existing social contract doesn’t inspire confidence, allegiance and faith in the political architecture and the Kenyan state, it is partly because media - the Public Watchdog - has been patronising, partisan, out-of-touch and elitist.
But to rejoice and deride media as they navigate a sticky patch, is to invite poor thinking.
For the turmoil in the media is not so much about a media that slept on the job, seemingly bereft of ideas; or that refused to see the bigger picture; or failed to grasp the weight of current affairs and could not interpret key events and therefore, drew naïve conclusions. Nor is it much about who moved our cheese.
We are here because one, the Jubilee administration went out of its way to disassemble the media’ and two, because the economic policies of that administration hollowed out the economy.
-Kipkemboi is Partnerships and Special Projects Editor, Standard Group