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Falling down on the job

By Benson Riungu | Apr 20th 2014 | 3 min read

By Benson Riungu

The other day, a fellow columnist called, with the observation that during my day, journalists must have been a crazy lot, going by the accounts that have been appearing in his column.

I could have added that in the 1970s, 1980s, and to some extent the 1990s, the newspapers I had the fortune — or misfortune, depending on your ethical or moral standpoint — to work for were staffed by some pretty wild characters.

But even in the permissive environment of those days, some people stood out for their outlandish behaviour. Take the case of one character at The Standard, who somehow had managed to get himself promoted to the sensitive position of deputy news editor.

The news editor’s judgement and industry are crucial to the paper’s quality. His sense of responsibility largely determines whether production meets the deadlines and the time the newspaper goes to the market.

Our friend, the deputy news editor may have been good storyteller, and was certainly a great fellow to get drunk with, but his sense of judgement was a total failure.

This was a fact the newspaper’s bosses learned at great cost one day during that year’s Idd celebrations. The news editor was off duty, and the deputy was supposed to be in charge of the ‘desk’.

The workday normally started at 9am, when the person in charge of the news desk was expected to assign stories to the reporters. At that time, writers worked from Adamali House near the ‘Globe’ roundabout, and after the stories were typed, they were sent by telex to the main newsroom on Likoni Road in Industrial Area.

By 10am, our friend had not arrived, but there was no cause for alarm yet; it was assumed that the fellow was nursing a hangover. But panic was certainly beginning to creep in by the time he swaggered in well after midday, dressed in a kanzu and Muslim’s cap.

No one could accuse the deputy of being particularly religious, but it had been assumed that he was a Christian, at least by association. It was a surprise, therefore, when he announced that he was late because he had been attending prayers at the mosque. To show respect for the holy day, he declared a day off for the reporters, drivers, tea boy and messenger; they could go to jienjoy.

Meanwhile, over at Likoni Road, the chief sub-editor, a mousy Englishman who looked nervous at the best of times, was getting worried that not a single story had come over the telex by early afternoon, not even the ‘overnights’.

When he called the news desk to inquire what was happening, the deputy responded by ratcheting up the radio’s volume and aiming the noise into the telephone’s mouthpiece.

It took a while for the poor chief sub to recover from the assault on his eardrum, and it was quite some time before he gathered the courage to place another call. This time, the deputy deigned to take the call, and briskly informed the fellow at the other end that he was speaking to the scion of Mau Mau freedom fighters in a free country, who would not lick a white man’s backside.


At his wits’ end, the chief sub appealed upstairs for assistance. The chief editor at the time was the venerable Henry Gathigira, a man who went out of his way to avoid unpleasantness. But it was going on to 4pm, and there was not a single story from the town newsroom. The sub editors had been marking time working on foreign stories from the wire and the Kenya News Agency (KNA).

Clearly, Gathigira had a crisis on his hands, and unpleasant as the task was, he had to act. When he called the news desk, instead of an explanation, he got a lecture about Africans in senior positions who were suffering from a colonial hangover.

In the event, the following day’s paper went out only with stories from the wire and KNA. Idd fell on a Friday that year, and it is perhaps the only time in the history of Kenyan journalism that human resource staff have been summoned on a Saturday to summarily dismiss an employee.

Next week, more along similar lines.

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