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Our media industry can build this country – or pull it down

Few countries in history have enjoyed meaningful economic development without having a vibrant media sector. Why? Because the instruments of mass communication are one of the key enablers of political freedom, which in turn is one of the keys that unlock economic growth.

The best development happens in an environment of freedom and transparency. We must be free to put all the players in the economy under intense scrutiny. We must be able to observe the deals and decisions that affect our economic well-being. With scrutiny comes trust. A society whose members can transact on a basic presumption of trust and openness is a healthy society.

The media are one of our only guarantors of transparency in this country. We cannot trust politicians and civil servants to guarantee transparency, left to themselves. They simply do not have the incentive to provide it; if anything, they have far more to gain from cultivating a secret garden of intrigue surrounded by the high walls of silence.

We know this to be true. Successive financial scandals, in the Kanu as well as Narc governments, have only seen the light of day because of the strength and vigour of our media sector. A journalist with a keen nose would get the whiff of wrongdoing, a brave editor would allow the leads to be followed, and gradually the truth would emerge. Without these institutions and people in place, I wonder where we would be now.

Kenyans are today enjoying the heady benefits of a healthy media industry. Lots of choice; brave journalists who venture into the nooks and crannies of government; and the ability to interact on talk shows and phone-ins. We can scrutinise and criticise our leaders. We have the information with which to upbraid them and reject them at the polls. We feel empowered and feel like we have ownership, finally, of the issues facing this country.

But what explains our obsession with politics in this country? Why do we care so much about political alliances, deals, horse trading and betrayals? Why do editors appear to believe that only politics sells in this land? Why are our newspapers and TV shows filled with the arcane details of political intrigue?

I have two reasons to offer. One is that politics and politicians have been singularly responsible for the retardation of this country. We know we are on the scrap heap because of our politicians. We know, therefore, that we must observe these animals very, very carefully, before they ruin us again.

Secondly, politics has become the reality TV of this country. Politicians provide us with a uniquely disturbed social grouping to observe, deride, and mock. We cannot believe the excesses these people get up to, yet we cannot take our eyes away from them. We watch their lies and their machinations, their games and their betrayals, and we feel better about ourselves.

Whatever the reasons, we have a morbid fascination with politics. But we must grow up. As a poor country, we cannot afford the luxury of spending so much time focused on what is essentially a non-productive activity. Development takes place elsewhere, in the smaller, less grand arenas of the economy. Our fixation on politics ‘crowds out’ the things that should really matter to us.

The result is dispiriting. Political discourse in this country is conducted at very high decibels, and this noise filters into all our lives. We are all subjected to a relentless barrage of accusations, abuse and rabble-rousing, and we are all tainted by it. The atmosphere of betrayals and mistrust that we are exposed to every day debases our own values.

It is time for media practitioners to help us elevate ourselves from this morass. By giving column inches and airtime to incendiary persons, we are encouraging them to keep misbehaving. We are giving them what Margaret Thatcher once called “the oxygen of publicity”. Editors and programme controllers have this power in their hands: relegate the fire-starters to the back pages, and the noise will soon die down. Alternatively, they can keep fanning the flames of dispute and chasing after garbage trucks, and keep us all focused on inflammatory irrelevance. Which option does this country really need?

This media focus on hecklers and noisemakers is, of course, an international phenomenon. So is another seemingly unstoppable trend: the emphasis on mind-numbing trivia. I have watched Sky News, one of the world’s leading TV news stations, give us the following lead stories in recent weeks: the accusations of marital infidelity against footballer David Beckham; Beckham’s outraged denials; studio analysis by academics and experts on the subject of David Beckham and his marriage; and a study, using high-tech projection graphics, of the various tattoos found on Beckham’s body and a discussion of what they might symbolise.

It is difficult to believe that we have not parted company with reality and entered a parallel universe. I can only surmise that western media consumers are bored out of their skulls. Their basic economic needs are catered for, and high consumption is the order of the day. Spirituality is a long-forgotten concept. The units of society that matter are the aspirational individual and the consumptive nuclear family. TV is the temple, trivia the offering.

We, surely, have better things to do. We have a country to build and a populace to pull out of poverty. But already, the signs are there: our media space is being littered with silliness. We may be a country where poverty blights the lives of 60 per cent of our people, but that apparently does not stop the rest of us from worrying about diet plans, fashion statements, being cool and being seen.

The aspirational-upwardly-mobile-young-urban-professional-with-significant-disposable-income has taken centre stage in the minds of advertisers. And so we are treated to the sort of fluff that this archetype apparently wants by way of media consumption: sex, fashion, celebrities, naked bodies and gossip.

Words and images matter. They can build up, and they can pull down. They can be edifying and they can be destructive. They can pollute our minds like a noxious smog. They can work on us over the years, slowly and insidiously, until one day we realise that all the values we once held dear have left us. If tittle-tattle and titillation is all that we imbibe, then a life of mediocrity awaits us with open arms.

Don’t blame the media houses; they are merely fulfilling the profit-seeking behaviour demanded by their shareholders. We have the freedom to choose. If you think a developing country should have better things to think about than noisy politics and inane chitchat, then do something about it. Like the food you eat, it is your choice to make. Vote with your wallet and with your feet. Pick up a pen and complain. Make your needs known. Create the space for wholesome and thoughtful media products.

Or vote for taka-taka and tamasha. The choice is entirely yours. That’s freedom!

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