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What’s really news is never news in Kenya

What passes for ‘news’ in this country? I want to put to you that what you are consuming is not news at all: it is pointless and irrelevant trivia.

Let me start with an admission: I am spending less and less time consuming Kenyan news, and it is months since I watched a full television newscast. That may seem a damning confession from someone purporting to be a columnist, but there you are.

In fact, more and more thinking Kenyans are telling me they are doing the same thing. They cannot stand the intensely absurd focus on the antics of politicians that we have in this country. They would really rather not know who is planning which arcane political machinations. They would rather focus their attention on the real issues, which are almost never to be found in the ‘news’.

A few days ago I found myself sitting in front of the TV at 9.00 pm, and decided to see what I’ve been missing. Here’s a sample of the main stories: why the president did not go to the prime minister’s Mau tree-planting ceremony, and what it all means; more rifts emerge between politician A and politician B; politician C denies rumours that he’s planning to change political parties ahead of the next election; politician D slams those asking him to resign in the wake of a massive scandal in his ministry; politician E drops hints of a new alliance ahead of 2012.

You get the picture. Needless to say I switched it off after a few minutes and went back to blissful ignorance. There are some things you just don’t need to know in your life.

Consider this: a friend of mine who was in India recently told me of his experience of consuming news there. India, incidentally, has many, many TV stations devoted to 24-hour news. What was the breaking news story that day on all the major channels? That India is headed towards 8% growth in its GDP this year. That’s right, breaking news.

As my friend pointed out to me, that kind of development would not even make the headlines of business news in Kenya! But in India and China and much of East Asia, the economy is all over the news. Every rise or fall in the growth rate is reported widely and analysed exhaustively. Everyone in the country seems fixated on economic growth and development. Is it really a surprise to you, then, that those countries are growing at 8-10 per cent and we are not?

It was not always thus. I remember being unable to stand Indian newspapers and magazines in the 1970s and 1980s when they were filled from cover to cover with bizarre politicians and political schemes. Amazing coincidence: that was also the time when India’s economy was in the doldrums and it was way behind Kenya on most economic indicators. How things have changed. Today, the economy is the biggest news in India and politicians are only listened to when they talk about the economy.

I also took a look at recent figures that revealed the nature of magazine readership in India. As with most countries, one would expect the list of top magazines to include the usual titles containing the drivel that most people seem to want to read about: gossip, sports, movies, celebrity life and the like. India has its share of those.

But look at what else was in the list of 2009’s most-read magazines: Reader’s Digest (2nd in total readership); General Knowledge Today (3rd); Competition Success Review (4th); Wisdom (6th); Business Today (10th); Competition Refresher (13th); Outlook Business (17th); Business India (19th); Business World (22nd); Digit (23rd). Did someone say knowledge economy? India is on its way to becoming the world’s third-largest economy within a generation – and you can see why.

This is not really about new editors. If editors are giving you a grossly unbalanced menu of political trivia, that is only because you ask for it. Newspaper sales are known to spike when a major political story is in the headlines. Whenever you find two or more Kenyans sitting down and chatting, the chances are high that they will be talking about politicians. It is because we are morbidly obsessed with our politicos and their frolics that we are fed this incessant noise.

9 million people are estimated to be transacting on mobile-phone platforms across Kenya – that’s news. A new supermarket is doing a roaring trade in Kitui town – that’s news. More and more women are entering the workforce – that’s news. But none of that will make the news in Kenya.

Why should you give a damn about what politicians do every single day of their lives? What they eat, who they meet, where they go? It is a mindless waste of time. We should all be focusing on the real issues in our lives: our skills, our knowledge and our personal development. If we demand the news that benefits us, politicians will soon leave the front pages.

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