Uhuru And The Star: He’s Got A Problem
I recently attended a meeting in Denmark of public editors (also known as news ombudsmen) from around the world. The liveliest topic, and one that’s highly relevant for the Star right now, was whether the media should regulate themselves or whether they should be regulated by the government.
The reason for all the attention was the ethical lapses of the British tabloids owned by Rupert Murdoch. They’ve not only invaded the privacy of celebrities and commoners alike but, as recent testimony at public hearings commonly known as the Leveson inquiry has shown, they’ve also cosied up to politicians—who welcomed the attention—and got police officials to do their bidding.
(Fun fact from the inquiry: the current British Prime Minister routinely sent texts to one of Murdoch’s top officials containing bits of news and gossip that ended with the out-of-date LOL (laugh out loud) which he thought meant “lots of love” until she advised him otherwise.)
The editor who handles reader complaints at of one of Britain’s leading newspapers gloomily told the ombudsmen’s meeting that what has been happening at the Murdoch properties is proof of the “failure of self-regulation”—which in the case of British newspapers has been in the hands of an industry-funded Press Complaints Council. Professor Steven Barnett, in an address to the meeting, described the Council as “toothless” and called for Parliament to legislate tough oversight.
The reason why the discussion is particularly relevant to the Star is because Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta has lodged a complaint with the Media Council of Kenya against the paper. In a session before the Council’s Complaints Commission on May 17, he said that a Star column by Jerry Okungu could be used against him at the ICC and that it was part of a broader effort by the paper to discredit him.
Star MD William Pike disagrees with that characterisation, insisting that “we have no agenda against Uhuru Kenyatta”. He notes that the Star regularly carries columns by Uhuru supporters and ran editorials when he was Finance minister praising his performance.
The Media Council used to be an industry-sponsored group, and, in the opinion of many, no more independent or effective than its British counterpart. But in 2007 the Kenya Parliament stepped in to give it statutory powers. Radio Africa Group, parent company of the Star, recently experienced the Council’s sharpened teeth when it was slapped with a Sh800,000 fine in connection with a programme about cheating spouses aired on its Classic 105 station. (The company is disputing that action.)
This is not the place to engage in a discussion of the Media Council’s relations with the Star. But what does interest me is the question of how independent the Council—or any similar body—actually is. Can a body established by government and funded by government be truly independent of government, especially when it comes to weighing complaints brought by members of that government?
Pike says he personally has no problem with the Council’s statutory status but feels that it is going beyond its mandate by acting, as he sees it, “as a quasi-judicial court as opposed to the arbitration body it was originally supposed to be".
The issue of self-regulation vs government regulation is of course not a new one. It was batted around here in Kenya before the current structure of the Media Council was put in place, and it continues to be debated even in countries that have not experienced the kind of depredations brought about by Rupert Murdoch. The American participants at the news ombudsmen’s conference, reflecting their countrymen’s general suspicion of government, were totally against government involvement, while most Europeans were open to some form of government role. Asians and Latin Americans (who represent the fastest-growing group of ombudsmen) appeared to me to lean more toward the self-regulating end of the spectrum, perhaps, as some indicated, because they have recently lived through struggles to install—or reinstall—democratic institutions.
The comment that most accorded with my own thinking didn’t come at the conference at all but rather was contained in an article in the Daily Mail newspaper that I read as I passed through England on my way back to Kenya. It was made by a former Conservative minister, Stephen Dorrell, in an appearance before the Leveson inquiry. He said he regarded what had happened at the Murdoch properties as a failure of management, not evidence of a need for tougher regulation. And he warned that statutory regulation could prove “a cure that’s worse than the disease”.
That’s why I like the idea of public editors and hope to see more of them. As the Star’s public editor, I have a fixed-term contract under which the management is not allowed to interfere with what I say (apart from libellous comments) and I have the responsibility to investigate any serious complaint brought against the paper. I can’t impose fines or send anyone to jail, but I can do something I believe is more effective: name and shame in black and white.
Hon Kenyatta, I await your email!
In addition to his Media Council complaint, Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta has brought a legal case against the Star claiming its publication of stories and photos linking him to Joseph Thuo Njoroge constitute “hate speech” and are therefore unconstitutional.
Without going into the merits of the case I’d just like to make three points.
First (and this is contrary to my normal practice of confining myself to criticism), I thought it was gutsy of the Star to splash the news of the suit on May 10’s front page, rather than slip it into an inside page.
Second, I’m alarmed by the way the term “hate speech” is being increasingly used as a sort of catch-all complaint—as for example when the police commissioner recently accused an MP of hate speech for having claimed the police were out to eliminate him. I wish the Star, in this case, had asked an expert whether what was said met the hate speech definition.
And third, costly court cases are traditionally a highly effective way of cowing media companies—even financial strong and established ones—whatever the merits of a claim. It’s called hardball, and it’s perfectly legal.
A couple of columns ago I criticised an instance in which Kenyan citizens of Asian descent were referred to in the Star simply as Asians. But there are plenty of other groups that have legitimate reasons to complain as well about the ways in which they’re portrayed. A May 28 story in the Star referred to “two female lawyers” who had been part of an ICC team visiting the country. I am at a loss to understand the relevance of their gender, but maybe that’s just because I’m a female public editor.
Send your comments and criticisms to firstname.lastname@example.org.