G-SPOT

‘Meat wrappers’ and worse media insults by politicians

One British Prime Minister likened the press to harlots

In Summary

• The relationship between the media and politicians has often been strained

A vendor displays newspapers in a stand in Nairobi
A vendor displays newspapers in a stand in Nairobi
Image: FILE

Something someone said about journalism and the media in general recently, reminded me of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2015 quip about newspapers only being useful to wrap meat in.

Uhuru of course was not the first or the last politician to be uncharitable towards the media. Fortunately, many in the media have thick skins, which can be useful to deflect such barbs.

One of the first stories I ever heard about people in power and their relationship with the media was that of British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who had a gripe with media owners.

In 1931, Baldwin was facing political opposition, not so much from the parliamentary political parties but from the media. In particular, two very wealthy press barons who wanted him ousted from the leadership of the Conservative Party.

The two were William Aitken, alias Lord Beaverbrook, who owned what was then the largest circulation newspaper in the world, the Daily Express, and Harold Harmsworth, alias Viscount Rothermere, who owned the Daily Mirror. 

Between them, the two men controlled the news read by most Brits.

Three days before a crucial general election in that year, Baldwin decided to let rip with some very choice comments about his media opponents.

Baldwin said: “The newspapers attacking me are not newspapers in the ordinary sense. They are engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal vices, personal likes and dislikes of the two men.”

He said: “Their methods are direct falsehoods, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker's meaning by publishing a sentence apart from the context. What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

Sometimes the relationship between the media and politicians is a little like how Sherlock Holmes described marriage in Elementary: “An accretion of petty fights and resentful compromises which, like Chinese water torture, slowly transforms both parties into howling, neurotic versions of their former selves.” 

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Meanwhile, as much as I like to think my years at the keyboard writing this and other columns and stories help make the world a better place, I must admit that I sometimes wonder how useful it all is in this era of information overload?

Nevertheless, I continue collecting little tidbits of knowledge, or what some might have called useless information, in the hope of using it in my various scribblings.

The ever-changing cultural, social, political, religious and historical references we come across every day are there to remind us that language is dynamic.

It is up to us journalists as communicators to keep up with the constantly changing colloquialisms, idioms, jargon, abbreviations and acronyms.

For instance, recently someone tweeted about the craziness of Kenyan politicians insisting on publicity for the most mundane activity, including the "launching of a flat screen TV" at some place or the other.

In my response, I said something along the lines of our public figures being so addicted to publicity that they would attend the opening of an envelope if they thought it might boost their image.

I was surprised that so many people "liked" and retweeted my response, and while wondering why, I must admit I leapt to a number of conclusions, including they thought I was being witty and original.

If that is the case, then I am afraid that in the spirit of full disclosure, I must say the envelope quip was not a Mwangi G original.

In fact, the saying is thought to have originated in the mid-1970s, when it was used by an American gossip columnist writing about celebrities who were suddenly omnipresent.

One of the people he used it on was Andy Warhol, the 15 minutes of fame guy, who then used it in a self-deprecating manner to talk about himself and his entourage.

In the words of Michael Caine the actor, not a lot of people know that.