Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Did Kenya Get the @BBCAfrica Debate Right?

Q: What do you get when you assemble a bunch of figurative ass kickers, literal ass kissers, and a spate of wanna-be literary social climbers?

A: Another #BBCAfricaDebate, Kenya edition.

Debates, contrary to what you want to think about them, are not persuasive. They are not about agreeing with the other party based on anything more than the facts in contention. Debates, above and beyond all else, are about contending in context. That is, a debate should have rules and a title governing the exchange of varied factual blows.
[To debate it] is to win it with no bloodshed...or bullying; just on facts...even if defense lawyers have proved otherwise.
                               - Rasthadan N 
Debates are social. They require the interaction of human specimen in collective coexistence. In the broader discipline of Socio-linguistics -- which studies the effects of any and all aspects of society -- the idea of social networks further contextualizes context, in such interactions. Depending on the looseness or tightness -- or the not so tight looseness -- of interaction by specimen in a network, social mores can be observed or disregarded in debate. As you may imagine, my debate is about to disregard any and all social mores.

In the past, I have gone to debates. How I know that they are debates, is because they are usually contextual. Take #OffTheRecord at Pawa 254's Hub, for instance. They may just as well call them debates, since terming them 'conversations' takes away from the fact that we do not assemble there every Tuesday to simply converse, or converse simply. 

The fact is that there is normally little spontaneous in an #OffTheRecord debate; little polite or half-baked; because the only give and take in a debate is usually one involving meat-pie exchanges of the humble kind. 


Why, thank you kindly for asking. A good debate, one finds, also has an outcome. A resolution, if you will. Conversations are held on bar stools, with bar-tenders; another form of kusema na kutender. Accept and bend over if you will. There is absolutely no intention to resolve anything in a conversation, because conversation is about making -- or looking for -- company. 

Any resolution, say between male and female species at a pub, usually involves vertical projectiles of appendages, and inebriated horizontal standi.

The BBC Africa Debate, held last week Thursday at the Multimedia University, resembled a bar-room conversation. There was the sober friend, in the form of moderator Audrey Brown from South Africa. She was quick to lay down the rules of the debate. I paraphrase:
"We have a 1-hr time limit. It will be recorded for transmission tomorrow at 7pm. We hope that participants respect each other, listen, use Simple English, keep it lively and scintillating, with a limit the use of Kenyan jargon and acronyms. You can mention it in full but don't draw the BBC audience into the intricacies of the IEBC, CORD, or Jubilee...
When selected to give your opinion, state your name, title, then proceed to give succinct and expressive comments. This is a debate, not a referendum...
There were three sets of seating set up. On the Panel Seats sat Peter Horrocks, Director of the BBC World Service; Julie Gichuru, Royal Media Services' Group Digital Business Manager and Talk Show host; Mohammed Adow, an Al Jazeera roving correspondent based in Doha; and Nanjira Sambuli, iHub Research Hub's New Media Strategist.

On the Expert Seats sat a host of experts. There was Ian Noble, Regional Director at Internews Network; Joseph Warungu, a former head of BBC's African News and Current Affairs; Monica Waceke, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation's Television Programs Manager; Solomon Mugera, a manager at BBC World Service; Jenerali Ulimwengu, a Tanzanian expert; Waweru Mburu, an expert 'critic'; Patrick Gathara, an expert; Tony Gachoka, an expert; and many other experts, excluding --sadly -- Larry Madowo.

That was precisely the problem. Not that Madowo did not show. That all these experts were thrown into one room and expected to tackle anything more than their own mix of agendas. 

The topic of the day -- 'Is International Media getting Africa Right?' -- could have been answered, I felt, with a set of simple questions: 

  • who is African? Kenyan?
  • who is International in Media?
  • is such a question, asked in a specific setting -- Kenya's new 'diaspora' -- relevant?
Instead, and despite the sober judge having laid down house rules not half an hour before, 'Kenya happened'. Sideshows began to dominate, tangents developed; CVs became opinions to be expressed never so succinctly in the debate, experts abused Simple English; a particular panelist became a mouthpiece channeling 'Mirror, Mirror on the wall, how pretty my media house is...' 

He was not, I felt, supposed to be part of that panel, but on an expert seat. In fact the most sensible speakers of the day happened to be the most silent. I had seen Gathara perform as a Kwani? panelist back in mid-year; he should perhaps, given his performance as an expert at this particular debate, have stuck to it - and his usually good Star and online  panels

This was just some of the bad and ugly, though. There was, as is true of Kenya's rice, more than just chaff. Ian Noble, formerly the Editor in Chief at Radio France International (RFI), said towards the end of the show, that 'Africa is not one place, and not Kenya specifically.' He gave an example of Eastern Chad, where the audience is glued to RFI, mitigating this with the fact that in one particular region he was stationed, the was only one internet cafe. 

Kenya, a new friend says, may lack water and occasionally black out, yet:
"...[and] these wazungus cannot understand, how there is no portable water but 3G internet is readily available. I had to tell them internet is a need while water is a relative variable."
Julie Gichuru gave a couple of solid points herself, and one that sticks out was on what Jenerali called the flight by night interviews that make a PhD expert on matters Africa. This was in regard to the sort of interviews carried out on your CNNs and Fox News on Africa. Jenerali's view was that there are motivations and conditions that force International correspondents' hands, and thus "affect who's doing what" in Africa. His feeling was that people not embedded to Africa should balance their perspective and need to make a mark with factual and culture-sensitive information. He went on to credit Al Jazeera and the BBC for their fusion of local knowledge and international perspective. 

The BBC, in particular, he noted, had diversified its 'voice and colour' giving the News a global feel and outlook. Peter Horrocks, in appreciating Jenerali's remarks, added that what we see here in Kenya with Sophie Ikenye is replicated worldwide, in South and North America as in Europe; locals getting to be the BBC's voice, that is.

However, as with the #FIKADebate before it in the midriff of the past month, the debate was not truly a debate. It was a forum: for some, to vent; for others, to beat their chests in public; yet for others, it was a chance to interact and drink tea and goodies, get free notebooks, and maybe learn something.

I was one of those. And I learnt a few things:

  • Multimedia University has warthogs! Go figure...
  • Julie Gichuru, and credit to her, credits her sources everywhere she goes. 
She not only read the Tweet out at the debate, but credited Jonathan Paul. She had no idea the bugger was actually at the Debate. A commendable job, and one lesson Clay Muganda could have used way back when.
  • The BBC is conducting research into its changing role as part of the International Media fraternity, and as such, needs to listen to the changing world around them. The Swahili Service, for instance, clearly lacks the oomph that the English Service does. Tighter budgets as from next year -- when funding is cut off by the UK government -- mean that this debate was not just a moment of woo-sah release for Kenyans. It was data, for the BBC.
  • The dichotomy of the media, International vs Local, is really not as stringent as we try to make it seem. Local Media is, after all, busy talking about donkey's getting raped to death by men. And ignoring completely when Poets are whipped to submission by Military types at the mausoleum. A silence, one imagines, that they have practised long, since Pattni began tormenting Kenyan families in 1991. So why should the International Media then be taken up to challenge, when our own Media "errs in caution, stumbling over the Arap Sang effect?"
  • In true fashion, we are still a stereotype nation. We generalize everything. "Local Media is messed up." "International Media sucks." "Social Media rules." "Social Media is a menace that should be curbed." "We are Kenya's Think Tank..." Be specific. I liked it when facts were used, and facts were corrected, as opposed to simply saying "Kenyans like ... don't like..." 
This could be the start of something good. I prefer, unlike some younger Turks who were in my company on the day, to have some faith in progress, and critique stupid acts as and when they appear. 

Fact: the BBC adds some value to our reporting scene.
Fact: the BBC needs value to exchange with its audience.
Fact: the BBC makes money, to spend money, covering World News. 

So if you're sick of International Media, what about the pot that called this kettle black at the debate?

Kenya, did not, get the #BBCAfrica Debate right. 

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