What the new executive editor at Daily Monitor is doing and what it means for our profession
The new Executive Editor at Daily Monitor, Malcolm Gibson, has begun a
very important conversation about journalism at that newspaper which
may be important for our industry generally. He wrote accusing
journalists at Daily Monitor of relying on street rumors and idle gossip
to shape their opinions about what is happening in the country. This
has generated a lot of debate at Monitor and on social media. Rather
than reflect on the issues he has raised, some journalists launched
stinging criticisms of his assertions.
Gibson is an American with limited understanding of the intellectual
culture of Uganda even though he has good instincts about it. I suspect
that his cultural distance is both an asset and a handicap. It is an
asset because it allows him to see our weaknesses without rationalising
them as part of our overall psychology. It is a handicap because to
change people, you need to understand their ways of understanding
reality. Yet his criticism may turn the Daily Monitor newsroom it a zone
of low intensity resistance. It will be unfortunate if his genuine
efforts falter at the altar of bad approach.
One reason for this is that Gibson opened himself to legitimate
criticism when he made a sweeping generalisation of all journalists
instead of using more nuanced words like “many” or “some” journalists.
There are many journalists in Uganda – and at Daily Monitor – who try
their best to be truthful and accurate, fair and balanced and to provide
context in their stories. They often make mistakes or misunderstand
some issues – we all do – but they are honest and have integrity.
However, they do not form the dominant opinion makers and shapers on
social media, on radio and television talk shows.
There is a small but loud group of journalists in Uganda, across all
media institutions, who are heavily opinionated but their opinions are
based on rumour, gossip, prejudice, emotions, ignorance, stupidity,
shallow thinking and lack of a rigorous examination of issues. You find
them on social media – always engaged in ad hominem debates (attacking
personalities rather than their ideas). They are very sensitive to
criticism, however mild, about their lack of ethics and professionalism –
because it is true. They make false, wild and unreasonable allegations,
accusations and imputations about others. But they get extremely
agitated when their stupidity, ignorance, shallowness, and lack of
professionalism are pointed out. As the Baganda would say: ensonyi
bazifula busungu (they turn their guilt into anger).
Gibson may have been referring to this group of journalists although
he referred to the entire newsroom, which was unfair. But journalists
with serious concern about the future of our profession would ignore his
generalisation and pick the important aspects of his message i.e. that
we must be rigorous in our investigation of the facts behind a story, we
must stand above the crowd mentality that characterises public debate
in Uganda, we must bring depth to the discussion of issues, that we must
be sober and reflective, not angry and quarrelsome and finally, we must
be the light of our society, not the ones to regurgitate its
prejudices, biases and ignorance.
I criticise public officials – and often harshly. Therefore, as a
principle, I allow all criticism of me in the newspaper I own and manage
– The Independent. If you want to find the most stinging criticism of
me – even unfair, untrue allegations – you read The Independent in print
and online especially below my column. It is intriguing that
journalists at Daily Monitor who live off criticising others cannot take
even mild criticism of their actions and writings.
Many journalists in Uganda have undermined their careers by not
making a distinction between themselves and a tomato vendor on the
street and a pickpocket in the taxi park. They make arguments that make
you wonder whether they have ever opened a book at all. It is common
among many Ugandan elites to listen to rumours and take them on their
face value. A serious journalist needs to distinguish himself/herself by
taking emotional distance to assess issues deeply. Without such
emotional distance, the journalist inflames passions instead of
illuminating the salient issues in the debate.
I admit that journalists can only reflect the values of their
societies. If a society depends on rumour and gossip to make conclusions
and judgments about vital issues, journalists and journalism will
reflect such tendencies. Indeed a more analytical (as opposed to
programmatic) person would say I am moralising. Ugandan journalists do
not come from Norway or Sweden. They come from Uganda and therefore are
mirrors of its idiosyncrasies, attitudes, prejudices etc. – to expect
otherwise is to be naïve.
However, I also believe that society is never uniform or univocal as
such sociological analysis may suggest. It always has change agents –
people who do not seek to change the form but the substance of that
society. These are persons who pry into issues, questioning certainties,
and unearthing assumptions. They may not constitute a majority during
their lifetime but they plant a seed. Gibson initiated a vital
conversation about the challenges of our profession. And unless we are
willing to discuss this issue analytically and a lot more
dispassionately, we shall not improve journalism in Uganda.
The most opinionated journalists in Uganda on such vital issues as
pension sector reform, electricity tariffs and subsidies, oil and gas
policy are equally the most ignorant, shallow and emotional on these
subjects. If they wrote an essay on this subject to an informed lecturer
in a university (and I mean a university), they would not even score 30
percent. But in our country, because incompetence has penetrated every
letter of our lives and existence, there are universities and
“universities”. So any mediocre argument can find a “professor” to give
it a credit if only to satisfy some egos that they are worth something.
I have deliberately decided to sound harsh because I think we need to
learn to take criticism from others, however harsh and unfair, because
we make our careers by criticising others especially those in
government. Every day we make such sweeping statements like: the
government is corrupt and incompetent. I am a leading writer and speaker
of this line. But there are many people in government who are honest
and competent. So we should not hang Gibson for telling us that we form
opinions based on rumour and gossip – first because we always do and
second those who don’t are actually not complaining. It is not Gibson’s
job to massage fragile egos.