Opinion should be guided by what is best for the public as a whole, not what is expedient for Cord or Jubilee
By David Matende
When the Opposition Cord said they would hold rallies to awaken the government to the cries of the people , a TV reporter sought out a political scientist and asked him what he made of that.
The expert (Mutahi Ngunyi, you guessed it) gave an answer that left many viewers befuddled. According to him, the Opposition coalition was setting the stage for an Arab Spring-like revolution in Kenya!
With that comment, many consumers of media confirmed their suspicions about the so-called expert political analysts that our journalists are so fond of quoting. Most of them are anything but objective readers of the politics, and neither do they possess the intellectual equipment necessary for such a task.
This also applies to the numerous writers of expert opinion that newspaper editors award prime plots in the weekend newspapers
As an opinion writer myself, it, may seem ironical that I have dedicated this piece to opinion writing.
However, there are good reasons for talking about this. In a country so polarized politically such as Kenya, experts that misled the people by jumping to unreasoned conclusions are a major risk to stability
No matter how much they seek to inflate their credibility by stretching their credentials (“I am Professor so and so” , “ am political adviser to this and that”, “am whatnot”) , people’s confidence in them is waning very fast.
Like false prophets, these so-called political experts, who are sometimes mistakenly referred to as “authorities” have an irritating tendency to misdiagnose major developments, succeeding only in misleading and misinforming the people.
Their unproven hypothesis and the selective or outright false premises upon which they base their arguments confound even those of us who do not have PhDs (or whatever academic and professorial credentials they possess).
Even what appears commonsensical to the average Wafula is deliberately twirled into such amazing convulsion with the intention of either adding more confusion or making the expert appear clever than he actually is .
The “wisdom” dispensed by these biased, self-appointed “experts” as they present their ‘authoritative” opinions, is partly responsible for the horrendously uninformed political discourse in Kenya, including the despicable posts on social media
Against this unfortunate background, one is forced to ask, who qualifies to be called a political expert? Does the mere possession of a PhD, or occupation as consultant to some big politician or well-heeled party qualify one to be called an expert?
Of what good are experts or authorities that give opinion that is believed by only those who support a certain view? Is it fair for some people to fool others by flaunting expertise they don’t really possess?
Unlike authorities in other disciplines, say engineering, who call a spade a spade, authorities on politics are distinguished for their ability to confound rather than enlighten .By the way, the word “authority’ should mean the jurisdictional right to regulate someone or something, even though the word is popularly used to refer to an individual or institution that has mastered a certain subject to be considered the ‘final’ voice on that subject.
How many of the political experts actually fit the bill? What groundbreaking work has Ngunyi, or Prof Makau Mutua and Prof Peter Kagwanja for that matter, done on Kenyan politics to be considered ‘authorities”
There are many academics, some in our universities, who have studied Kenya politics thoroughly. Some of these men and women have a near accurate view of Kenya and can help enlighten the average citizens on the politics of the country.
But for reasons known only to those in media, their opinions are never sought .One wonders why media continues to rely on two or three inflated “experts” whenever they need enlightened opinion on the big questions of the day.
To make matters worse, some of the most quoted experts may not be qualified in the field of political science. Is an expert in law or literature qualified to be called an authority on politics?
Could it be that the various media publish views of only experts whose arguments favour whatever political positions they have taken? This might explain why multiple experts, all having relevant expertise and seemingly reliable analyses, often offer conclusions that clash. Whose conclusions is to be trusted?
This is, however, not to suggest that TV stations or newspapers should not feature fiercely partisan and opinionated analysis, so long as it is made clear that such views are subjective.
As a reminder, media are powerful tools, and unless they use their power wisely, they can affect society negatively, perhaps even cause violence. Views such as those aired by Ngunyi recently oscillate between the dangerous and the careless.
To be fair to media, objectivity is not always easy to achieve and even the most professional of media cannot completely wipe out bias. However, media has a duty to tell the public the truth and must always strive for objective opinion. If biased opinion is left to dominate public discussion, it is democracy that suffers.
There is the argument that the central value of opinion journalism is the freedom to opine, or the freedom to tell the truth as one sees it, that a clash of free, boisterous voices is very good for society; a sign of democracy and a healthy public sphere.
Indeed media have a duty to give space to not only experts, but also ordinary citizens of different views to speak to each other. The challenge, however, is that sometimes this is not done with fairness and frankness
Like everything else about journalism, expert opinion as well as opinion journalism in general must adhere to some basic requirements if it has to serve the public good.
The first requirement is commitment to evidence-based inquiry: Opinion should be rigorously based on a wide range of evidence, solid studies, and perspectives. The vendor of opinion must be ready and willing to follow the facts where they lead. This is as opposed to the habit where some clever opinion writers manipulate the facts to fit their already formed conclusions.
The second is commitment to the overall public good: Opinion should be guided by what is best for the public as a whole, not what is expedient for Cord or Jubilee.
In the polarized Kenyan political climate, almost those who give their opinions on the various subjects of the day are so attached to their “truths” that they go to every length to try to persuade others that their truth is “the truth”. Their aim is to promote the side they belong to. There is high probability that some are paid to do so.
The third value is commitment to telling the whole truth. Opinion should not hide inconvenient facts. In Kenya, most purveyors of opinion g distort the truth to suit their aims.
They misrepresent the views of others or of their subjects in order to demonize them. It is worse when such experts parade themselves as highly educated and experienced personalities. If you do not believe this, just read Prof Kagwanja whenever he comments on Cord of Makau Mutua when he comments on Jubilee.
And the final requirement is commitment to listening and learning. Opinion is more than just opining. It seeks discussion. It aims to develop better perspectives and positions on issues.
Therefore, those who give opinion to media or those who write opinion must be prepared to listen to others, and be willing to alter their positions. Local TVs are fond of inviting experts to discuss issues. Watching these experts shout at each other is more entertaining than watching a Nigerian movie!
Any expert (as well as opinion writers) must approach public discussion in a sober manner. The aim is not simply to express a viewpoint; it is not about portraying those who disagree as unpatriotic enemies who must be crushed; it is not a winner-take-all affair. It is about robust disagreement, but it also seeks areas of compromise and new solutions.
Any rational, fair supplier of opinion must commit themselves to the requirements outlined above. Partisan commentators across the political spectrum regularly violate these norms.
Much of their provocative rhetoric is not rational persuasion but outright propaganda and ideology. Remember Ngunyi’s in(famous)” tyranny of numbers”?
Next time you read the ostensibly thoughtful op-ed pieces in the newspapers, or watch those late evening TV programmes where panelists with big academic tittles holler at each other, remember this.
Matende is a media consultant