IT had never occurred to me that kapenta fish and Mazoe crush could be special dietary requirements for Zimbabweans in the diaspora. When a colleague learnt that I was due to travel t
o the United Kingdom, he was quick to place a special order from home: kapenta fish, Mazoe crush and biltong.
Those tiny fish, which appear on menu cards as a starter or more commonly as protein substitutes to the malnourished, are a coveted delicacy. The colleague tells me that some diasporans know how many of the little creatures can fit in a 200g packet. They are cooked in strictly set portions – in groups of 20 for my bachelor colleague – and perhaps washed down with a glass of the orange drink to satisfy the nostalgia.
I delivered liberal quantities of the fish to those who have run away from poor governance here. Most of them do not have nice things to say about Zimbabwe and I wondered whether our information merchants could ever counter this torrent of discontent.
I was in London last week to attend a Public Administration International programme on Government: Image and Information. This provided useful insight into the mind of a spin-doctor. Contributions from senior government spokesmen from the Caribbean, West Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe were crucial in comparing how different governments handle the media. There was also a senior civil servant from Botswana whose government is trying to fend off a relentlessly hostile press from Zimbabwe.
Presentations by politicians, senior correspondents and editors – mainly on the United Kingdom experience – and contributions from various countries present in the end gelled into the conclusion that the relationship between politicians and the media was vital to effective governance.
There were catch phrases like: “Politicians complaining about the media are like fishermen complaining about the sea.”
Adrianne Foglia, a London-based Colombian diplomat who has dedicated her life to cleansing her country of the bad-boy image arising from drug wars, was spot-on on how governments can deal with a bad press.
“The only way to fix a bad press is by fixing the problems at home,” she said. Defending internationally condemned ills would not help much.
Many speakers could not complete their presentations without mentioning Alistair Campbell, the former Number 10 Downing Street sultan of spin who left the political scene exhausted by his encounter with the BBC.
Despite his spin-doctoring the war on Iraq has remained a sore point for Tony Blair which the media love to prod and open up.
Dr Martyn Bond – the programme director – said spin-doctors did not have a long shelf-life.
“The value of the spokesman is being constantly eroded as he sometimes has to carry the blame on behalf of the boss,” he said. “The spokesman lasts as long as the boss lasts but he usually falls first.”
Indeed, Campbell fell first after he became the news. The moral of Campbell’s fall is, when the spinner becomes the story it is time to stop spinning. There is a similarly excoriated spinner who has become the news closer to home. Will he beat his boss in the fall from grace? It’s a close race!
Perhaps the most insightful presentation came from former editor of the Observer, Professor Donald Trelford. His colourful rendition included his editorship of the Times of Malawi and his brushes with Kamuzu Banda who accused him of supporting his political foe, Henry Chipembere.
The most interesting part of his career was in 1984 when he came to Zimbabwe to interview prime minister Robert Mugabe and ended up in Matabeleland where he came face to face with the Fifth Brigade bloodbath.
Trelford, who prefaced his presentation by saying “news is what government does not want you to read”, said arrangements for the Mugabe interview were hijacked by business tycoon and Lonrho boss Tiny Rowland. The businessman who had bought the Observer in 1981 was close to Mugabe. Trelford said the Mugabe interview was “disastrously dull” although the Zimbabwean leader did not mince his words about the need to crush the “rebellion”.
“The solution is a military one,” he told Trelford. “Their grievances are unfounded. The verdict of the voters was cast in 1980. They should have accepted defeat then…”
Nothing much has changed 20 years later!
Trelford said his experience in Matabeleland offered him a better story, which he produced in the Observer on his return to London. Tiny Rowland, he said, was livid when the story came out. So was Mugabe.
Rowland, who described Trelford as an incompetent reporter, rushed to the press to denounce his story about the Matabeleland massacres.
“I take full responsibility for what in my view was discourteous, disingenuous and wrong in the editor of a serious newspaper widely read in Africa,” he told the world. He announced that Trelford would be dismissed.
But Trelford survived the chop and lived to tell the tale of an episode of immense drama illustrating a clash between a proprietor’s commercial interests and an editor’s quest for editorial independence.
Who said only politicians are spin-meisters?