The Wamae versus Mutua presidential running mate debate on Tuesday evening at the Catholic University was lopsided right from the word go. Roots Party’s Justina Wamae seized the show and ran with it. She almost completely eclipsed Agano Party’s Ruth Mutua.
Ms Wamae rendered moderator Francis Gachuri seemingly impotent and his colleague Zubeida Koome almost irrelevant to the direction of the debate. Viewers got to know more about hemp (Cannabis sativa), also called industrial hemp, than any other issue.
The moderators couldn’t ensure that Ms Mutua had equal time to articulate her party’s position as Wamae hogged the limelight.
Every moderator-journalist has their own style. Mr Gachuri played the analyst questioner. Example: “Tell us why you want to be the DP in the Republic of Kenya.” But some of his questions didn’t seem to fit the bill: “Marijuana is not just illegal in Kenya. It’s illegal in other countries. We’ve also seen in this country where certain people grow marijuana. Why have they not been rich if growing marijuana was such a lucrative business?”
Ms Koome played the provocateur, like asking Wamae if she had ever smoked bhang: “Umewahi vuta bangi? Mbona mhubiri kitu ambacho wewe binafsi huamini?” But not all her questions yielded useful information. Earlier, in the Nairobi gubernatorial debate, she asked a candidate what his name was: “Jina lako ni Sakaja. Sakaja ni jina lako halisi?”
What went wrong in the Wamae v Mutua debate? The moderators and Mutua seemed unprepared for the onslaught by the Roots snake charmer. For one, it wasn’t clear whether Gachuri and Koome were moderators or interviewers or the two rolled into one.
A moderator acts as a neutral participant in a debate, to control rebuttals and to ensure every participant gets equal time to articulate their position. The role of an interviewer is to extract information and to take sides if necessary. A moderator asks questions but doesn’t allow himself to be partisan or antagonistic or to give one candidate an advantage.
Not adequately fact-checked
A moderator also fact-checks. He ensures audiences are not misled. Wamae, who knew her facts like the back on her hand, was not adequately fact-checked. Neither of the moderators could fact-check or pin her down. Example: (Koome asks) “Bi. Justina, ningependa utujuze kama wewe umewahi tumia bangi na unajihisi kivipi kipindi unakitumia? (I would like you to tell us if you have ever consumed bhang and how do you feel when you use it)”.
Wamae responds triumphantly: “Sijawahi na sitawahi tumia bangi (I have never and will never). You know, Zubeida, kwanza tulia nikujuze, the drug has numerous functions all over. It’s not necessarily meant to be smoked. In fact, we don’t advocate for that. It can be used as beverage, in the food sector, in the construction industry and, most importantly, in the medicine sector….”
Although fact-checking in real-time is difficult, it needs to be done as much as possible. That’s why it’s very important for moderators to do their homework and learn as much as possible the subject matter. In the case of Wamae, there were few probing or follow-up questions by the moderators, or her rival.
Useful information to voters
The idea behind the debates is the assumption that they provide useful information to voters. But do voters change their mind because of such debates? Will some voters now decide to vote for Roots Party because Wamae performed so brilliantly?
We need a study to provide the answers. We should know whether the debates are just theatre and entertainment or they move voters. We should know whether we’re blindly following an American tradition that has no consequence or meaning in our elections.
The Wamae v Mutua debate raises many questions and lessons. One, I think the Presidential Debates Secretariat should consider, for the presidential debate on Tuesday, whether moderators should fact-check the candidates or it should be left to the candidates to fact-check each other. When moderators fact-check the candidates, sometimes they give the impression of taking sides.
The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected] Call or text 0721989264