Should columnists campaigning for a presidential candidate be sacked?

Newspaper reader

A newspaper fan reads the Opinion section of the ‘Daily Nation’. Columnists should not abuse their privileged position.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • NMG’s editorial policy neither endorses nor supports any candidate or party.
  • Its journalists are required not only to avoid conflicts of interest but also the appearance of such conflicts.

Michael Hatego of Busia asks if Sunday Nation columnists Makau Mutua and Karuti Kanyinga should be shown the door. His argument boils down to this: The two professors now hold political positions that create conflicts of interest, real or apparent. They are members of the team working for the election of presidential candidate Raila Odinga (See “Raila Odinga names 11 more to campaign team”— Daily Nation, January 7, 2022).

“Now that the two widely followed columnists have been recruited by a presidential candidate into his campaign team, will their columns continue to be featured in NMG publications?” he writes. “Surely, won’t that not be unfair to candidates who don't have such a platform? NMG should play fair.”

Prof Kanyinga has since denied being a member of the team, telling Mr Hatego in a private conversation: “But I cannot deny that some of the leaders and their parties/alliances have had an interest in my research work.”

But, as far as I can ascertain, he has not publicly denounced the Nation story. So, I take it that he’s putting a positive spin on his political involvement. 

There is an inherent conflict of interest when a journalist or columnist joins a body campaigning for the election of a presidential candidate. Political activism creates a conflict of interest or the appearance of one. It can undermine public confidence in the impartiality of the media organisation. 

Neither staff nor reporters

In journalism, a conflict of interest occurs when a writer’s personal interests — such as affiliations, relationships or financial interests — could compromise or influence his writing or give the appearance of doing so. 

NMG’s editorial policy neither endorses nor supports any candidate or party. It has “no agenda either favouring or opposing individual candidates”. It adheres to “the highest standards of accuracy, fairness, impartiality and balance in reporting”. Its journalists are required not only to avoid conflicts of interest but also the appearance of such conflicts.

Prof Mutua and Prof Kanyinga, however, are neither NMG staff nor reporters. Their job is to provide opinion. Their opinions may be disagreeable, irritating, outrageous, even offensive, but that’s okay. They are paid to provide diverse and thought-provoking opinions.

But they cannot run away with conflicts of interest and the need to be fair. They are expected to avoid conflicts, actual or apparent, and also be fair and avoid taking cheap shots of people they dislike. 

In fact, NMG’s contracts with columnists should require them to avoid conflicts or the appearance of conflicts of interest and to be fair — if they don’t already do so.

Preferred presidential candidate

Conflicts of interest are, sometimes, unavoidable. In such cases, the columnist is required to disclose them. For example, if writing about his preferred presidential candidate, he must disclose, up-front, or in his credentials line at the bottom of his column, the relationship he may have with the subject of the article. If he doesn’t, readers might question his integrity and motives. Such disclosures are standard; it’s recognised that nondisclosure could compromise the integrity of a newspaper or damage its credibility.

Columnists should also base their opinions on accurate facts. They sound like cheap propagandists or campaigners when they don’t. Columns not grounded in objective facts are not helpful to readers. 

Equally, NMG can alienate some of its readers if its recruitment of columnists doesn’t seem to ensure all political sides of its readership are represented in the opinion pages. Besides, being assigned a regular column — no matter how qualified or deserving a columnist may feel — is a privilege. And it comes with responsibility: They ought to act with utmost integrity and responsibility. 

Prof Mutua and Prof Kanyinga are not expected to use their columns to campaign for their preferred candidate — as opposed to helping their readers to understand what’s going on. The purpose of their columns is to shed light, not to propagandise or do PR. 

Should they abuse their privileged position as columnnists, I would agree with Mr Hatego: They should be shown the door.

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.

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