Some have called it the triumph of populism. From New York to London, Nairobi to Johannesburg, on-screen female TV talent is getting younger, leaner, some say even prettier. It is a development that has left many nonplussed. Some now see it as a new form of discrimination and mourn the invasion of the newsroom by the tyranny of youth and the Hollywood syndrome. Neither talent nor qualifications can guarantee older female presenters a job in a newsroom today.
But what explains this purge of the older female presenter from our TV screens? Is it a capitulation to populism or could it simply be the inevitable consequence of the transformation of news into what is now essentially a consumer product? We seem to have entered an age where even war has to be sensually communicated. Could this development perhaps be a cunning re-invention of patriarchy and a deliberate attempt to package news in the image and self-interest of maledom? The answers are not obvious but no doubt multiple.
Critics rightly point to the irony of an institution best suited for challenging and deconstructing particular gender frames now retreating into the very stereotypes it claims to abhor. Examples abound. The BBC has recently been on a charm offensive to placate fears that it has been systematically purging older female news presenters in favour of younger ones. The organisation’s recent move to rehire a number of former female journalists including Julia Somerville and Moira Stewart appeared more like an admission of guilt and a reaction to the criticism. Female ageism, critics argue, is fast replacing sexism in the newsroom and perhaps a more insidious development is that it is becoming broadly acceptable as normal.
But female age discrimination is not specific to the Western news media. In many news organisations in Africa, it is just one of the many barriers that women in general and now, increasingly, older women have to face. The implications are not encouraging. The trend is slowly forcing women to either shun journalism as a career or force them out of it.
The problem is alive in Kenya and it needs to be confronted.
The growth of the Kenyan news media has been phenomenal since the liberalisation of the media sector in the1990s. Even then, although the structure of the sector has radically changed, institutional practices appear to retain a rather stubborn male character. The Kenyan newsroom is plagued not only by the ‘traditional’ routine sexism but equally by the emerging culture of female ageism. These problems are to be found in both the news print and the broadcast media.
It is not something of a coincidence that nearly a decade following the liberalisation of the media sector, not a single Kenyan newspaper has been consistently edited by a woman. The ability to edit a newspaper is certainly not a function of gender, yet in a newsroom culture where patriarchal relations are constantly reproduced, it is the case that gender inevitably becomes a key determinant in the appointment of senior editors. In the rare cases where female appointments have been made, often times it takes the form of female tokenism; the quest to appear to be gender sensitive perhaps to placate male guilt.
A largely male-dominated newsroom culture which results into the purging of older women from the newsroom and a range of other problematic news cultures needs to be addressed. What happens when all news is told, reported, written and edited by maledom? Inevitably, news and the news discourse become distinctly masculine. There is a particular mindset that patriarchy nurtures. It is one that finds a sense of entitlement to be heard hence the inevitable privileging of the male voice and therefore perspective. The extent to which that kind of news media can be considered representative becomes problematic.
A random content analysis of the Kenyan news media, both print and broadcast in any constructed week or month reveals a news media that seems to only tell the male story even when it attempts to wear a female face. Lead stories are invariably dominated by men as subjects as are the senior writers and reporters. Women seem to become news as incidental appendages or objects of male curiosity. There is a macho culture that seems to dominate the events that make news stories.
A lack of gender diversity in the newsroom will easily normalise a problematic discourse of misrepresentation and privilege a specific world-view. One gender, or age group for that matter, should therefore not be allowed to dominate the news and news making process. Even then, there is every need to privilege meritocracy. Some will obviously jump at the idea of affirmative action. That cannot be the answer. The basis for appointments in the news media or elsewhere cannot be based on gender alone. Indeed, such an approach may simply confirm stereotypes and harden attitudes against changes in the newsroom and newsroom cultures. As a matter of fact, some of the younger female on-screen talent not only bring a freshness to TV, a number also have the requisite qualifications comparable to or even better than those held by male colleagues in similar positions. For instance, the BBC has several young female Oxbridge graduates whose success may not be attributable to some form of positive discrimination. They would rightly feel patronised if the gender equity proposition in the newsroom were to be made. But this is not to deny that there is a problem.
By all means give the young fresh female faces a chance. But don’t do it at the expense of experienced female journalists. The triumph of populism cannot be allowed to trample over good journalism.