A year after launching the Nation in 1959, His Highness the Aga Khan was finding the new venture a little more financially demanding than he had imagined it would be.
The young paper, pitched at the emerging audience of Africans entering the job market, was yet to attract a readership that could help it settle the bills.
The demands for more money from the editors in Nairobi were unremitting and self-sufficiency was perhaps a decade or more away.
The young proprietor needed an investor to share the financial burden. The Aga Khan also felt, Nation veteran Gerry Loughran writes in his history of the paper, that a new investor would add gravitas to the paper especially if he came from an established global media house.
Not too many investors in establishments such as the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post and the Observer were interested.
But one thrusting, ambitious 29-year-old media baron in the making was enthusiastic.
Fascinated by plans
“Fascinated by your plans,” Rupert Murdoch cabled from Australia, “would like to hear more.”
Nothing further came of that offer but it is fair to say the history of the Kenyan media would have been very different if the Australian’s bid to partner with the Aga Khan in the Nation had succeeded.
“Kenyans should thank their lucky stars Murdoch never got into the media in Nairobi!” says Mr Loughran, whose book, Birth of the Nation, is considered one of the most authoritative published accounts of Kenyan media history.
Mr Murdoch has been in the news in the last fortnight as the phone hacking controversy engulfing his media empire in Britain has snowballed into a full-blown political scandal.
Journalists working at Mr Murdoch’s tabloids are accused of using dubious techniques such as bribing Scotland Yard detectives to land stories on the saucy scandals that have won them a wide readership.
They are also said to have hacked the mobile phones of hundreds of footballers, actors and members of the royal family in their quest for scoops.
In one notorious incident, a source employed by the News of the World Sunday paper was found to have deleted the voice mail messages of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler in order to create room for more voice messages, an action said to have given hope to the parents that their daughter was alive.
The scandal bears all the imprints of journalism in Murdoch’s papers. It was borne out of the familiar effort to get exclusives on the sex lives of celebrities or to tease out details on stories that had caught the attention of the public such as gruesome murders.
What would have been if Mr Murdoch had succeeded in entering the Kenyan media market? “At the time that Murdoch expressed an interest in the brand-new Nation Group in 1960, he was in a voraciously acquisitive mood, buying, merging and starting newspapers in Australia and New Zealand, before, later in the decade, turning his attention to Britain and the United States.
His interest in the Nation Media Group would almost certainly have been to purchase and control, when all that the Nation founder was seeking were supportive editorial and financial links. It would have been a hopelessly bad fit and unsurprisingly it never happened.”
Mr Murdoch and the Aga Khan were polar opposites in their views on what the role of a newspaper should be in society. Pursuing an ideal of quality journalism, the Aga Khan turned the Nation into East Africa’s leading newspaper.
The publishing company’s shares were later sold at the Nairobi Stock Exchange while the principal stake in the Nation Media Group was acquired by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED).
Mr Murdoch wanted a popular newspaper with plenty of gossip and big photos, preferably of the female variety.
The Aga Khan constantly wrote to his editors, some of whom had come from British tabloids, asking them to reduce the number of photos of actresses they carried in the entertainment pages and urging them to go with smaller font in headlines.
Sales are king
Mr Murdoch, by contrast, barely conceals his disdain for “serious” journalism involving detailed investigations and long stories. For him, sales are king.
“I’m rather sick of snobs who tell (me my tabloids) are bad papers, snobs who only read papers that no-one else wants … Much of what passes for quality (in the British media) is no more than a reflection of the narrow elite which controls it and has always thought that its tastes were synonymous with quality.”
The Aga Khan in the early years took a different view, seeing the Nation as the paper that could play a role in the nationalism project by giving a voice to the leaders of the Kenyan liberation movement who were banned from the other settler-dominated papers.
Mr Loughran says the union between the Aga Khan and Mr Murdoch would have been an unhappy one. “There is little reason to think his editorial philosophy – blanket coverage of celebrities, television, scandals, politicos in trouble, sex, big photos, sex, bigger headlines, more sex – would have changed.”
To get a glimpse of what life in the Nation would have been under Murdoch’s leadership or indeed how he would have reshaped the Kenyan media one could examine the experience of the two British tycoons who succeeded in buying into Kenyan papers.
The Czech-born magnate Robert Maxwell bought a stake in the Kenya Times in the 1980s while Lonrho chief Tiny Rowland purchased The Standard in 1967.
Editors that have worked under them paint contrasting pictures of life under those proprietors. John Agunda, now training editor of the Nation, says Mr Maxwell’s tenure as a co-owner of the paper with the Moi government had some positive effects.
“Mr Maxwell had been quite successful in the UK with the Mirror newspapers and he brought along several editors from there. They also brought a lot of the equipment that they were discarding as part of a modernisation programme there.
“Most of that equipment was quite advanced by Kenyan standards and they brought a printing press for example, that introduced the first colour pages in Kenyan newspapers.”
Mr Agunda says the paper’s editor, Ted Graham, brought a tabloid sensibility that meant that features would start on page one with a strong emphasis on human interest.
That move forced the Nation to react by getting their own printing press that could print in colour. It also led to the launch of magazines such as the Sunday Nation’s Lifestyle to counter the human interest focus of Kenya Times.
Mr Graham did not last too long as the owners of the paper, most notably Mr Moi, were distinctly unimpressed with his style. The tabloid approach also drew murmurs of disapproval from the conservative Kenyan ownership and some readers.
The management decided to bring in Philip Ochieng from the Nation to replace Mr Graham in a move that was viewed as a coup for Kenya Times.
Mr Rowland’s proprietorship of The Standard was more controversial. As Mr Loughran reports in the Birth of a Nation, Mr Rowland seemed to have been primarily driven by a desire to entrench his business interests.
President Kenyatta had been opposed to the entry of Mr Rowland into the scene because his Lonrho group had made its fortune in white-ruled Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe).
Paper is yours
According to one employee, Eric Marsden, Mr Rowland offered Mr Kenyatta a bargain involving total editorial control: “The paper is yours to do what you like with, just say the word.”
The Kenyattas’ hold on The Standard was assured when his relative, Udi Gecaga, was appointed chairman of Lonrho East Africa.
Mr Gecaga was swiftly dropped after Mr Kenyatta’s death and the era of Moi dominance at the paper began.
One of the managing editors at the paper during those years, Kwendo Opanga, offers this nugget on the influence figures close to Mr Moi and the Lonrho establishment wielded.
“There was a day when President Moi was opening the Castle Brewing factory in Thika. It happened that on that same day, the Kenya National Examinations Council was releasing Form Four examination results.
As editors we, of course, made up our minds that the main story in the next day’s papers would be the results. At about 6 p.m. we were good to go when a call came in from Mark Too (a close Moi confidante and then head of Lonrho) to the group managing editor Wachira Waruru.”
Mr Too told Mr Waruru that the next day’s splash would have to be the story from Thika, where the President had taken a swipe at this newspaper.
He had a suggested headline: “Moi tells off the Nation.” The senior editors strenuously objected and, eventually, with Mr Too adamant, they agreed to have the story on page one together with the examination story.
Mr Loughran says it is unlikely that Mr Murdoch would have been similarly keen to enter the political fray.
“He is first and last a newspaperman. During the current furore in London much has been said about Murdoch’s cosiness with government leaders at the highest level.
“One unnamed source ventured that when the subject was brought to Murdoch’s attention, however, he snapped irritably that he sometimes wished prime ministers would leave him alone.”
It is perhaps for the better that Mr Murdoch never found his way to Kenya. If his record elsewhere is any guide, though, it is fair to say there would barely have been a dull moment if he had turned up in these shores and successfully launched a media house.