Nation Media Group’s longest-serving board member retired on Thursday 22 June 2017, signalling an end to an eventful era for a man who rose through the ranks to be a part of the company’s policymaking team.
When Gerard Wilkinson, from Ireland, joined the Nation 46 years ago, there were no video screens and journalists “were using 19th century technology.” On Thursday night, as he recounted his journey over the years, he reminisced on how technology has changed our journalism. Today, the news is a 24-hour cycle where anyone with a smartphone can post on social media.
The Irishman retired alongside another board member, Richard Dowden, a British journalist who joined the board in 2010. But it is Mr Wilkinson’s sojourn that remains unmatched.
“Gerry is a long-serving board member of Nation Media Group. He has set a record which I don’t think we will be able to break any time soon.” said NMG board Chairman Wilfred Kiboro.
He joined the company just three weeks after his wedding, having been hired to become the marketing director of the Nation Newspapers Ltd. He served in this position for four years before being promoted to managing director. He joined the Board of Directors in 1983.
“For me, I had the happiest working and professional life here,” he told a group of NMG managers and directors during a farewell dinner at the Serena Hotel in Nairobi.
“It is fair to say the Nation played its part in laying the foundations for nation building – I have always believed in this, the key responsibility of the media is to hold power to account,” he said.
For a man who taught at the School of Business, University College Dublin, rising through the ranks of Nation Media Group gave him an opportunity to see a company rise from a newspaper house to a multimedia group.
He arrived when the nation offices, then on Standard Street, were in a “dilapidated, opaque, not-specially-created for a newspaper” kind of building where journalists smoked and dispensed cigarette butts in one corner as they worked on stories at the other with carbon copies, bulky desk phones and typewriters.
That kind of clumsiness would be unacceptable in today’s newsroom, he admits.
Of course under his watch, there was the famous American landing on the moon as well as the Israeli raid on Entebbe.
“It was nearly half a century ago when Gerard Wilkinson made a bold decision that would not only change his life but also help shape the story of the company and the country that he had never known before,” said His Highness the Aga Khan, in a statement read on his behalf by NMG Chairman Wilfred Kiboro.
The Aga Khan founded the Nation in 1960, before Kenya’s independence in 1963. In his message to Mr Wilkinson, he recalled how the Irishman helped place the newspaper’s role in the society.
“The company would be there to shape the country’s responses and Gerry would be there to help shape the company’s responses, a champion above all else for the importance of truly independent journalism as a force of national progress,” he said.
But Mr Wilkinson thinks, despite all the changes in technology, the role of the media must remain the same – checking the government in public interest. “You should be keeping an eye on them. That is what democracy is all about. The independent media is essential to the functioning of democracy,” he said, reflecting on how, at one time, (former President Daniel) Moi’s government tried to force changes on the composition of the company’s board. “It wasn’t pretty. But thank God we did it.”
In today’s world, though, he admits journalists and media houses have a new “battle on our hands” to rid themselves of the influence of false facts and fake news, which he argues are a new danger to democracy.
“Journalism, or being involved in the media, is an honourable profession. It has its imperfections because we are human and humans make mistakes. I don’t think that we have people in our trade who do things on purpose to skew a story. I think it is infrequent and when they are found out we deal with it. People are working for the benefits of their readers in publishing the truth and explaining difficult concepts.