Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Thursday morning was TV ratings gold – and a deeply shameful moment

“Parliament is lit!” was one of the messages that found its way into social media as a parade of MPs on both sides torched not just the parliamentary rule book but common human decency as well.

Minutes earlier, the Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr. Lemogang Kwape had revealed that MPs had unwittingly come into contact with a COVID-19-positive health worker the previous day and in terms of disease control measures already in place, had to be quarantined. Much later when another medical doctor was still on the floor to explain to MPs what the latter development meant and what protocols had to be executed, all hell broke loose. In a din that lasted well over 10 minutes, MPs were speaking over each other and one was heard to shout defiantly: “Ke boela lwapeng.” [I am going back home.] Part of the circus put the cowardice of MPs in full display: they attacked civil servants who can’t fight back in like manner.

In the darkest period that Botswana has ever faced in its 53-year old history, this is the sort of leadership that it is getting from its political representatives. When he rose to speak after the din had died down, President Mokgweetsi Masisi reminded MPs to remember who they are. One aspect of their identity is that they make laws in parliament. One of those laws is the Public Health Act, which empowers the Director of Health Services to develop health regulations that Botswana is now using to combat COVID-19. The very same people who are custodians of that Act now find it difficult to obey regulations they have empowered the Director of Health Services to develop.

If Btv, which was telecasting the proceedings live from Boipuso Hall, relied on advertising revenue to stay on the air, the Thursday morning scene would have been the sort of ratings gold that drives up viewership and makes it easy for salespeople to get companies to advertise. The quest for ratings gold is why with its real and fake drama, reality TV is now the lifeline of TV channels in some countries.

Away from commerce, Thursday morning was a deeply shameful moment which, if nothing else, proved that the nation will have to look elsewhere for leadership as COVID-19 brings the country to a standstill. Not all MPs were part of the circus and it is a pity that Btv couldn’t get close-up shots of those who were showing the nation their true colours. That said, the noise level was as high as to suggest that more than half the house was abdicating its responsibility in an hour of great need.

Thursday morning also helped illuminate an issue that some are still actively campaigning for – live telecasts of parliamentary debates. As has become increasingly evident, live telecasts are a double-edged sword because while they showcase the exceptional debating skills of some MPs and expose the odious ways in which the government operates, they also expose the weaknesses of MPs themselves. At this point, the nation already knows who the least able MPs are, which MPs can rise above partisanship and put national interest first, who among opposition MPs is desperately trying to be Botswana’s Julius Malema and whose contributions aim for little more than getting cheap laughs.

For viewers who want to be entertained, some of the spectacles from live telecasts will be ratings gold. For both political parties and MPs, this will be a gamble that will not always pay off and could ruin standing with the public.

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Sunday Standard May 24 – 30

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of May 24 - 30, 2020.