Vanguard Sunday, July 08, 2007 Frankly Speaking

Existence determines consciousness; where you stand determines your perception—Herbert Marcuse, 1967 Lecture at Brandeis University, USA.

THIS column could easily have been titled From watchdog of masses to guard dog of government or even Their masters’ voices and any of it would have been appropriate. Indeed it took me all of three days to make the decision because what follows is my general observations on the fate of journalists in Nigeria and the manifest increasing lack of dedication to the profession. In fact, no other profession has such a large percentage of its practitioners wishing they were elsewhere. It is a tragic-comical phenomenon of major proportions. And at the bottom of it all is, you guessed it, money. In June 1999, the media experienced a tsunami of sorts. Since that was my first year of being in the mainstream management of Vanguard, it was a particularly disturbing personal experience.

What was the tsunami? Dozens of editors, columnists, staff writers of leading newspapers disappeared from their beats; they were swept off into government at various levels where they became chief press secretaries, special advisers on media, directors of media and all such fancy titles which denoted the change of status.

And that is where Professor Marcuse comes into the show. In very few cases (in fact I recall only one – Tunji Oseni) has the transition from the watchdog of the people and defender of their interests to guard dog of those in government and their interests, promoted the reputation of the journalists who left to serve government. And the reason is not hard to discover: most government activities are anti-people. The journalists turned-government officials undoubtedly get richer and might even go on to become senators etc., but they never recover the lost prestige.

Professor Marcuse was one of the leading lights of the Socialist movement, who along with the likes of Regis Debray were the gods we worshipped when we were all “socialists”as it was the vogue in those years. Of all the things that Marcuse said and wrote in his numerous books, nothing has struck me as forcefully as his observations on how a person’s position influences his perception of events. Again in 2003, I watched as more journalists marched off to join government. One, Waziri Adio, former columnist of Thisday, would serve as proxy for most of the rest; not for any particular reason but because it is the one that captures the whole process of transformation from an independent voice to a mere echo of what “government said” or, if you like, a dog that barks when it chooses to, one that has become its master’s voice. I shall end the piece with Mr. Olusegun Adeniyi, special adviser, S.A, to the President and his article in the Sunday Vanguard of June 24, 2007 which appeared in the same space as that normally reserved for Alhaji Kola Animasaun.

That replacement of the Voice of Reason with Segun’s defence of the fuel price increase will close this series regarding the tragic-comical situation in which journalists find themselves when they cross to government. It will not be pleasant; but, there will be no angry denunciation of anyone; just an elaboration of undeniable facts. Let us return to Waziri Adio. Shortly after the April 19, 2003 elections, which were generally dubbed “the 419” elections” former Senator Wabara was at first announced to have lost the election to his ANPP opponent.

But, because the PDP had decided that Wabara was to be the Senate President, the election results were overturned through a series of corrupt manipulation of the electoral process. There was widespread outrage in the media. Perhaps the best column written on that electoral fraud was that of Waziri Adio. It was titled: A joke carried too far. It was brimming with justifiable anger against INEC, the PDP and Wabara; it spared no one directly or indirectly involved. Nobody reading that piece could miss the principles underlying Waziri’s maledictions against those responsible for robbing the electorate of their true choice.

Surprisingly, a few weeks after, Senator Wabara, now Senate President, visited the Vanguard newspapers to pay a courtesy call on us; among other papers. Members of his entourage were introduced one by one and then behold the last one was Waziri Adio who had been appointed and accepted the position of senior adviser on media from the man he had all but destroyed a few weeks ago. I got up and left the room at the earliest opportunity choked with a mixture of laughter and tears. Has Nigerian media descended to this level? Of course, within days, the independent voice we read with delight on the back pages of Thisday had become the muted echo of some else’s voice.

He made his money, undoubtedly, but what happened to the integrity? Thereafter, who again would read anything written by Waziri Adio and believe it? I certainly wouldn’t because I have become convinced that he would take any position if the price is right. We are, again in 2007, about to witness another tsunami in the media. By last count, over a dozen columnists and editors have changed from the news room to the Government House or the National or State Houses of Assembly and the voices which used to thrill us with their views in support of “the masses” will henceforth tell the masses to go to hell; if that is what their masters decided.

In one article which I shall turn to later, the masses (as the fellow used to call us until May 29, 2007) have become “mob” and Nigerian Labour Congress leaders he used to deify are now regarded as unreasonable public nuisance. The PPPRA, whose arguments the former editor and columnist used to dismiss with derision has now become the saviour of Nigeria’s economy; all within a month of landing in Aso Rock. The questions that arise are the following: What could be responsible for this? How do we salvage the situation so that young men and women don’t start a career in journalism in Nigeria and regard it as a mere stepping stone to government? Can anyone really believe a chief press secretary or S.A, who turns 180 degrees and starts making claims that are the exact opposite of what he had been known for all his life?

Aso Rock disease

Let me hazard an answer to the first and last because they are inextricably related. Years ago, I had identified a disease called Aso Rock disease. It manifests itself in many forms but mostly it takes a particular form namely: It occurs when a person on reaching Aso Rock or governors’ office starts denouncing ideas with which he has been associated for a very long time. Years ago, I had tackled the late Chief Bola Ige when our dear Uncle announced that a sovereign national conference was no longer necessary after all. Despite my great reverence for Chief Ige, my greater respect for truth forced me to go public and ask if Chief Bola Ige had not been infected by the Aso Rock disease. Of course the half page article brought three pages of rejoinder and a private telephone call lasting over two and half hours with the chief claiming that he had been misquoted. There the matter ended. But, with people previously in the media accepting appointments as ministers, commissioners, CPS, SA etc., the disease becomes more virulent for obvious reasons but still let me point them out.

First, the former journalist who could denounce the President, the governor and other top officials has become an employee of the official who appointed him as well as the political party to which the employer belongs. Thereafter, their views become his, even if it is untrue. Indeed he is frequently called upon to draft the half-truths and, sometimes, the outright lies and evasions that officialdom wants the public to consume. Unlike his days in the media when he had a great deal of latitude on what to write and who to blast as well as when to do so, as an employee of government, he can only talk when ordered to do so and say only the things he is asked to say and nothing more or less. He is also required to use his connection with his former mates, still in the media, to spread cheap propaganda when the need arises.

Beneath the designer suits and native dresses is no longer a person to be believed but an errand boy or girl sitting in an outer office waiting for someone to call him and tell him what to say even if what he is to say is untrue and he knows it. It is pathetic.

Earlier on, I mentioned the fact that this tsunami occurring every four years is induced mostly by money. Now let me elaborate on the role of money in all these. It is no secret that media houses don’t pay well. Over ninety percent of those in media are probably there because they cannot find anything better to do – yet. This is in contrast to the days of the Daily Times when the editor was better paid than a federal minister and would regard appointment as minister a demotion. In reality the motivation is simply not there anymore to want to start and end one’s days in the media. James Reston of the New York Times, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun Times among other columnists have been on those beats for three or four decades and would not want to be secretary of state. Walter Cronkite, a television journalist was until his retirement regarded as more believable than every president during his years as CBS anchor man. What do these have in common? They have all chosen journalism as a career and they make their mark in that profession. Not here.

Even here, with the possible exception of the law profession, where many lawyers would want to be attorney general and minister for justice, we hardly experience the mass erosion of professionals in other fields every four years such as we witness in journalism. The top bankers Tony Elumelu, Jim Ovia, Cecilia Ibru, Erasmus Akingbola etc., probably make more honest money than the minster of finance and the governor of Central Bank. So none would seriously miss the post. So, their C.V’s are probably not among those Yar’Adua has received. Yet there is possibly no editor in Nigeria who did not envy Segun Adeniyi for landing the job of SA to the president. Pity. Where do we go from here? It is my belief that the time has come for consolidation in the media such as we have had in banking and insurance. Too many media houses are parading too many hungry staff who, as a result of their relative poverty, lack the independence that is indispensable to their role as public watchdogs.

As a corollary to that statement, it is demonstrable that in their desperate attempts to survive too many are only paying partial attention to the job. One of my co-tenants in Boston was a reporter for the Boston Globe. Because of salary that was better than that of state’s top civil servants, and other perks of the job, the fellow spent virtually all his waking hours hunting for news and reporting it and that meant almost sixteen hours every day and not once did he consider applying for government job. And he wrote the truth as close as he could get to it. But, mostly he was in journalism for life. Too many media houses are under-capitalised and life time career has become a liability making truth in journalism increasingly a casualty. How? Because a lot of stuff is now written with the possibility of landing a job as the motive not telling the public what it must know.

The general public too could help. Again, the likes of Bob Woodward and Reston probably earn more from speaking engagements on invitations by civil groups and the organized private sector. Investigative reporting, which from my personal experience with PTDF is expensive, is often sponsored by well meaning individuals and foundations in order to expose those secrets that governments don’t want exposed which reveal misrule. Why for instance is there nobody to assist in the PTDF Fund study or the import duty waiver on which the nation lost over N550 billion.

Who were the beneficiaries of this give-away programme by a government which claims to abhor subsidies? One self-deception common to those who cross over was written by one managing editor of a leading paper who became Commissioner for Information. In his last column for the paper he promised to stand by the truth in government or resign. I was skeptical. Two months after, in 2001, he issued a press release accusing the opposition of being responsible for a particular free for all fight which took place at the state capital. I happened to be in the city at the time and there was clear evidence that the ruling party’s thugs started the fracas. I wrote to him reminding him of his promise and there has been no reply till today. Those who think they will change the party from the inside are suffering from self-delusion. They, not the politicians, will change. Mark my words.

Finally, at least for this segment, the moral issue must be addressed head on. The media is an integral part of a society where integrity is no longer valued highly. Consequently, “cash-and-carry” journalism is common. The departure of the former governors and the noise about “empty treasuries” is an example. Yet, none of these governors had a consistent “loyal opposition” in the media pointing to the possibility that all might not be well. The governors invariably have pocketed the media in their states and the vast majority of “stories” are mere press releases re-worded. Yet, the state correspondents cannot escape this trap for reasons already stated.

So as more clear sounding voices turn to muffled echoes, the time has come for the media to do a rethink on its role in society and for those in the media to actually examine them selves and answer the question: do I really want this profession?

Dr. By Dele Sobowale, a Weekly columnist with the vanguard


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