When I mention the subject of this talk to friends, they ask me straight away, “Isn’t that a rather dangerous subject on which to put your head above the parapet?” And next – are you talking about media handling of the issue of corruption, or is it about the corruption of and in the media? I could only answer that I have to treat both aspects, as both are germane to the theme of this conference.
In fact I want to reverse the order and talk about corruption first, and then move on to my own special angle on this, which is of course the media. Central to the theme is political corruption which is defined by Wikipedia as “kleptocracy or rule by thieves”, and which can include criminal activities such as money-laundering, and the thorny issue of the funding of political activity, including political parties, especially at election-time, something which has been a live issue of late in Britain.
But there is a broader societal definition, covering both the private sector and the media, both public and private, because putting the question of corruption in the context of the media puts the spotlight on some of the true challenges of communication in the 21st century. As far as the private sector is concerned, we have to recognise that there is no saintliness, and the more we have international conventions on corruption, at the UN, the OECD, the more we have preaching in public on corporate social responsibility, the more it sometimes seems that devious means are invented for getting round regulations.
For example, how far is tax avoidance corruption? What about electoral corruption (you could have a whole conference on that)? And what about the whole issue of ‘commission culture’? Said K Aburish, the percipient Palestinian commentator on such matters. In his frank-speaking book from the 1980s called The Payoff which has the sub-title “wheeling and dealing in the Arab world”, he deconstructs the whole culture of the way in which business is done in the Middle East, and examines particularly the question of commissions and the crucial role of the intermediary, as well as that of the ‘skimmer’, the one sitting on top of the deal, who collects without any input by virtue of position. Though the book is highly region-specific to the Middle East, the subject is definitely also relevant in Africa. To the extent that commissions are an accepted practice in business transactions, especially where middlemen thrive, should they be considered corrupt? Is it simply the size of the percentage? I should mention in passing that I had some worrying experiences related to commissions in the advertising business when I was in charge at West Africa. The fact that media operations are businesses means that the question is bound to come up.
Looking at the issue as it relates to Africa, one needs to mention both history and globalisation. History, because, the oldest tales and stories in the world are full of venality, and more specifically the first traders and agents and so-called explorers from Europe bribed their way with beads and liquor. It has always taken two to be involved in a corrupt deal – it was in a way the earliest form of partnership, currently such a popular and abused concept. It is, and has always been, a universal phenomenon, and never more so than in the current age of globalisation. This has a direct relationship to the challenge of the rapidly evolving world of communications, which, just as it has an important role in facilitating trade, also perforce facilitates corruption.
Thus, if globalisation helps internationalise corrupt practices, it also offers more chances for the media to put those practices under scrutiny through the widening opportunities offered through the new technology of communications. Such phenomena as websites and inter-active Blogs, all part of what has been called “the democratisation of information”, can permit a story to be marvellous widely circulated, even if the downside is lack of control of irresponsible material and sometimes downright lies. This touches on one of my main themes, that if the media – internationally and in Africa – has a major role in helping in the struggle against corruption, it needs to ensure by all means that it does not become part of the problem. In the task of unearthing corruption, the media is bound to work with others that are in a more authoritative position than they to know what is going on, especially from ‘well placed sources’ or even moles inside government. One has to honestly admit that there have been fairly few exposés of corruption anywhere in the world that have been carried out single-handedly by the media, even if they have been essential vehicles for the material, and the obvious means of publicising it, and, why not, on occasion have been important and sometimes crucial accomplices.
There would thus seem to be serious dangers here, especially when you look at what is usually called ‘investigative journalism’. This has been present from the earliest days of the development of newspapers, which, let’s face it, were often scurrilous rags (hence the expressions ‘Grub Street’ and ‘the yellow press’, and more recently the “Street of Shame”), and it became a particular practice in the USA, again with faces which were both reputable (in the case of the Watergate scandal) and disreputable. In Britain, investigative journalism was made into a media cult in the 1970s with the ‘Insight’ section of The Sunday Times, which produced some vitally important exposures of scandals such as that on the drug Thalidomide. In the profession we all respected Insight, as a model and example of what can be produced by the best sort of investigation.
In London at the moment there is a book that has been making a lot of waves because of its harsh expose of a perceived current decline in standards in the media. This decline is attributed to a combination of official and commercial pressures, but in the context of the technological revolution in communications, which brings us the Internet and 24 hour rolling news. The book is called Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies (‘flat earth’ being when total fictions become accepted truths) and it casts a searchlight on for example, the shortcomings of wire services, increasingly sloppy practices in newsrooms, the use of official propaganda and disinformation with recent examples from the so-called ‘war on terror’, but also the subtle penetrations of public relations (PR), and what are known as the dark arts of spin. Although there is a whole chapter on PR, it escapes relatively lightly in he book compared with the strictures on journalists “The point” says the author, “is not that PR is to blame for all the falsehood and distortion that runs through the media…the media themselves, operating as a news factory, have become structurally wakened to the point where they routinely betray their own function by passing on unchecked PR to their readers and viewers…” Most serious, however, says Davies, is the corruption of the ideal of investigative journalism in what sometimes seems to be a near criminal quest, using the techniques of espionage and worse, for news at any price, not from a search for truth but from a desire to sell more papers or attract more viewers.
In Africa investigative journalism has not been well developed, in part because of the power of government, which can both influence and intimidate. If I can begin to draw here on my experience at West Africa, let me identify at least two independent newspaper operators who helped to bring down regimes that were, it is true democratic, and partly multi-party regimes. It is hard to imagine something like that happening in military regimes, which on the whole put the media both on the defensive and on their mettle. In the ‘90s, Nigerian journalists knew one of their finest, if most tragic hours. The two early cases of which I speak, are, firstly, in Sierra Leone – that of Ibrahim Taqi whose stories of corruption that appeared in the opposition newspaper We Yone helped finish Sir Albert Margai in 1967; and secondly, in Ghana – that of Kofi Badu whose independent paper The Spokesman, whose stories of the shortcomings of the Busia government meant there was a great public indifference to the arrival of the military regime of General Acheampong in 1972, and the attendant collapse of democracy for twenty years.
There have many others in Africa who have tried sailing near the political wind on questions of corruption, especially after what you might call the ‘hundred flowers’ period after 1990, when independent papers, radio stations and TV channels began to flourish. Indeed there have been some, such as Norbert Zongo, an editor in Burkina Faso whose investigations got too close to the President, ended up very dead ten years ago; or Deyda Hydara, doyen of Gambian journalists, shot in December 2004 for independence of thinking. That is only to name two from West Africa, but there have been other similar cases elsewhere in the continent. Journalism is all too frequently a fragile calling.
But while praising wholeheartedly those who are ready to make great sacrifice for their profession, there are dangers in some of the practices which those who have taken advantage of the ‘democracy dispensation’ of nearly twenty years ago have brought into being. The headiness of freedom all too easily become licence, and has sometimes led to irresponsible or careless journalism, by those incompetent or not properly trained, which brings into the argument the whole crucial question of inadequate pay for media practitioners, a world wide problem incidentally but one which is particularly pertinent in Africa. We are all familiar with the vexed issue of ‘brown envelopes’, which is by no means just a Nigerian problem, and the crying need to raise the status of the profession, which is something that can only really be done from within, by the media themselves.
Capacity building, as it is fashionably called, but which is covered by the old word of training, is also central to this status raising. Lindsay Ross Director of the Commonwealth Press Union tells me that in their various pan-Commonwealth training courses they have on occasion tried teaching on the subject, such as one on “Combating Corruption: the Ethics of Responsible Journalism” which was held seven years ago in Dar es Salaam, but it is often the case, she says, that donors prefer to sponsor courses that are directly related to Millennium Development Goals and poverty alleviation. I must express my approval of something like the Soyinka Award for Investigative journalism, and the fact that the EFCC has been organising its own courses in the subject, even if a recent one in Ibadan was unfortunately disrupted by armed robbers.
I was shown the report on the Dar es Salaam course mentioned above which is illuminating on the realities of what journalists, including editors, have to face. For instance there was a Tanzanian editor who recounted how he regularly had to pay civil servants for access to official reports, and described his relationship with them as “gentlemen’s agreements between consenting adults“. To quote from the report:
“The World Bank and other well-meaning international agencies repeatedly draw attention to the vital role of a free press in combating corruption and in nurturing truly democratic societies. But where do they think these knights in shining armour ready to fight the good fight are going to be found?”
I am also concerned about what you actually can teach in investigative journalism other than how to cut professional corners and use dubious techniques of information gathering. Let me quote again from Flat Earth News on “the dark arts” about a media sting on a private investigator, where you found “Fleet Street’s finest calling up their suppliers to order their illegal supplies – criminal records, ex-directory telephone numbers, itemised phone billings, mobile phone records, lists of friends and family telephone numbers, credit card statements bank statements, driving licence details”. Is this what we have to teach? As a means of finding out information it seems morally to be moving downhill rather fast.
Lindsay Ross told me that she had two serious reservations on the subject – one, that NGOs and civil society too often try to shape this kind of training to their own agenda which may not necessarily accord with the better aspects of journalism, and two, that in the West we should be careful of not transmitting to developing countries in the guise of training our own bad habits – and, as Flat Earth News demonstrates, we are scarcely a role model. That octogenarian media icon Derek Ingram told me just before I travelled to Abuja that he thought all journalism should be automatically investigative. It was what journalism was about.
I must mention here, briefly, the experience of a South African publication called Noseweek, which I only discovered last November on a visit to Cape Town. It struck me as one of the most fearless of publications in Africa but concentrates, it is true, on the less responsible forms of corporate activity, private rather than public sector, running a constant risk of court cases, but allowed to exist, Like many of us, it does not tell all it knows. But it is a model of its kind, even if it has a lot of critics. It made me think what Stanley Egbochuku and I might have been able to do with the short-lived but high quality newsletter called Business Confidential which we produced together in Lagos back in 2001, had we had a little more time, and maybe courage. It disappeared into the wider publication Business Day, which still retains a few fragments of the idea in its psyche.
I’d like here to draw on one or two more cases from my own long-ranging experiences of forty-eight years in and around the media, My connection with West Africa magazine goes back a long time. When I first started there in the 1960s I was overly impressed by stories one had heard of a journalist for a well known international news agency whose body had been found in the Seine because it was rumoured that he had got too close to a story about diamond smuggling from Guinea. Diamonds, indeed, were a subject about which one was supposed to be very careful, and I must admit that on a visit to Sierra Leone in 1966 and actually reported on the surreal goings on in the government diamond office in Kenema, with all the Lebanese traders with their suitcases of currency notes. I told what I saw but did not ask too many questions. I was also aware of how far the media were circumscribed in many countries by laws, especially in UK, by the restrictive libel laws.
One of the earliest such cases I remember involved a well-known construction company which extracted an apology and a sum of money from Overseas Newspapers (a subsidiary of The Daily Mirror, the then owner of the magazine) because we had carried material from one of the post-1966 coup commissions of inquiry in Ghana, which was apparently deemed by the lawyers to be not privileged information and therefore unusable and potentially libellous. In retrospect this was a form of intimidation, but at the time it simply appeared to be a part of the natural order of media practice.
An ironic postscript to this story comes from the early 1990s when another Ghana libel case in the British press was rejected simply on the evidence of a Ghanaian commission of inquiry. Thus had the law of precedent changed in thirty years.
When I was later in charge of West Africa I had to cope with a number of libel actions, most of which brought me to the cynical conclusion that those who sue for libel are far too often those that had very little reputation to defend. But they did lead me into a certain knowledge of the need for deadly accuracy, as when we had to apologise for saying a well- known West African judge was forced to resign because of his wife’s involvement in a toxic waste scandal, when in fact he had officially voluntarily retired. But I must confess that on the whole my own record on taking the risk to do what Hugh Cudlipp of The Daily Mirror had called “publish and be damned” may sometimes sound quite modest. Perhaps because of natural cowardice, I too have not been a knight in shining armour.
Apart from my long career in journalism, I also had interludes as a public relations officer on development issues at the European Commission in Brussels, and later at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, which means that I have been able to study these issues from both sides of the fence. In my official capacity as a bureaucrat and spin doctor, though I was under some kind of constraint about confidential material, I never seemed to have the real access. Maybe I was still thought of by the bureaucrats as a journalist, and therefore not quite to be trusted, even if my journalist friends saw me as a turncoat. One of the hardest obstacle to overcome, and this was as true in Marlborough house as in the Berlaymont building, was overcoming the distrust felt on the part of the secretive world of bureaucrats, of the media and all their works, when like everyone else, they had a job to do.
In Brussels I found there was a mass of material marked ‘Restricted’ that did not need to be thus marked, being mostly boring and uncontroversial, as well as containing often useful research material, and which we were even discreetly encouraged, if only by a few, to let pass into the public domain. At that time the Commission leaked like a sieve because there were so many different sources in a number of member states, that no-one could ever identify where the leaks came from.
As is often the case, the people at the top, the Commissioners, were the worst leakers of all, but in my own small way I made my contribution to the culture of leaking. I could scarcely be called whistleblower – they came later, at the time of the affair of Edith Cresson’s dentist – and I suspect things are much tighter now. But development was always a marginal story anyway, and even some of the available possibly damaging material that regularly surfaced in the report of the Court of Auditors about things like abuses in food aid, never seemed to be big news. This was to some extent surprising, as the European Development Fund has always swallowed large amounts of European taxpayers’ money, in comparison to which the money spent by a small-scale and abstemiously run affair like the Commonwealth Secretariat amounts to chicken-feed.
The heightened interest of civil society NGOs in such matters has probably made greater awareness of faults in the aid distribution system (which I can confirm are many), as has been seen in the way recent opposition in Africa to the Economic Partnership Agreements was mounted, using civil society significantly more than the media. But, speaking from experience on both sides of the fence, the aid business has not been subjected to the kind of responsible journalistic scrutiny that it perhaps deserves.
I must also say that the spoon-feeding of correspondents at the mid-day briefing in Brussels was a sight that had to be witnessed to be believed. I don’t know if it is the same now, but I suspect so. This does not mean that I am not still a convinced supporter of media freedoms, appalled at harassment and persecution of journalists that goes on in Africa, or that it is still not one of the best professions in the world. But above all the press, in particular, has to put its own house in order by training, rewarding and making dignified the profession, as well as finding acceptable way for proper self-regulation.
The situation of the media in Africa has vastly changed in the years in which I have known the continent. And will change much more, as the whole media scene, under the influence of this technological revolution to which I have referred still going on, fragments, evolves into more of a peoples’ arena. I am still convinced of the value of well-trained and morally aware professional journalists in order to make sense of and guide us through the morass of information views and opinion that are overwhelming us.
There is no substitute for them, and they constitute (perhaps because of the shortcomings of too many of their colleagues) an under-estimated pillar of a free society. We also need to make sure that in Africa as elsewhere the media role as guardian of freedom is defined and clarified, as the limits between liberty and licence become ever more confused. For the public, and the political class, we need at this time a better understanding of how the media works, and of its constraints, such as deadlines and budgets, and by responsible custodians, are even more important in this brave new technological world in which we live.
In which circumstances one needs even more to remember Justice Goldberg’s observation, which applies as much to electronic as to print media, and somehow needs also to be scrupulously applied to the internet – “An editor’s job is to edit”.
Kaye Whiteman, a Journalist and Media Consultant delivered this paper at the Timex Global Communication Summit held in Abuja, Nigeria.