EXPOSING THE MEDIA’S UNDERBELLY IN THE TOWN HALL
If you were to look across the Nigerian media landscape, you would be an incurable optimist to not find the view distressing. The Nigerian media is renowned for its vibrancy and for famously leading a pushback against the military between 1985 and 1999. But it has lately struggled under the crushing weight of a harsh economic environment and digital disruption. The two issues have eroded revenue and public trust as media managers struggle with the effects of new dynamics of and the demands to fulfil its statutory role. Critics will add though that these are not the only reasons the Nigerian media is losing colour; because investigative reporting thrived in the dark years of military rule, when the likes of Newswatch, TheNEWS and Tell served as powerful centres for investigative reporting. The commitment of the founders of those news organisations and their journalists to the social responsibility of holding those in power to account also placed them, along with many other newspapers, at the centre of pro-democratic struggles against the military. As some suggest, the media is guilty of internal failures including but not limited to its addiction to converting influence to money and the loss of biting power that this entails.
Some studies of the Nigerian media have found that investigative reporting is at an embarrassingly low six percent of published stories. That of course means two things: most of the media favour ‘recycling press releases’ from the political and business elite; and ‘circulating spins and partisan rhetoric’ as news. The result is that despite the recent commitment of a few digital-born newspapers to return to investigative reporting, most newspaper reports offer the same diet of predominantly elite voices that come through press releases. It’s so dull that reading one lead story in a major newspaper is enough to guess correctly what you would find in the others. That’s until the simple issue of an invitation to a presidential debate or what the organiser calls a Town Hall meeting gifted Nigerians a ring-side view of the media equivalent of a brawl or what the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti liked to describe as ‘roforofo’ fight. I see that some young journalists have expressed their fears that the public spat between the editors of THISDAY and ARISE Television on one side and the All Progressives Congress (APC’s) Presidential Campaign Council amounts to a washing of the media’s dirty linen in the public. Of course, any young journalist who is serious about his craft should be worried about the long-lasting effect of the kind of narrative that has emerged in the last two weeks.
Take a close look at the arguments from both sides and you could summarise those four statements issued in the last two weeks into a simple question of elite domination of the media. The picture being painted is a media environment in which those who are powerful enough could influence the way in which they are reported. To therefore dwell on the refusal of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the APC to appear at a debate hosted by THISDAY and ARISE is to miss the chance to openly debate the cancer that’s killing the media. Some quick words on the presidential debates though. The United States, which made this exercise popular offers some lessons on organizing credible debates and I think we should pay attention. Apart from the first one that was held in 1960, and which was sponsored by ABC, CBS and NBC, the three media giants; the debate appears to have moved away from direct media sponsorship since then. The ones in 1976, 1980 and 1984 were sponsored by the League of Women Voters, while the ones from 1988 to 2016 were organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a non-profit set up for the sole purpose of organizing these all-important debates. Even so, the CPDs choice of corporate sponsorships had raised concerns.
So, clearly, if we cared so much about the debate that brings the presidential candidates of the political parties together, why should we not care about the platform on which they gather? I think it is reasonable to believe that a debate organized on the platform of the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) or the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigerian (BON) or even both would be sufficiently stronger than one by a media organisation that is not trusted by some of the candidates and their parties. I agree that Nigerians deserve the chance to see and listen to the candidates present their detailed programmes in the format of formal debates but if there are concerns that affect the credibility of the platform on which those debates are organized; those concerns ought to be addressed at the very least. Otherwise, and as it is not a requirement for standing in the coming elections, Nigerians should be allowed to decide who rules them. If they choose to punish those who have avoided the debates, our democracy would have moved a step forward, If they don’t, we would have another evidence of the arrogance of the media, which is still holding on to the diminished idea that it is an agenda setter. Until next February, I think Nigerians should take some time to think about what the last two weeks of ‘roforofo’ fight says of the quality of the media.
I will try to summarise the allegations from both sides. The Board of Editors of THISDAY/ARISE News accused APC’s presidential campaign media team led by its Director of Media and Publicity, Mr. Bayo Onanuga and its Director, Strategic Communication, Mr. Dele Alake of trying to ‘silence independent media, cower as well as bully free press ahead of the 2023 general elections in what they described as a copycat style of former US President, Donald Trump against independent media’. The Board in a joint statement titled: “Tinubu and THISDAY/ARISE Media Group and the Attack on Free Speech,” noted that Tinubu’s campaign had resorted to attacking the Chairman of THISDAY and ARISE TV, Nduka Obaigbena and accused him and his organisations of bias against the APC Presidential Candidate. On their part, the APC’s presidential campaign media team point to a story they claimed baselessly linked their candidate with a drug case in the US and accused the two organisations of a dubious attempt to blackmail their candidate into attending the Town Hall meetings they had organized. Even if you ignored the other allegations that questioned the character of both Obaigbena and Tinubu because they are on the borderline of libel, the ones relating to the performance of the media deserve attention.
It might be difficult to prove that there was an attempt to muzzle the media in this case but for anyone who has passed through a newsroom in Nigeria, this in nothing strange at all. Elite influences come in different guises and they trump editorial independence all the time because media owners have prized friends that are untouchable, just as advertisers want favour for their money. Media managers do not hesitate to move journalists who do anything to hurt the ‘business,’ even though this business model has done little to halt the decline that is killing media houses.
With print runs down to a meagre 1,000 to 5,000 copies in some of the newspaper houses and advertisers migrating online, it might be tempting for media owners and managers to indulge the clientelism that puts money in private pockets. That model enriches a few, weakens editorial independence and erodes ethics. In this model, you might see ‘celebrity’ journalists whose egos grow but only at the expense of the organisation, which gives them a platform to ‘bully’ the reluctant business and political elite into playing ball. In this sort of environment, how does a battered and discredited media remake itself? It looks to me like this should be the question that journalists should be asking because it goes to the root of most of the things wrong with the industry.
In an industry where only a few organisations manage to pay staff regularly, the crooked and lopsided relationship between the media and the elite exposes journalists to manipulation. The temptation to compromise is high, and in the attempt to serve special interests, breeds bias and blackmail. Interestingly, media organisations that have attempted to discourage such practices by imposing ethical codes have experienced a pushback from the business and political elites. Either way, you hardly hear of these things outside of newsrooms. If your editor or publisher moved you because you wrote a negative story against a ‘client,’ you simply moved because that would be good for ‘business’. You only hear organisations complaining about requests to move a journalist for doing what he is paid to do when money is not involved.