WHO’S AFRAID OF GOOD JOURNALISM?’
By Martins Oloja
The oracles have looked again into the seeds of time again and seen that soon and very soon, the political establishment in Nigeria will take advantage of the unfavourable climate in the political economy of a free press to move against good journalism.
And so this is a time to warn their operatives against such retrogressive policy strategy that will set back democracy. I mean, we should warn those who are beginning to feel uncomfortable with good journalism in the world’s most populous black nation that there is indeed some remarkable link between good journalism and development in a democracy.
In other words, when state actors in the country under any subterfuge approach, begin to undermine press freedom, we will understand immediately that they are just in power to foster a growing culture of ‘national greed’.
The expediency of getting our leaders to understand the role that a sycophantic press can play in their destruction is the reason for this article, which is a subtle recourse to an old diary of commentaries on the same issue at different times since 1999 when we began another uncertain democratic journey to nationhood.
It is indeed a time for reputation managers of our leaders to realise that telling them to learn the rudiments of public relations and public engagement at this time after elections, isn’t an insult. Their remit is to recognise broadcast and publication of facts that can assist in gauging groundswell of public opinions about their principals.
And here again is the thing, a recent debate on various platforms about the propriety of the style of questioning of an ‘Arise News’ anchor, Oseni Rufai and recent commentaries by even our veterans on how some official reputation managers are feeling about some newspaper columnists in the country, has raised some alarm about imminent crack down on good journalism.
It is even curious that some professional journalists who should know are joining the clique of haters of good journalism by condemning what they call adversarial journalism at this time. The writings we are beginning to see on the walls of official ‘cyber soldiers’ indicates that the next job frontier for some fake and dubious journalists is to condemn good journalism on all fronts. They are beginning to use strange sophistry to impress state actors on different digital platforms.
After reading and listening to debates and responses to commentaries on so many platforms, I am afraid that good journalism will soon be under an attack in Nigeria where democracy is currently experiencing a crisis of coherence and confidence. That will be tragic!
How will there be democracy that should nurture development without good journalism? How will there be a focus on dealing with Nigeria’s enemy number one, corruption when the right to know through civic competence isn’t guaranteed via good journalism? That is why we need to talk to our people who have been empowered to manage communications at this time that they need to unlearn bad behaviour of attacking good journalism through acidic rejoinders. They need to collect facts and data from good journalism so that they can strengthen their skills in risk analysis that will improve governance reforms the current administration needs so urgently. And here is how to achieve that development strategy:
‘Journalism, power and development’.
Let’s examine the following lines from a United Nations MacBride Commission report in 1980: Under Rights and Responsibilities of Journalists, the Commission reiterates the role of investigative journalists this way:
‘Those in authorities often tend to conceal that which is convenient or likely to arouse public opinion against them… Active pursuit and disclosure of facts which are of public interest is one of the criteria to judge a journalist’s professional capacities…The role of the investigative journalist is to question and probe the action of those in authority and to expose them whenever there is abuse of power, incompetence, corruption and other deviations….’
Let’s deconstruct this further from the way some giants in journalism have explained this aspect of good journalism:
‘The Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ)’ defines Investigative Journalism as journalism that targets systemic errors, aiming to right a wrong. This is how one of the founders of the Centre Ms Sheila Coronel summarises the definition in a case study for World Bank Institute:
‘The PCIJ always addresses systemic problems. We never look at individual cases or incidents unless we can put them in a wider context of important issues such as the environment, corruption or social disintegration. We are always looking at the specific case as part of a bigger pattern in order to point out what is wrong in the system. This is what makes these investigations possible…. For us, investigative journalism is not just techniques, it is very important to understand investigative journalism-on a philosophical level-as journalism, which holds powerful individuals and institutions for their actions…We are very conscious of the role investigative journalism can play in a young democracy in terms of enriching public debate, catalysing reforms and holding the powerful to account….’
Let’s deconstruct journalism in this context as defined by a practitioner in a book on the press by Dr Dokun Bojuwade, former executive of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ) who retired from the old MAMSER as a director (now NOA) in the early 90’s. An unidentified practitioner in Bojuwade’s book on ‘the press and public policy’ defines the role of the press this way:
‘The ideal press is the First Estate of the Realm, not the Fourth…that keeps a watchful eye on the judiciary if the institution is wrongly interpreting the law…that moderates the activities of the executive if found to be presiding over a tyrannical mandate…that keeps the parliament on its toes if the body is putting out repressive legislation…’
We need to get it right here as they did in the Philippines that thorough, investigative reports are capable of:
*Arousing public opinions against authorities or governments.
*Questioning actions of those in authorities.
*Exposing them whenever there are traits of corruption, incompetence and deviations.
*Drawing attention to tyranny, oppression, wrong interpretation.
*Exposing hypocrisies, double standard and allied matters…
*Exposing something somebody in power or office wants to hide.
This is the World Bank’s Framework on Investigative Reporting…
The world-class investigative story the World Bank Institute has been showcasing to the world in the Philippines took the investigators eight months. Tagged ‘Journalistic Legwork that Tumbled a President’, the report documented by Lars Moller and Jack Jackson for the World Bank Institute is about how a handful of Filipino journalists pulled the red carpet from under their powerful President Joseph Estrada in 2021.
The World Bank has recommended the legwork in the Philippines as a brilliant case study for journalists around the World. It is therefore pertinent for young and old journalists to understand the fact that newspapers can only be influential by the quality of regular investigative reports it publishes. It cost the Filipino investigative journalists eight million US dollars. Public officers who are afraid should expect this as we deepen democracy here.
We can see from this notebook as I have been claiming here that organic journalism isn’t public relations that most followers of people in power and their publicists want journalists to practise. Public relations goal is to manage reputation and control damage done to reputation perhaps though good journalism. This is yet another opportunity to explain this conceptual confusion to most people who do not understand what journalism is all about. Those who like to teach journalism to journalists need to know that state actors all over the world want journalists to do public relations job for them. But good journalism seeks to cover what is odd, bizarre and unusual about peoples, places and events.
That is also why some scholars have defined the most valuable product journalists sell, ‘the news’ as ‘something, somebody somewhere is trying to hide, the rest is advertising’. And facts, which are the main ingredients of news, are regarded as sacred. Journalism is people-centric. So, it is the remit of journalists to cover people, places and events but most people in authority, especially the power and business elite, would like journalists to cover up for them at all times as if journalists were their reputation managers. Anyone who does this for personal gains should not be regarded as a journalist. This should explain why before the kingdom of God will come to man again, journalists and state actors including those who are even doing well, will never be good friends. Such friendships never last. Reason? No reader or viewer or listener outside the state houses will subscribe to media that are full of praises of state actors who are mostly underachievers. Readers and listeners want to read or listen to items, notably about unusual affairs of states such as robust investments in education, critical infrastructure that lead to visible and remarkable feats in WAEC/WASCE, JAMB/UTME results. People want to read about or watch on television extraordinary investments in massive road construction and healthcare facilities that will prevent medical tourism to India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, etc. But our political actors will renovate only four school classrooms and they want the classrooms photo and the commissioning on the front pages and prime time news on radio and television. What is unusual or extra-ordinary there? What is of public interest there?
What is more nauseating, our federal legislators with strange alacrity for approving foreign loans for even consumption will want journalists to hail their recklessness. The federal legislators who would like to approve N160 million x 109 and N130 million x 360 worth of sport utility vans (SUVs) at a time of economic hardship like this would like journalists to praise them on front pages and prime-time news. The 109 senators who conducted worthless screening of ministerial nominees and imposed on the nation a cabinet of many mediocrities would like journalists covering them to cover up their ordinariness. Where is pubic-interest content in today’s parliamentary proceedings in Nigeria? What about strangeness we see daily in judicial decisions and electoral justice system?
All told, what our leaders are exhibiting in Abuja and many state capitals will always set off hard questions from good journalists. You can’t advertise a lean government and set up a bloated bureaucracy and expect public relations questions from good public affairs journalists. Even a Supreme Court that adds up votes to make number four governorship candidate number one after an election can’t expect soft editorials and questions from the media. A presidency that sets up a chaotic and incompetent bureaucracy that can’t scrutinise credentials of presidential nominees before announcements cannot blame journalists who ask hard questions about disorderliness and mediocrity in the presidency. Note this again, good journalism focuses on unusualness, extraordinariness, oddities in all aspects of human affairs. Yes, good journalism isn’t about your prominence, oratory and sophistry in lying about banditry. Good journalism won’t be hard on your significant service delivery initiative and sustainable development goals for the common good.
And so, those who want to cast stones at those who ask hard questions in the context of journalism should note that there is a correlation between good journalism and development. Therefore, sycophancy is the enemy we should be afraid of, not good journalism.
***We should continue this conversation here.
This article was first published on ‘The Guardian’, Sunday November 12, 2023, Back Page