Engaging the media for public good -By Lekan Sote

Filed under: Democracy & Governance |

Lekan Sote

It is necessary to correct the impression that the media is the Fourth Estate of the Realm after the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial arms of modern governments, though that may be acceptable in the separation of political powers equation.

The idea of the media as the fourth estate came from English political theorist, Edmund Burke, who suggested in a House of Commons debate in 1787 that the media is the Fourth Estate of the Realm after the lords spiritual, or the clergy; the lords temporal, the Crown and the noblemen; and the Commons, or the plebian.

The Crown was the sole authority in England, before the noblemen wrested some powers off it, with the pretext of protecting the interest of the commons. The works of Charles Dickens, “The Great Expectations,” and “Oliver Twist,” show how the gluttonous elite took advantage of the commons.

The media undertook to be the voice and advocate-in-the-behalf of the commons against the excesses of the lords spiritual and the lords temporal, and thus became the fourth estate of the English political realm.

Tom Burns records: “The (House of) Commons had begun life as the spokesman… of public opinion. The primary purpose of including representatives of the bourgeois and of the propertied countrymen… in the Model Parliament of 1295… was ‘to inform the Crown about local conditions and help to influence public opinions.’ They discharged these functions… as bearers, intermediaries, or discussants of the large number of petitions for relief or remedy presented to the King in Parliament.”

Burns adds: “The political role of the press evolved… during the eighteenth century largely because the practice of Parliament, and the relationship of the Parliament to the Commons, departed so grossly from the constitutional principles on which the authority and powers of Parliament were claimed to rest.”

Burns concludes: “The press alone rivalled the House of Commons, in that it was the only organ of public opinion capable of dictating to the Government, since nothing else could speak the sense of the people.”

Chroniclers of Nigeria’s media history may have observed that the Nigerian media came before the Nigerian parliament. In 1859, Anglican missionary, Henry Townsend, published “Iwe Irohin fun Awon Ara Egba Ati Yoruba,” the newspaper for the Egba and the Yoruba, in Abeokuta.

Some scholars argue that there was an earlier newspaper publication in Calabar. “The Anglo African,” first published by Jamaican Robert Campbell in 1863, followed. Then came Richard Olamilege Beale Blaize’s, “The Lagos Times and Gold Coast Advertiser” in 1880.

Nigeria’s first “pretend” parliament came with the 1922 Clifford’s Constitution with a legislative council of 27 official, and 19 unofficial, members. Electoral franchise was limited to Lagos and Calabar, and Northern Nigeria was not represented in this parliament-until the 1946 Richards Constitution corrected the omission.

It is almost a given that Nigerians with political ambition must own a media house, have worked in the media, or have friends, or sympathisers in the media. Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, Segun Osoba, and former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida, respectively represent these groups of politicians.

The need by politicians to have a media platform may explain the plethora of ephemeral community newspapers that flame out soon after their proprietors either got elected into political offices, or lost interest in politics.

Yet, the role of the media in post-colonial Nigeria, especially under the iron-fisted and draconian military regimes, has been heroic, if not suicidal. Nigerian media professionals have lost lives, limbs, livelihoods, and liberty.

Section 22 of the Nigerian Constitution provides that “The press, radio, television, and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in (Chapter II of this Constitution), and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people.”

Section 39(1) provides that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinion, and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” Section 39(2) provides that “Without prejudice to the generality of sub-section (1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish, and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas, and opinions.”

By the way, media includes books. After Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, “The Jungle,” reported how rotten and poisoned meat ended in food stores, American President Theodore Roosevelt initiated the Pure Food and Drug Act, that forbade sale of adulterated and mislabelled food, and the Meat and Inspections Act that introduced the inspection and grading of meat.

The Nigerian Constitution grants to every citizen, and not only the media or media professionals, the right to freedom of expression, with the responsibility to hold the government accountable to the people.

Ownership of a media house is the ultimate platform that a polity can grant a citizen to exercise freedom of expression. Many however express doubts, or indignation, that the Nigerian media is not living up to its billings.

News stories have become results of stage-managed media events, choreographed by expert public relations professionals, who prowl in media newsrooms like the traders that Jesus sent out of the synagogue in anger.

These PR professionals hand down “canned copies,” or virtually pre-written news stories, to reporters who do “cut-and-paste,” almost without editing, or seeking other perspectives. They do not even go for side-bars, or incidental occurrences that can juice up the main story.

The bigger tragedy is that many journalists do not have a nose for news, and do not also insist on equal time for all angles of news stories. It is argued in some quarters that the “brown envelope,” bribe, tip, gratification, appreciation, honorarium, or whatever, seems to have become an enduring hallmark of the media.

The Nigerian journalist must look into the mirror, and ask if the person looking back at them is a thoroughbred professional. Each must remember the scriptural admonition that he who will remove the speck from the eye of his neighbour must first remove the beam from his own eyes.

Lest this be misinterpreted for a call for adversarial journalism, let it be known that there must be wholesome collaboration between the media, the government, and the corporate world. To sell the “Change Begins With Me” concept, for example, government should seek the media’s collaboration.

Those who manage the image of Nigeria’s political actors should take a look at Walter Isaacson’s book, “Kissinger,” to read Kissinger’s grace notes on how collaboration between governments and the media is handled without compromising the media or national security.

As National Security Adviser, and Secretary of State to American President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, forged a working alliance between the government and the media. Wale Aboderin, Chairman, PUNCH Nigeria Limited, understands this. He advocates: “African media (should) bridge the communication gap between policymakers and the citizens, to allow for a two-way feedback engagement.”

Even the Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, is wise to such collaborations. He recently engaged the proprietors of print and electronic media houses over the brac-a-brac between belligerent Arewa and pro-Biafra youths.

The media must move away from hype, and promote edifying values and principles to benefit Nigeria. But to do this, the media must be well-informed, daunting as that may sound. Then, it must present all perspectives, and align with what works in the interest of Nigerians on Main Street, in Any Town, Nigeria.

Follow me on Twitter @lekansote1

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