Last week, there was an outbreak of peace in the palaver between the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and DAAR Communications Plc, owners of Africa Independent Television (AIT) and RayPower FM. NBC had shut down the two stations a few days earlier on charges of alleged violation of the broadcasting code. The company took the NBC to court and the court asked the combatants to maintain the status quo before the war. However, three leaders of the media industry, Mr. Ismaila Isa, former NPAN (Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria) president, Mr. Sam Amuka, publisher of the Vanguard and patron of the NPAN, and Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, NPAN president and publisher of ThisDay newspapers quickly stepped into the matter and resolved it amicably. By the decisions reached at the meeting, the NBC is to lift the suspension on the broadcasting organisation, while DAAR Communications is to withdraw its case from the court. It will also appoint an ombudsman that is to look over its shoulders in matters of professionalism and ethics. These decisions are to be filed in court as evidence of out-of-court settlement.
There is an African proverb that says it is better to drive away the preying hawk before spraying the straying cock with words of caution. So, it seems appropriate now to say something about the condition and conduct of the media generally. The mainstream media in Nigeria today are struggling with enormous challenges that threaten to drive them to extinction. These challenges, which manifest themselves in low patronage (adverts, readership/viewership, etc) have led to low professional and ethical practices. Secondly, most journalists who work for mainstream media owned by federal and state government and private companies seem to misunderstand their professional roles in these media vis-a-vis their duty to their proprietors. When I was editor of the Sunday Times in the early 1980s, we had a problem with correspondents of the Daily Times Group. They were in the habit of sending only negative stories about the UPN, the opposition party then, and only positive stories about the ruling party, NPN. The Daily Times Group was owned 60% by the Federal Government through NICON Insurance then. So, we the editors decided to invite the correspondents to a meeting in Lagos. At the meeting, they shocked us by saying that they thought that we wanted them to file only negative stories about the UPN. Mark you, they received no such directive from the Daily Times management. They were merely speculating on what they thought the proprietor would prefer them to do. That sort of mindset is still prevalent today in the industry. I have no idea if Dr. Raymond Dokpesi, a PDP stalwart, ever directed his newsmen and women to do unprofessional things in his media. If he gave such orders, why would any true professional carry them out instead of politely explaining what the rules require him to do? My submission is that most of the unprofessional things that are done in the media are not done on the orders of the proprietors. They are done based on the sycophantic attitude of some of the journalists to the neglect of their professional canons and ethics. Last year, my colleagues Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed, Soji Akinrinade and I were hired to conduct a training programme in a government-owned newspaper in one of the South South states. While we were there, a group of people organised a public demonstration against a policy of the state government. Several news media carried the story but the government-owned newspaper did not. When we asked the editor why he killed the story he simply stammered and said he did not think it was publishable. And mark you, no government official asked him not to publish it. He was simply afraid of possible consequences. We told him that he should have published the story of the demonstration along with the government’s justification for its decision. Secondly, he could have tucked the story inside the newspaper so as not to give it undue prominence. When we told him these, his face fell like a cook-book cake. He looked utterly miserable. He knew he could have done better. Editors can make serious mistakes because of either ignorance or lack of courage. Either of these deficiencies can bring trouble to them or their organisations. Part of the problem for such mistakes is that some editors have failed to embrace the democratic management of news as practised in many developed countries today. When I started journalism in the ’70s, the editor was a dictator. It was he, and he alone, who decided the placement of news stories, especially for the front and back pages. Today, the editor is expected to be a democrat who jointly decides the placement of the news with his colleagues through discussion and argumentation. This method enriches decision-making and reduces the possibility of mistakes.
Some editors make the mistake of trying to second-guess their publishers on the way they ought to do their job. There is the common saying that who pays the piper calls the tune. That is true only to a limited extent. Of all the items published in a newspaper or broadcast on radio or television, what the proprietor is legally entitled to is the editorial or newstalk. The editorial or newstalk is the property of the proprietor, which is not negotiable. So, what the media owe their proprietors are the editorials or newstalk and a decent defence of the proprietor’s interest without compromising their professionalism and ethics. I have always said that it is possible, very possible, to marry proprietorial interest with professionalism and ethics without mortgaging either. Apart from the editorial, everything else in a newspaper is in the province of the professional. So, if a newspaper is professionally deficient, the editor is to blame, not the proprietor.
The decision by the peacemakers on the NBC/DAAR Communications face-off was that the news organisation should establish the office of the ombudsman. That is a good suggestion. The Daily Times appointed Mr. Alade Odunewu many years ago as ombudsman because of his ample experience before he became ombudsman. His decisions were easily respected by the editors of the Daily Times Group. When the chairman of Punch newspaper, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, was president of the NPAN, he was worried about the possibility of a government clampdown on the newspapers that had rejected the Press Council idea. He chose a respected retired judge as the ombudsman that would assist the print media to walk on the straight and narrow path of professional propriety but the man was ill-equipped for the job. The job of an ombudsman has to do with the canons of professional journalism practice and ethics, not law. Any ombudsman, therefore, must be an experienced, well-informed journalist capable of earning the respect of his colleagues. In a television or radio station, an ombudsman can look at the news and sensitive recorded programmes but he can do nothing about live programmes, except to offer general advice to panelists. However, the fact that a medium has an ombudsman has the advantage of keeping everybody on their toes professionally because a reprimand by an ombudsman is an unfavourable testimonial. It would be a good idea if all media choose to have an ombudsman to assist them maintain balance.
We have to acknowledge, however, that the challenges that the media face today are enormous: low advert and sales figures, poor readership culture, rise of the new media, irregular payment of wages, an underperforming economy, especially in the manufacturing sector, low disposable income by the income-earning class, lifting fake news from online platforms, etc. These have led to the watering down of our journalism standard, the sexing up of stories or outright sensationalism so as to improve readership and buyership. But these are no real solutions to the problem. Media organisations must collaborate in areas where collaboration is possible. One area is in the joint distribution of newspapers. Another is in the printing of colleagues’ newspapers in the regions. That is already happening with some of the newspapers and the cost-sharing benefits everybody involved.
At present, none of the paper manufacturing factories at Oku-Iboku and Iwopin is working even though they had been auctioned years ago to private companies. Newspapers, therefore, have to source their newsprint and art paper from abroad. With the high foreign exchange rate that adds enormous cost to the production bill, one expects the NPAN to take this up with the authorities and push for a tariff-free or considerably reduced tariff regime on newsprint and art paper, which are raw materials for education.
I think the Nigerian Press Organisation should engage all the stakeholders on the declining situation of the media in Nigeria. The media are not like any other business. They represent one of the pillars of democracy. If the media do not survive, our democracy will not survive. An all-inclusive conference that will address the many-faceted problems of the Nigerian media should be a good starting point. In many jurisdictions today, the online media have adversely affected the dominance and bottom line of the mainstream media. The only exception is India. In the 10-year period between 2006 and 2016, newspaper circulation figures in India have grown from 39.1 million copies to 62.8 million copies, a whopping 60% increase. In 2015, while the newspaper circulation in India rose by 12%, the figures in the US dropped by 7%, Germany and France by 3% and the United Kingdom by 12%. How can we learn from India? What is it doing right that we are not doing? It cannot simply be its huge population. Our population may not be as huge as India’s but it is substantial. The decision makers in our media should put heads together and interrogate various issues, issues in education, readership, income distribution, foreign exchange usage, importation of publishing inputs versus local production, etc. Several newspapers and television stations are dying slowly; many magazines are now publishing only online editions because they cannot cope with the cost of producing hard copy editions. If this situation continues to deteriorate, then we will lose the advantage of media pluralism that has served our democracy reasonably well. I urge the leaders in the media industry who have successfully chased away the hawk that wanted to devour their chicken to turn attention to how to save the chicken from itself and for society.