Did journalists know what they were doing the other day when newspapers reported them to be literally begging for government financial support to remain in circulation? That was a disgrace, if they did, and still proceeded. It was even worse if they did not know. The very idea of government or governance the world over is to subdue or at least to subordinate society. That is why the media as an institution exist as the advocate of the underdog.
The desperation of journalists begging for government intervention must have been caused by harsh economic realities. This is not peculiar to the moment or even Nigeria, and yet, such is no excuse. Given the freedom under Nigerian Constitution for any willing citizen to establish a media outfit, the whole venture is voluntary, except perhaps the desire to provide jobs for professionals. That does not and should not add any spice to the voluntary desire to establish a media house. Indeed, it is like enlisting in a volunteer force.
As a universal phenomenon, a latent priority over any desire to create job opportunities is the underlying profit motive. In effect, calling on government for financial support is preposterous. Governments exist to regulate society and media outfits are self-appointed to make governments accountable. Where then does financial assistance come without consequential corrupt influence? As one of Nigeria’s leading nationalists, Obafemi Awolowo, once put it, You don’t feed your opponent to make him strong to fight you. No matter how politically incorrect that might sound, it was and is still the reality, especially in government-press relations. In stable societies, media existence and development are matters of survival of the fittest. There is never and there should be no question of financial pampering by the government. It is a matter of pride and professional imperative.
The battle for the withdrawal of government subsidy for oil and fertiliser was led by the media. Is it, therefore, not a matter of shame and monumental hypocrisy for the same media to be cringing for government subsidy to survive? Furthermore, only the defeat of former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015 exposed the embarassing scandal that, despite media hostility, he (Jonathan) had subsidised private media to the tune of over N500 million in the run-up to the elections. What happened to the money? If the media compel public office holders to account for public funds, why must the same media not account for the largesse collected from the government? And the audacity of soliciting for fresh government financial subsidy? Under what sub-head? Security vote, the scrapping of which the media mobs all the time?
Only philanthropists, even if profit-motivated, a legitimate desire, venture into publishing. Of course, media industry is such that customers are not only right but also determine the fate. Give them the necessary stuff and they remain addicted to the editorial contents and supportive advertisement, the oxygene of any publication. Despite these prospects, a major determinant is economic fortune from politics. Again, this is not peculiar to the moment or Nigeria. In the past, such casualties included Daily Mail, West African Pilot, Daily Success, Daily Service, Southern Nigeria Defender, Daily Comet, Drum magazine, Spear magazine and Newswatch. None sought financial support from the government and none was rescued. Indeed, in 1961, Tafawa Balewa ventured into media ownership with the Post Group publishing Morning Post and Sunday Post. Blatant political partisanship sank the effort despite the huge public funds invested. Despite these setbacks, other newspapers emerged, all on private investment without government financial subsidy. Among them were The Punch, The Concord, The Guardian, The Vanguard, This Day, Daily Trust, Leadership, The SUN, Tell magazine, The Nation. Of the lot, only the Concord Group has disappeared, for obvious reasons, the publisher’s political mishap.
What, therefore, is so particular with today’s private publications to warrant unprecedented government financial support? What were the outcome or benefit of government intervention fund for aviation sector, insurance industry, etc? The answer lies with Assets Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON). The very idea of any type of government intervention fund or subsidy always opens opportunities for a new set of crooks to loot public funds with even motor touts claiming to be stakeholders eligible to be assisted usually as potential investors in the sector concerned. How much was ever recovered? What was the outcome of the National Economic Reconstruction Fund (NERFUND)?
In another aspect, where does the Federal Government financial intervention to rescue private media in Nigeria? While appreciating serious and responsible sections of such media, the last 15 years unleashed on the nation such rag sheets with the main focus of scandalising otherwise innocent public figures or predicting and in fact pronouncing the death of any Nigerian of note, all under the so-called freedom of the press. Inevitably, they create tension with the fake news. Where in the free world is such practised as journalism? Rather cheekily, government is expected to pour public fund in a rescue mission for such gutter fellows?
Where and how will the line be drawn for responsible sections of the media to be assisted? And musician poets will be left out or similarly subsidised financially to thrive in the business of denigrating and inciting hatred against public figures? Government must not panic or allow itself to be blackmailed into some kind of financial misadventure, which will, in Nigeria’s pattern lead to fresh tension. Before the deregulation of broadcast industry under Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in 1986, there were less than 40 radio stations and far fewer television stations in Nigeria. Opening up the broadcast industry increased the number to almost 400 today, most of them privately-owned. How does the Federal Government offer financial aid to such large number of private broadcasting stations? Can the government afford the huge amount involved? More alarmingly, it will be a question of time for the government to be accused, rightly or wrongly, of aiding media in only a part of the country and/or media houses owned by adherents of only a particular religion. If Federal Government can’t foresee that routine dangerous development, then the alert should be noted. But the blunt truth is that Federal Government has no business funding private media. In the democratic world, such media either die or merge with others.
In Britain, media mogul Rupert Murdock merged the non-profit making News of the World with The Sun, to reduce costs. Another newspaper (not owned by Murdock), Daily Dispatch merged with News Chronicle in 1960 while the bumper News Chronicle later that year was consumed by Daily Mail. On the other hand, despite odds and challenges, British newspapers like The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph have existed for centuries and have been kept going by their philanthropist owners and in addition, in the case of The Guardian, by donations from loyal readers. The newspaper, because of its reputation as about the most liberal in the democratic world, relies on the loyalty of its readers all over the world.
No private medium, print or electronic, in Britain or United States enjoys government financial support, largely because of self-pride and business acumen. Only government-owned radio, Voice of America, and television station C-SPAN, are like British Broadcasting Corporation (comprising radio and television) fully funded by American and British governments, respectively, without any restraint by either World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF). That is why both outfits command listening and viewing audience all over the world.
Indeed, a lesson for Nigerian government that its sole financial responsibility is to its electronic media, Nigerian Television Authority, Voice of Nigeria and Federal Radio Corporation. There is no apology. Nigerian Television Authority in particular should attract government’s attention in terms of funding. A visit to the NTA by President Muhammadu Buhari will shock him on under what strains the management and staff discharge their functions. Compared to new private television stations transmitting in various parts of the country, each with modern studios and latest equipment in the ever-changing world of technology, what passes for NTA studio is mere porta cabin. It sounds unbelievable but it is true. The equipment is totally outdated. What retains the station on air, somewhat tenuously, are the management capability of Director-General Yakubu Ibn Muhammed and the professional skill, dedication, patriotism and sacrifice of the engineering department in particular under the unassuming executive director of engineering, Dr. Okpanachi. How the man improvises with the outdated equipment is remarkable. But transmission may just snap one day. We don’t have to wait for such development.
Working conditions for staff and management are not such that can encourage. Hence, it is impossible to retain services of many capable hands, for whom NTA is merely a training ground. The sacrifice and strains of long-serving staff and managers are, therefore, better left to the imagination. Their contemporaries in private stations in comparison are high-flyers in every aspect. NTA is only one of the many parastatals under the Federal Ministry of Information, with about the largest number of parastatals. Yet, year in, year out, budget allocation to the ministry is mere pittance, in an atmosphere in which fiscal proposals are padded or allocated for renovation of edifices. For more than 25 years, NTA has been transmitting from a temporary premises in Abuja.
It is intolerable, indefensible and unfair to the patriotic men and women sweating daily to keep the station on air. To ever think of never adequately funding NTA or to ever think of priortising “fine bara” for private media? Only in Nigeria.