Opinion: The President and the national conversation on media bias

by Ayo Olukotun

To be sure, objectivity and absolute impartiality or detachment were always myths; self-serving myths in the opinion of some analysts which journalists employ to divert attention from the important fact that they do not merely report the news but in a sense “make” the news.

The national conversation on topical issues, although it is occasionally magnificent, often evokes the bedlam of a vast brawling arena in which most people are talking or yelling past one another. As the martyred South African journalist, Ruth First, observed many years ago with only slight exaggeration, Nigerians are one of the most politically talkative people around the globe. But our expressiveness is not often matched by profundity or even clarity of thought. Hence, for example, President Goodluck Jonathan’s recent critical remarks on what he calls the politicisation and bias of the Nigerian media have received little critical or informative analysis. Worse still, some have even queried, as it were, the right of the President to castigate the media at a time when the jury is still very much out on his administration’s performance record. Ordinarily, one would have thought that a profession whose main pre-occupation is to monitor and criticise others would welcome if not invite criticisms of its own conduct. But as is well known, the media often get irritable, nervous and almost paranoid when critical lenses are turned upon their own performance.

For the avoidance of doubt, this writer is not out to defend the President’s position on media bias or for that matter on any other issue. In fact, I do not share his perspective which some have gone so far as to describe as a mere alibi to excuse increasingly vociferous remarks about a governance record that oscillates between poor and mediocre. However, his position deserves more than the casual attention or dismissive remarks which they have elicited so far. It would be recalled that a fortnight ago while introducing performance contracts for serving ministers, the President castigated the media as unreliable and partisan monitors of his administration and asked the ministers not to be guided by media evaluations of their performance records.

In his words, “Before, the media used to be the voice of the ordinary people, but now, the media is the voice of those who own the media houses and those who own the media houses have private jets and those who own private jets are not ordinary people.” Although the President did not specify precisely at what time the media, which gave him overwhelming support both in the periods leading to his assumption of office as acting president as well as during his campaign for the presidential office, lost their foci and ceased to be advocates of the common man, he went on to underline those remarks a few days later. That was at the 52nd annual general conference of the Nigerian Bar Association, where he described himself as “the most criticised president in the whole world.”

If we put those remarks together, what the nation’s helmsman appeared to be saying was that he was being hounded by a partisan media, which were exaggerating his weaknesses or under performance and minimising his achievements. The danger in the new official perspective of the media, however, is that the executive branch of government, by discountenancing media oversight of its role and record, may be closing off an important avenue of dialogue between the people and government and nullifying in effect the constitutional requirements that the media should monitor governance and hold office-holders accountable to the people. It should also be mentioned that the partisanship of media is almost inherent in the political process and is certainly not confined to Nigeria.

For example, in England, the pro-labour sympathies of The Guardian and the Tory leanings of The Telegraph are well known features of the journalistic landscape; and no British prime minister would discountenance or ignore the reportage and commentaries of these influential newspapers. In the United States, Fox News, which combines commercial success with sometimes strident anti-Obama views, remains a popular medium which cannot be ignored, even in official circles. Indeed, the debate on media objectivity has been revised in recent times by the proliferation of media outlets featuring various online sources, including independent bloggers with emphatic and partisan viewpoints as well as the increasing influence of citizen journalism and advocacy journalism. This of course does not mean that the elementary safeguards of credible journalism are being thrown overboard but that media ethics are themselves in ferment in the face of new challenges. The result is that journalistic “best practices” and “constructive partisanship” have emerged as expressions that convey a paradigm shift of sorts in the media horizon.

To be sure, objectivity and absolute impartiality or detachment were always myths; self-serving myths in the opinion of some analysts which journalists employ to divert attention from the important fact that they do not merely report the news but in a sense “make” the news. Obviously, for example, the choice of what to narrate, from whose angle to narrate it, the narrativising strategies as well as which narratives to mainstream on the front pages and which ones to bury in the inside pages are subjective and value-laden decisions which qualify the increasingly jaded notion of pure objectivity. Those caveats notwithstanding, it is still the case that the world is yet to come up with better tests of reliability, fidelity to facts and comprehensiveness than the time honoured concepts of journalistic ethics. Most readers would, I gather, still prefer to be informed than to be persuaded while partisan advocacy, useful as it is in a vibrant public sphere, can easily derail to demagoguery or blatant propaganda.

To connect these seemingly abstract reflections to our journalistic landscape would be first of all to request both the President and the Minister for Information to ensure that state-owned media such as the Nigerian Television Authority do less of propaganda reporting and commentary on the behalf of the current administration, especially given the fact that they are funded from the public purse. That infact would be setting an example of media credibility and integrity which can be copied across the media landscape. Similarly, it can be argued that the print media outlets which are owned by politicians can distance themselves from the cruder excesses of partisan sensationalism and be less directly controlled by the shenanigans of their financiers.

To return to the British example, the two national newspapers mentioned earlier tend to wear their sympathies lightly and less obviously than their Nigerian counterparts. Beyond this, creating a level playing information field will imply that there is a better parity of media ownership and control among the major contending political parties, which is not the case for now. As this writer pointed out in an earlier piece, the inability of the ruling party to fund and maintain a credible print medium suggests that it would have to depend on the publication of its narratives by its opponents which currently dominate the print media landscape. In the days when blatantly rigged elections were the norm it could easily get away with this deficiency; it is far more difficult to do so in the evolving but still far from an ideal electoral regime.

The media are not without their deficiencies. It can scarcely be otherwise, given the close interconnection between media and the society, with one being merely a mirror image of the other. Ignoring their outputs on account of their deficiencies will be to further drive governance in the direction of secrecy rather than transparency, self-validation rather than public legitimacy. It may well be that the aggravations and the sometimes fevered pitch that one observes in the Fourth Estate of the Realm constitute a social thermometer of sorts recording the distemper in a nation which has had to put up with the failures and fiascos of successive governments.

 

* Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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