I really don’t get it why the guys at the Guardian are belabouring their editorial fallout with Mr Okey Ndibe, who until recently was a member of the editorial team. Sonala Olumhense’s recent essay (How To Spell Outrage) may be the final confirmation that all is not well at Rutam House as it now appears that they are all bent on washing their dirty linens in public. Such bitchy tales of backbiting create pictures of professional immaturity in the minds of some of the followers of the story, but then the Guardian is a serious newspaper, the flagship they call themselves, one is perplexed at the soap opera-like tales emanating from there, the type of which will make front page headlines in the daily and weekly tabloids, particularly The Sun where Mr Ndibe has now pitched his tent.
In professional life, particularly in journalism, these things happen all the time. You are as good as your last major headline or breaking news story, the game could be up at anytime. It was as result of the legendary fallout between late Dele Giwa and Bashorun M.K.O Abiola, the publisher of the Concord group of newspapers that led to the setting up of Newswatch magazine by the Newswatch quartet comprising Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese, Ray Ekpu and Yakubu Mohammed. Journalism practitioners accept that whenever the editorial and boardroom members stop singing from the same hymn book, the inevitable course of action is for the aggrieved party/parties to either migrate to a competing title or set up their own outfit, perhaps it is such discords that is mainly responsible for the proliferation of newspaper and magazine titles in Nigeria as some of today’s titles may just be vanity projects, set up not just to represent dissenting views or to fill any editorial void left by the already existing media but such outfits are rather used to make a statement, and eventually to serve as mouthpieces and pursue the agenda (political, social and economic) of the political masters of the owners, as well as represent and protect their interests.
In this instance, I do think that a house divided against itself will not stand, concerning Mr Ndibe and his former ’employers’ – The Guardian, I strongly believe that theirs is purely an internal Guardian matter and should have been treated as such. But since Mr Ndibe has decided to take his story to town through his Why I Take It Personally piece, one would also expect that at some point the central figure in the whole drama (Mr Reuben Abati) should be given his own audience in the court of public opinion, the public would expect him at some point to also weigh in and tell his own side of the story, part of which Mr Ndibe tried to tell in his article.
Mr Ndibe has as much right to be angry in his writings as the Ibrus and Mr Abati (the chairman of the editorial board) have the right to call time on Mr Ndibe’s articles in the Guardian. And rightly, Mr Ndibe has moved on which is what every aggrieved party in a professional relationship may want to do. But in saying this, it will be seen how his ‘decampment’ to The Sun will offer him the unrestricted platform he deserves to pour his ‘venoms and invectives’ on the corrupt elite in Nigeria being that Governor Orji Uzor Kalu of Abia state owns and funds the newspaper, and is widely believed to be one of the most corrupt governors in Nigeria. Would Mr Ndibe not touch Orji Uzor Kalu related issues in his column?
In as much as I understand the sympathy, concern and show of professional support over Mr Ndibe’s travails and treatment at the hands of the Guardian in Mr Olumhense’s article, the fact remains that sympathy alone does not win votes and will not sell papers at the news stands which is what may have been of concern to the owners and the editorial board of the Guardian. The newspaper is a commercial venture set up to make profits and thus they would seek to stifle any potential threat to their ability to achieve that core corporate objective. Perhaps in the whole saga, it may have come to a push or shove situation between Mr Abati and Mr Ndibe, the express orders may have also come from the top, it may have been either Mr Ndibe goes or Mr Abati goes, as the Chairman of the editorial board, Mr Abati surely knew which way to go.
In the light of all these, perhaps it is time that the Guardian’s Othman Dan Fodio adopted quote that ‘Conscience is an open wound, only truth can heal it’ be changed to reflect current political, and socio-economic realities. I seriously think that it is now worn, over-used and dated. Such clichéd expressions would have still been relevant in a situation where the role of the press and the media in general still derived from, revolved around and reflected the core principles of the social responsibility theory of the media. In such a situation, the likes of Okey Ndibe would not find themselves at the receiving end of editorial room policies and politics when all they are expressing are their opinion and other matters personal to them, but which they also perceive to be in the public interest.
I refuse to believe that the Guardian has not ‘killed’ stories in the past which may run contrary to the business and personal interests of both the owners and the editorial team members. I experienced first hand such ‘gate keeping’ at the hands of the Guardian’s editorial team in January 2006. I was informed by someone inside the editorial team that a certain member of the team was piqued by my harsh criticism in an essay I wrote titled – The Age Of The Citizen Journalist over his reactions to the Omoyele/Sowore/Gbenga Obasanjo interview. I was reliably told that the person in question vowed that the Guardian will not publish the said article; neither will it ever publish my article.
I found the whole thing quite amusing at the time because the Guardian had published me as far back as 1994 when I was still a green horn and rookie journalist/writer, my thoughts at the time as I discussed the matter with Omoyele Sowore was that if my pieces were good enough for the Guardian back then, it was then a wonder why the editorial team did not consider the said article good enough, likewise my subsequent articles. The point here then is that news products in as much as they are ‘accidents of space and time’ are also subject to a gate keeping process, in this case played by the Guardian’s editorial team.
Everyone knows that the major business in Nigeria is government business; I’m not a Guardian insider to know the percentage of its advertising revenues that come from the government (local, states and the federal) and their agencies, institutions, ministries and parastatals etc. At times like this, it is so easy to be swayed by sentiments but the economics of the newspaper publishing business which Mr Ndibe very much understands is that while newspapers rely on readers who are attracted by writers such as Mr Ndibe for news stand sales, relying on readership alone in a country like Nigeria would be suicidal because readership is shrinking as a result of factors such as competing titles, availability of free online news from the same newspaper houses, the ever present activities of FAN (The Free Readers Association of Nigeria – the ones that congregate at newsstands and read free newspapers), poor economic fortunes of readers who are now forced to prioritise their income etc. Readership alone does not pay salaries, neither do they pay for office rent and accommodations. The
bulk of revenues of most newspaper organisations in Nigeria come from advertising and other commercial projects or special projects as they call it.
Perhaps the owners of the Guardian as well as the other members of the editorial team now feel that Mr Ndibe’s many Obasanjo rants and raves may be threatening their chief source of revenue. Sad as it may sound, the show must go on, both for the Guardian and for Mr Ndibe who has suddenly found himself in the same situation as Seyi Oduyela who fell out with the owners of nigeriaworld.com in 2005. Mr Oduyela took his story to town as well but in a rejoinder I wrote – The Nigerian Media As Scapegoats which was published as Monkey No Fine by some websites, I tried to argue that it was best that Mr Oduyela picked up the pieces and moved on, rather than bemoan a dead situation, he should savour the good times which lasted. Perhaps the same advice may suffice here for Mr Ndibe and the guys at the Guardian.