The Fourth Estate and the Other Estates (2)

by Okey Ndibe

Besides, in the last ten years or so, we have witnessed the birth of something akin to a revolution in the way information is generated, disseminated and used. The Internet has radically remapped the landscape of Nigeria’s – and the globe’s – mass media practice. By its nature, online news has a limitless potential in terms of readership and impact. The Internet affords instantaneity of product and access. Increasingly, it also empowers the reader to respond immediately to the material she has just consumed. Websites that carry news and commentary have emerged as the wave of the present, the most democratic of news sources. They breach borders and nullify the constraints of time to reach any reader with a computer and Internet connection. Let me be clear: these Internet outlets have not always served noble ends. However, some of them – and here, I must single out the outstanding – have become nothing short of powerful and transformative tools, adept at ferreting out some of the hitherto concealed scandals of money laundering and abuses of power committed or authorized by some of Nigeria’s most highly placed elected and appointed officials.

Yet, after allowing for these exceptions, I am persuaded that much of the Nigerian media is far from discharging its burden to a degree that would impress Burke. In a lot of ways, too many reporters, columnists, editors and website administrators have felt comfortable suborning their witness for a mess of porridge from the master’s dining table. Unfortunately, too many members of the fraternity of the mass media have permitted themselves to be infected by the same grasping impulse that has polluted the political space. There can be no sweeter music to the ears of corrupt politicians than to realize that some journalists – too many of them, if you ask me – are for hire, willing to look the other way, to falsify accounts, even to invent tall tales of politicians’ accomplishments for the right price.

One of the most disturbing trends that have emerged since 1999 is the practice of newspapers or groups of journalists handing out questionable performance awards to politicians. It is not uncommon for individual newspapers or groups of journalists to award “Governor of the Year” or “Best Minister of the Federation.” Others confer equally meretricious awards for “Transparent Governance” or prizes in the categories of education, health, agriculture etc. It is common knowledge that incompetent governors are all-too willing to spend small sums of cash to finagle these awards. Were Burke to witness the practice, chances are that he would reach for some fitting expression. Filled with disgust, he might speak about “a descent from the fourth estate to the first slum.” It behooves journalists to scrutinize the activities of occupants of public office. When, instead of doing so, journalists take to peddling prizes to governors, ministers and other politicians, then their ethically stinky practice deserves to be called by its proper name: a scam.

To be clear, I suggest that Nigeria’s fourth estate of the realm is bedeviled by the same pathologies that have afflicted Nigerian politics and other sectors of the nation’s life – including its law enforcement and academia. If the situation of mass media practitioners were exceptional, then one would be sounding greater bells of alarm. Many factors account for the huge gap between our legitimate expectations of what our journalists ought to be doing and the reality of what they do. Unfortunately, however, we hardly have the time to explore that territory in any depth. But of this I am convinced: The media’s travails both mirror and reinforce the malaise in the broader society. The toxicity of the political space poisons the atmosphere of journalism practice; but journalism’s susceptibility to political meddlesomeness and corruption also exacerbates swindles by politicians. When the media abandon their role as watchdogs, or worse, when they exhibit an inclination for corruption, then the entire mechanism of checks and balances is dealt a terrible blow.

Some might blame the decline in professional standards and paucity of ethical outlook among many journalists on the fact that media jobs, on the whole, pay relatively poorly. This factor cannot be discounted, but I doubt that it explains away the professional and ethical lapses. Far more important, I suggest, are two interlinked nemeses. One is the catastrophic devaluation of moral currency in our society, the other an equally deleterious fall in intellectual discourse. Taken together, these two failures debilitate what I would describe as the moral and intellectual estates. I insist that a vibrant tradition of journalism can only thrive through sustained concern with and investment in the moral and intellectual realms. There are always exceptions, even remarkable ones, but it seems to me that too many of our practicing journalists are, in moral and intellectual terms, wretchedly equipped.

A soundly educated class of journalists – and I use educated in the broadest possible sense – would realize, for example, that a person’s worth is not reducible to the size of her or his paycheck. Any journalist who justifies the acceptance of bribes from politicians on the ground that her salary is small has missed the point. Nobody ever mistook a career in journalism as a path to riches. A measure of discernment of values and motives ought to precede one’s entry into a career in journalism. If material enrichment is of the essence, then one had better look for a different trade or line of work.

Journalists ought to develop a deep sense of history. Such consciousness would mean recognizing that such stalwart political and intellectual figures in our nation’s history as Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Anthony Enahoro, Mr. Mokwugo Okoye, Professor Chinua Achebe, Chief M.C.K Ajuluchukwu worked at one point or another as journalists. Newspapers and journalists were in the forefront of the struggle to achieve Nigeria’s flag Independence from British rule. A profession with that pedigree and impact deserves to maintain something of its intellectual and moral standing, and to be jealous of its reputation.

One way of reclaiming that endangered professional prestige is to re-imagine both the nature and indispensability of the role of a journalist in a country like Nigeria. Nigerian literature, whether it is Soyinka’s The Interpreters, Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel or my own Arrows of Rain explore characters who are journalists, and who face or transcend various ethical or professional dilemmas. As I have already proposed, one of the journalist’s most important duties is to tell stories. Permit me to vivify the subject by focusing on the Igbo conception of stories.

For the Igbo, stories serve as a tool for constructing and enshrining individual and communal identities, for charting tracks to the past and projecting to the future, and for reinforcing memories. A rich harvest of pithy sayings within Igbo expressive arts foregrounds the perils of storylessness – or, just as often and with equal eloquence, heedlessness to stories. One such expression is, “He who doesn’t know where the rain began to beat him won’t know where he dried up,” a favorite of Achebe’s. Another related aphorism, used to chastise inflexible people, states: “The obstinate who won’t heed any warnings will certainly heed the summons of the death-mat.”

Igbo folktales are equally replete with tales that detail the harsh, often tragic, cost o

f disregarding, mangling or manipulating stories for selfish interests, or blundering into combat without their chastening benefit. In one cautionary tale, Chicken unwisely chooses to stay away from an important meeting of all the animals. We learn that the convention’s agendum is to discuss the unhealthy rate at which humans were slaughtering animals for food. Exploiting Chicken’s absence, the gathered animals decide to propose it to humans as the primary sacrificial animal. Through this deft stroke, the socially responsible and engaged animals receive some respite from their human antagonists, exacerbate Chicken’s grief, and hand us a chastening tale about the dire consequences of apathy, nonchalance, disengagement and abdication.

In Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, an elderly character dwells at length on the crucial place stories occupy in the matrix of society:

To some of us the Owner of the World has apportioned the gift to tell their fellows that the time to get up has finally come. To others He gives the eagerness to rise when they hear the call; to rise with racing blood and put on their garbs of war and go to the boundary of their town to engage the invading enemy boldly in battle. And then there are those whose part is to wait and when the struggle is ended, to take over and recount its story.

The sounding of the battle-drum is important; the fierce waging of the war itself is important; and the telling of the story afterwards—each is important in its own way. I tell you there is not one of them we could do without. But if you ask me which of them takes the eagle-feather I will say boldly: the story…Now, when I was younger, if you had asked me the same question I would have replied without a pause: the battle…

So why do I say that the story is chief among his fellows? The same reason I think that our people sometimes will give the name Nkolika to their daughters—Recalling-Is-Greatest. Why? Because it is only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us. It is the thing that makes us different from cattle; it is the mark on the face that sets one people apart from their neighbors.

This long passage from Achebe’s novel, I believe, constitutes a statement of the kind of exalted moral estate that every conscientious journalist should aspire to inhabit. Whether they report news, edit copy or compose columns, Nigerian journalists ought to embrace – or rediscover – the task of pointing the nation away from the spikes of the cactus fence. Rather than engaging in falsification or obfuscation in order to claim the cheap lucre held out by corrupt politicians, journalists ought to commit to the service of society, exposing the impunity of those who misshape our nation and malnourish our collective lives.

Speaking truth to power has become a cliché, even a facile phrase. Yet, our journalists ought to be able to say, like Teiresias, the blind seer in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, “It is the truth sustains me.” Or, like Socrates, affirm that the unexamined life is not worth living. They ought to cultivate the habit of asking hard questions. Why is it that Nigeria cannot seem to get a handle on its electric power woes despite the billions of dollars squandered in recent years in pursuit of regular, dependable electricity? Why are most Nigerians deprived of healthcare, while the well-to-do – who are often corrupt politicians and their coterie – make jaunts to such places as India, South Africa, Asia, Europe and North America to seek medical treatment? Why are Nigerian universities starved of research funds even as parasitic politicians gorge mindlessly on the nation’s ever-dwindling resources?

Many years ago, a colonial novelist named John Buchan wrote a novel, Prester John, in which a character is invited to trot out the following epiphany:

That is the difference between white and black, the gift of responsibility, the power of being in a little way a king; and so long as we know this and practice it, we will rule not in Africa alone but wherever there are dark men who live only for the day and their own bellies.

Achebe and many other African intellectuals have spent considerable energy combating this and similar racist depictions that state or imply that the African is beholden to the worst forms of hedonistic excess. Even so, in light of the scope of corruption exhibited by many Nigerian politicians, do they not leave the impression of being governed by their insatiable guts, their moral compass answering to the grammar of greed? And in choosing to ignore these monumental acts of treachery, are our journalists not guilty – at the very least – of cooperating with those who abbreviate our dreams and abort our aspirations?

In order to be worthy inheritors of Burke’s fourth estate, rather than usurpers, Nigerian journalists ought to reclaim the moral and intellectual estates. This process would entail, above all, attention to the place of language in journalism. The language of Nigerian journalism is often, one is sad to say, shockingly dated, pallid, disheveled. Part of this linguistic enervation is a product of the journalist’s often-lazy adoption of the politician’s language. George Orwell was certainly right in arguing that “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

The search for and reclamation of a language that clarifies rather than confounds is a necessary moral and professional undertaking. It is said that Confucius was once asked what would be his first step if it fell to him to govern a nation. He reportedly answered:

To correct language…
If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant;
If what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone;
If this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate;
If morals and art deteriorate, justice will go astray;
If justice does go astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion.
Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said.
This matters above everything.

In a few brilliant lines, those sentiments sum up the ideas I have been worrying in this talk. I thank you for your attentiveness.

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