The Fourth Estate and the Other Estates

“The Fourth Estate and the Other Estates”
By Okey Ndibe
The First Dr. Onuma Onwuka Oreh Memorial Lecture
June 17, 2011

Permit me to begin by expressing my profound admiration for the family, friends and colleagues of the late Dr. Onuma Onwuka Oreh for their decision to honor his memory by instituting this lecture series. In a country with a poor history of celebrating stellar citizens and noble work, one must commend the Department of Mass Communication, the Faculty of Arts, and the Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria for enthusiastically supporting this event, and working to ensure its success. Your individual and collective contributions are a tribute to the loftiness of your social vision. An institution reveals itself in who and what it upholds and honors. In honoring the exemplary work that Dr. Oreh did as a scholar and citizen, this university has demonstrated fidelity to refined values.

For me, it is nothing short of a blessing to be invited to deliver the inaugural edition of this memorial lecture series. I’d like to thank the Oreh family and the University of Nigeria for their confidence in me. I am hardly an easy person to pin down, and I am notorious for accepting far more assignments and tasks than I can handle. Even so, from the first moment I spoke with Obinna, the youngest of the three Oreh Boys, I was sold on this assignment. Obinna spoke with infectious reverence about his late father and his mother, Dr. Catherine I. Oreh, who still serves this university in the Adult Education Department. Then there was palpable admiration as he told me about his two older brothers, Onwuka and Ndudim. Since I also hold my parents and siblings in the highest regard, I knew – even before meeting any of the Orehs – that theirs is a special family.

In the intervening months, there were several hiccups arising from my failure to make deadlines for the completion and submission of my lecture. Through it all, Obinna – the family’s direct contact with me – remained gracious and unflappable, displaying a quality of patience and composure that made a deep impression on me. Since we are inevitably formed out of our parents’ clay, I came to see his warm, optimistic disposition as a revelation – in all likelihood – of his father’s mettle and fiber. Having made this broad claim about the debt we owe to our parents’ example, I find myself obligated to enter a disclaimer. That disclaimer is that my own trouble with deadlines was not inherited from my parents. My mother, a retired schoolmistress, as well as my late father, exemplified fastidiousness and scrupulous adherence to time.

The decision to institute this lecture series speaks eloquently about Dr. Oreh’s life, ideas and work, and is an important clue to the kind of values he shared with his beloved wife, and bequeathed to his children. Even though I never had the privilege of meeting Dr. Oreh in flesh and blood, I feel a vibrant fondness for the life that he led, the legacy he left, and the imprints he made.

On one level, that life was marked, it seems clear to me, by abiding commitment to professional excellence in mass communication practice and scholarship. In looking over his CV, I was struck by the magnificent convergence of praxis and theory in his work, the way in which he was at once a doer and a thinker, a communicator as well as a teacher of the art of communication. Just as remarkable was the man’s brief foray into partisan politics, an arena where we need more and more enlightened and morally astute citizens.

Going by the testimony of those who knew him best, Dr. Oreh brought a certain sense of elegance and purpose as well as a habit of rigor to every task he undertook. These attributes earned him remarkable success in the two spheres of the communicative profession that engaged his energies and interests. Those of us gathered here today testify, to one degree or another – and in one form or another – the extent to which we are in the debt of Dr. Oreh, a man of impressive humanistic depth and extraordinary professional accomplishments.

The symbiotic balance of practice and theory that he exemplified is today sadly rare, if not altogether absent in the field of mass communication in Nigeria. There is no question that Nigeria boasts some outstanding scholars in the area of mass communication, several of them on the faculty of this esteemed university. Our nation is also greatly endowed with women and men who excel as practicing mass media professionals. What’s so sorely lacking, or in short supply, is the kind of cross-disciplinary flair and organic dexterousness so effortlessly demonstrated by the man whose work and life inspired this lecture and whose memory animates our celebration. The kind of synergistic gifts that the late Dr. Oreh possessed are indispensable ingredients for the growth and maturation of any community, be it academic, political, religious or whatever.

When I was invited to inaugurate this lecture series, the organizers had also proposed several prospective titles. I told Obinna that I would leave the choice up to the family. When he rang back to say that their favorite was “The Fourth Estate and the Other Estates,” I was greatly delighted. From the outset, the title had struck me as particularly cogent and intriguing. The title’s power and seduction lies in the fruitful tension between its seeming concreteness and its mysterious, even mystifying air. For somebody with my temperament – marked by fascination with narratives that go off on surprising tangents and distaste for any story that travels on a straight line – the title was tremendously attractive.

In its contemporary usage, the fourth estate refers in the main to the mass media as a collectivity. Edmund Burke, the great Anglo-Irish thinker and parliamentarian, is credited with categorizing the field of journalism as constituting a fourth estate in 18th century British society. In his book, On Heroes and Hero Worship, Thomas Carlyle suggests that Burke coined the term in 1787 at a time when the British press was rising to the challenge of providing more intense coverage of the deliberations of the House of Commons. For the staid, conservative British, that moment of transition was rife with possibility and peril. On the one hand, press coverage was going to demystify the legislative process. By beaming a light on the arcane rituals and ceremonial encrustations of lawmaking, the British press was going to bridge the gulf between the people and their legislators, with the added collateral advantage of vitalizing democracy, enhancing transparency and increasing the quotient of public expectations and political accountability.

We have it on Carlyle’s authority that Burke was deeply charmed by the prospective advantages of press scrutiny. Carlyle wrote, “Burke said that there were three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder there sat a fourth Estate more important far than they all.” In this Burkean social architecture, the press, despite the relative recentness of its mandate, occupies a monumental seat, no inferior to the first three Estates: the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal, and the Commons. In Britain’s tradition at the time, the two “lorded” groups constituted the upper chamber of parliament whilst the Commons was the lower chamber.

Of course, the term “the fourth estate” has a longer, richer, more slippery and variegated pre-Burkean usage, history and context. However, it does not serve our purposes to trace or excavate all of the meanings, histories and guises worn by the term. It suffices to remark that our contemporary sense of the term is infused with Burk

e’s spirit.

Once that is understood, then we are challenged to ponder the extent to which an idea articulated by a British philosopher speaks to the Nigerian experience. Would we be able to claim, as Burke did, that the Nigerian press – or the mass media, broadly – is a vibrant player in the nation’s fledging democratic industry, a champion of transparency, and sustainer of the principle of accountability? What are the odds that Burke, were he to stir from his grave and land in Nigeria, would gush about the Nigerian media, recognizing them as a fertilizing agent of our ongoing experimentation with a nasty phenomenon that our politicians often call nascent democracy? Looking at the Nigerian media, would a Burke proclaim them as surpassing the other sectors of the polity? Have the media in Nigeria risen to assume a consequential role in the twists and turns of the country’s political development? Have we ever witnessed – or are we witnessing – a golden age of mass media practice in Nigeria, one that rivals the vibrancy that moved Burke to make his effusive assessment of the British press?

Before venturing to propose answers to these difficult questions, I should emphasize, as a matter of prudence, that I speak, not as an outsider objectively dissecting an institution, but as a veritable insider. In disclosing this fact – which, at any rate, is public knowledge – I hope to confess both the subjective nature of my responses as well as a recognition of the way in which, as a part-time member of the profession, I am implicated in these matters.

In 1999, shortly after Olusegun Obasanjo moved into Aso Rock, the Guardian of Nigeria asked me to start writing a weekly column. The original conception was to create a forum to enable me to comment on the goings-on in the United States. But after writing about the U.S. in my first two or three columns, I served notice of my wish to begin meditating on Nigeria, especially its politics. It seemed to me somewhat odd to be discussing the curiosities of American life as seen from the perspective of an African immigrant when the country of my birth was undergoing transition from many years of military rule to a system that aspired to and usurped the name of democracy – even though, in practice, it often resembled the blighted dictatorship it succeeded.

The vicissitudes of Nigeria’s political adventure soon became my dependable subject. In my novel, Arrows of Rain, an elderly woman tells her journalist-grandson, “A story that must be told never forgives silence.” That stricture from my fiction has informed my weekly commentary both in the Guardian as well as the Sun, which since 2007 has been the new home for my column. Nigeria’s story can be wearyingly sad, a narrative of a nation conceived in hope but nurtured into hopelessness. Or, as the inimitable Chinua Achebe might say, Nigeria is a nation that manages the feat of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Week after week, I seek to examine one facet or another of our country’s malaise or promise. I have done this in the spirit that our national story, a narrative of missed opportunities and disasters as well as resilience and undying hope, cannot forgive silence. My column is an act of memory, a way of reminding us – as well as future generations – of the road that we have traveled, as individual actors and as citizens of a country in search of itself. As our bard Wole Soyinka has stated in his book The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness – paraphrasing the Holocaust writer Elie Wiesel – “A people who do not preserve their memory are a people who have forfeited their history.” I make much the same point, if less eloquently, in Arrows of Rain: “the fabric of memory is reinforced by stories, rent by silences.” In the prefatory section of his complex, polyvalent novel titled The Cattle Killing, the African American writer John Edgar Wideman writes about the “terror of…forgetfulness.” We fall victim to the plague of forgetfulness when our storytellers, among them journalists, shirk their responsibility, when they fall asleep on duty. And our memories are impoverished just as often when, as citizens, we choose to be nonchalant, apathetic and unheeding of the stories we are told.

Why have I found it necessary to take this circuitous route to a confrontation with the questions I posed earlier? The chief reason is to underscore the complexity of the problem. Another reason is to foreground my fascination with the twin phenomena of memory and forgetfulness, which constitute two sides of a coin. Above all, I envision the mass media as engaged in the memory industry. It is that sector of society that ought to, on the one hand, offer us an inventory of events and, on the other, mine that harvest of events for the meanings they yield, the way they illuminate our fate as a community.

To what extent, then, have the mass media exhibited mastery in the reportage and explanation of Nigeria’s drama? I don’t believe I make a controversial claim at all when I contend that Nigeria is, everything considered, a disappointing middle-aged nation. Even the most incurable of optimists would be hard put to it to deny that the country has hardly met the euphoric expectations that attended Independence in 1960. In his brilliant book, This House Has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis, journalist Karl Maier describes Nigeria as “by far the most confounding, frustrating, and at the same engaging place I have ever visited.”

Despite prodigious endowments in human and natural resources, Nigeria regularly inhabits the top positions in indexes of social misery – poverty, disease, child and maternal mortality rates, investment in health and education. Just as reliably, our country is ranked among the most corrupt, least transparent nations on the globe. Our public officials have looted hundreds of billions of dollars from the public treasury and deposited these funds in their private accounts. Nigeria is a veritable paradox: a nation of conspicuous consumers that produces little; a community where a few primitively accumulate ill-gotten wealth, indifferent to the severe social dislocations wrought by their greed.

Given the gargantuan scale of the nation’s dysfunction, it is easy to argue that the media have been manifestly inept. But this judgment would seem to me to demand some qualification. One is the danger of viewing the Nigerian media as a monolith. Instead, one should clarify that the mass media in Nigeria display stupendous heterogeneity. They embody great variety in terms of forms, foci, professional and ethical standards, ownership, and territorial reach or penetration. In fact, Nigerians – like most people elsewhere – live in a time and place saturated with newspapers, radio stations, TV channels, websites and blogs. These media vary widely in their focus, the spectrum ranging from “general interest” through politics, finance, arts and culture, and entertainment to outlets that highlight and venerate the obscene and execrable obsessions of Nigeria’s parvenu.

It ought to be noted, too, that the patterns of mass media ownership in Nigeria also constitute varying levels of constraint on sound professional practices. State and federal governments own some newspapers as well as radio and TV stations, and that fact shapes how the media envision and serve their mission. Sometimes, it is retired or serving government officials who found and finance these organs. Yet again, the owner’s whims, caprices and int

erests color the media’s posture.

Implicit in the acknowledgement of this multiplicity is a recognition of the undeniable presence of bright spots in the history of the media’s engagement with its historic duty of informing the Nigerian populace. Sections of the Nigerian press worked tirelessly to confront the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida after it became clear that its vaunted transition program was little more than a ruse, a gimmick aimed at self-perpetuation. In the bleak days of the Sani Abacha dictatorship, the media – certain newspapers, magazines and radio stations – emerged to lead a strong resistance. In more recent history, some principled news organizations and journalists were as much as factor in frustrating former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s illicit scheme to effect an amendment to the Nigerian constitution in order to award himself a third (and possibly fourth and fifth) term.

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