Before the passing of the 2016 budget, the finance minister, Kemi Adeosun, was writing op-eds to clear the fog over the fiscal landscape. Similarly, when a banker writes in the press, he most likely would be pushing a self-interested professional agenda. But journalists don’t practice self-advocacy. We don’t write about issues affecting us. The exception is when one of us is kidnapped or assassinated. We then feel the violence to our morality and profession is extending to our meagre existence.
As advertising budgets took a hit in the United States, following the economic downturn that the 2008 – 2009 Global Financial Crisis brought about, the New York Times wrote that the conveyors of bad news had been hit by bad news. The contagion of the GFC in Nigeria also resulted in media budget cuts by public and private institutions. But bad news had for long been the lot of the Nigerian press. It is now apparent that journalists have to talk about it, since no one else feels obliged to do so constructively and raise the need for remedies.
At the root of the crises in Nigerian media and journalism is money. Not the lack of money, but how money has been an instrument of control and ‘narrowcasting’ by the media entrepreneurs, public sector owners and the clients. Nigerian journalists are poorly paid. Our meagre salaries are denied us every so often. A publisher is even notorious for not paying wages. Instead of paying his media staff salaries, he would insist the press cards he issues them are licences for non-salary remunerations.
As a result, Nigerian journalists have been reduced to hustlers for “PR” and hatchet jobs, influence peddlers and collectors of brown envelopes. As such, valuable time that we ought to use researching stories, building expert knowledge of our beats and improving our reporting skills are used pursuing unethical rewards as means of survival. The souls of the profession and that of the practitioners have been so badly damaged that our publics see news and opinions in the press as commoditised. Yet, even the unethical services are often delivered clumsily.
The Nigerian corporates and public institutions have been driving the systematic erosion of professionalism in the media. The big banks collectively spend up to 70 percent of their budgets for local press ads in one newspaper – which, perhaps, has the least ethical ownership. Personality cult, instead of professional considerations, rule advertising patronage.
More ominous, Nigerian corporates who made their money from the local environment have suddenly become too sophisticated for the local media. They are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on foreign media while showing measly commitment to helping to raise standards locally. Nigerian corporates seem unaware that the “global media” were nurtured locally, and while they like our money, they must be cynical of our idiocy.
The same pattern of dysfunctional patronage rules public sector media budget and engagement. While past presidents and policymakers preferred to break policy news to foreign media, President Muhammadu Buhari is doing so from abroad. During the last general election, Nigerian media were either for or against the two main presidential candidates on the basis of patronage. Not because of ideology or ethical leadership. Since the election, the press has been morphing into a monolithic lot. Either by patronage or disguised censorship tactics, the press is being squeezed to the margins of promoting a plural society.
The future of a professional Nigerian media is far from assured.
The knowledge society is also at risk as very quickly Nigeria is evolving from a writing, reading and debating society to a dumbed-down and ‘blogging’ society. Some otherwise savvy advertisers believe we have moved past the literary press. The magazine segment is most affected by a general acquiescence to a Nigeria that doesn’t read and appreciate specialised publications.
Further bad news has hit mainstream media through a formidable disruption. In the season in which creative disruptors are encroaching on traditional (way of operating) businesses, social media is disrupting professional journalism. But unlike in other professions where disruptors (or innovators) deliver superior value for money, social media is bastardising journalism and upsetting public decency. Revolutionary access to equally revolutionary mobile telecommunication and the internet are making Nigeria to struggle with professional journalism. The charlatans of the social media, relieved of organisational wisdom and ethical considerations, are ‘trumping’ professional journalism.
Regulatory and legislative responses to assert ethics are behind the curve and misguided. For instance, the “Social Media Bill” before the Senate — which ought to address unhealthy use of graphic images — wants to make it impossible to blow the whistle on public officials. In the meantime, corpses and indecent images line our online media and social media platforms. At the rate such contents are growing, Nigerian children of the mobile internet age would be completely deprived of innocence by the time they become teenagers.
A special trust fund for journalism is overdue to stop the degeneracy of our media and journalism. The risk though is that such a fund might become an additional tool for the nurture of subservient journalism, especially if it is controlled by the public sector. But the fund can be fit for purpose if it is a social trust, managed by media savvy and scrupulous trustees. The mandate of the fund would be to promote ethical reorientation in journalism; build local capacity; support iconic national media brands; and increase advocacy for value-based advertising.
Whether this happens or not, Nigerian journalists need to reclaim our personal dignity. We have to embrace self-improvement. We must also reject the ownership that denigrates us by refusing to pay our salaries. If we don’t do this, we would ultimately weaken our capacity to deliver our mandate to society. And we would not be able to recommend our character and profession to our children.
There is a general conspiracy against a future Nigeria that all citizens desire. We must reject this conspiracy even at its subtlest, and work towards attaining our desired future. A future Nigeria that is driven by knowledge and professional excellence cannot be nurtured by a press that is morally emasculated and journalists that are abused by irresponsible ownerships. Since the media is the ‘fourth estate of the realm,’ serving as the gatekeeper of our national morality, the press is a good place to start the moral rearmament the Nigerian society needs for its transformation.