ENGAGEMENTS By Chidi Amuta.
I was recently reminded of a question which has been haunting me in recent times. Someone sent me an e-mail after reading one of my recent THISDAY pieces, lamenting the declining quality of writing in our journals and asking me the morbid question: ‘After you guys have gone, what shall we read?’ In response, I told the fellow that every generation writes the script of its own encounter with history in its own idiom. My final words to the fellow were somewhat thus: Write the script of your age in a language that communicates the spirit of your time. We have written ours.
When we consider the old maxim that the pen is mightier than the sword, journalism as the fraternity of the pen is at its most threatening to those who wield the sword when it is in the form of opinion essays, commentary, treatises or monographs. News is easier for people of power to deal with. It is either true or false. If it is true but inconvenient, those in authority find ways to create an alternative truth or deny the truth. At the worst, they make another news quickly to supersede and override the one in question. If it is a falsehood, it is rebutted with superior facts or the relevant law is invoked to sanction the publication or the reporter.
But an authoritative column shapes opinion. The more influential and believable the columnist, the more the danger. Columnists are the unconsecrated prophets of an unnamed religion. They command followership among the many. They are the magisterial voices of an unnamed court, the court of public opinion. Therefore, the columnist must be knowledgeable about the subjects he chooses to dwell on and must come across as not only convinced but very impeccably convincing.
The tyranny of the columnist all over the world was at its height in the days before the viral spread of the information age. For centuries, the hard copy newspaper was the main source of news and opinion in addition to radio and television. Columnists and news anchors on major networks became like deities. Their friendship and tacit support was courted just as their endorsements made presidents and prime ministers.
But alas that tyranny has virtually been smashed by the strides of the information age. The pen is dead, almost. In its place is the keyboard of the computer or the cell phone and thousands of other hand held devices through which news, information, images and opinion assail millions on a moment by moment basis wherever we may be. You no longer have to send for the day’s paper at the newsstand. The news invades the privacy of your living room or comes packaged to you via your cell phone, PC or tablet.
You may not want to have much to do with the news or the opinions of others. But wherever you may be, they will find you and either make or mar your day. Enter the columnist or journalist as avatar, everyman’s notifier, town crier or just plain free spirit. The spontaneous journalist of the information age is the quintessential avatar, the free spirit of our ancestors come back to haunt us all. Suddenly, everyman as journalist has become everyman as commentator, opinion moulder and columnist.
So, just when you were about to wave off the columnist as a lost specie, new media and modes of production of meanings and ideas has expanded the calling and modes of columnists. The dreaded avatar is all around us and all over those who wield power. Only recently, a cry of anguish went out from the hallowed corridors of power in Abuja, lamenting that the current leader of Nigeria was under massive assault from the very same social media that was greeted as having helped to create him. See?
The long tyranny of the columnist in our media culture testifies to an age, now fast disappearing in which a few good men (and women) held the monopoly of informing, educating and moulding the opinions of others. That is the foregrounding required to understand and appreciate the sometimes magisterial condescension and definitive attitude of some of the essays of our glorious days as columnists. So, if you find some of our essays preachy, that is because we were once part of a priesthood of the pen. If you find sometimes a bit arrogant, it is the arrogance of men who once bestrode their world with the footsteps of giants with a near monopoly of conventional wisdom, control of a powerful media and armed with skill and considerable reach.
The unifying theme of the essays at the height of the Nigerian media efflorescence is the recurring nature of Nigerian history and society as well as the repetitive profile of our problems. To see that the things that irked us more than three decades ago still dominate our public discourse today would justify the title of this volume; MOVING IN CIRCLES. Unreliable power supply, bad hospitals, rising inflation, falling education standards, corruption in high and low places, incompetent governance, decay in infrastructure, the celebration of decadent values, neglect of the welfare of the masses are all themes that will not go away.
This is not peculiarly Nigerian. It is perhaps global. But what is most distressing in the Nigerian instance is that the mistakes of the past in dealing with these matters are repeated while the intensity of some of the avoidable ills like corruption has increased with time.
These columns tell a tragic story of the travails of public opinion and the media in general in our country. We are perhaps dealing here with the death of public opinion. We live in a society that has become inured to public opinion. We are in strange place where the force of public opinion as expressed in the popular media counts for little. Increasingly, what the public feels is no longer important to those chosen to decide for us. What we write no longer matters. The ideas and suggestions that the media constantly proffers no longer impress the few who decide the plight of the many.
How we got to this pass is traceable. At first, journalists were regarded as ‘press boys’, better left forgotten at the corridors. Then from the late 1970s, we re-invented ourselves and our profession by recruiting better qualified personnel and raising the quality of news and opinion. Then we graduated to ‘press men and women’ or media executives. We were even seen in the mid 1980s as potential ‘partners in power’. This is the rise of the so-called fourth estate of the realm, corresponding roughly to the birth and flowering of independent media.
The courting of the media high command by the military high command reached its high point with the regime of President Ibrahim Babangida. Some senior journalists were recruited by government to beef up its manpower profile. Others were appointed to boards, committees and task forces. The military was even compelled to hold periodic privileged briefings with journalists on its programmes and policies as well as sensitive national security issues. This did not last too long. What followed was predictable. Arrest and detention of journalists, closure of offending publications, criminalisation of journalistic misdemeanour etc.
Subsequently, politicians realised they needed the media but in a somewhat different format. They could hire journalists as image makers and spokespersons. Or better still, they realised that political wealth could equip them to own their media outfits. It is better to own your own medium so that you can control what is said about you in and out of office. Thus came the rise of private political media: publications by politicians for the sake of political self preservation and sustained for as long as it takes for the particular political cause or project to run its cause. This only applied to politicians who cared about the media and public opinion.
The return of democracy in 1999 witnessed a different attitude to the media. A Nigerian leader that has become the prime mascot of the era was quoted as saying that he did not care what was written about him and his administration by the media. In fact, he publicly confessed that he does not read newspapers, a reflection of the very low esteem in which he held the media and its practitioners. This confession has since graduated to the ruling doctrine of politicians.
Still we were respected until we became assailed by the values of politicians and the new breed emergency oligarchs. Today, we have become indistinguishable from those who should be the targets of our self- imposed messianism.
In his last recorded media chat on national television, President Goodluck Jonathan was asked why he would not declare his assets publicly. His answer was that he does not give ‘a damn’ what you media feel. Only last week, the president was again quoted, while signing a performance contract with his ministers, as saying that he could no longer rely on the media to get a realistic assessment of his ministers. Reason? The media has become indistinguishable from other self-seeking sectors of the society as some of its leading lights are now buying private jets!
The time has perhaps come to ask the question as to whether the messianism that spurred the older generation of journalists is still valid. Is there any calling left to be called journalism as a profession, seriously and strictly speaking? In the era of blogs and spontaneous reporting, of i-reports and Youtube - there may be no journalist left in the traditional sense. We are living in an era in which everyman is now a journalist.
And yet humanity has not ceased to depend on the work of the few who have made it their life calling to and business to disseminate information and transmit the news or inform us or indeed set the agenda. This is perhaps why news media organisations have increased in direct proportion with the dilution of journalism as a distinct professional category.
•Revised excerpts from review comments on the occasion of the public presentation of MOVING IN CIRCLES, a book of collected columns by Dan Agbese, Ray Ekpu, Soji Akinrinade and Yakubu Mohammed