As someone who appreciates the role of the media in shaping society, it is my pleasure to address you at this event. Today’s chairman, Professor OluremiSonaiya, has also been an important voice in our public discourse.
It is also my pleasure to be here because I am among former colleagues. I don’t know how many of you know this, but in my former life I worked in the media with Newswatch. That is why I am very much at home with journalists. I was at Newswatch in its glory days, when it was one of the most widely read news magazines in Nigeria, and one of the most trenchant and consistent voices against a military establishment that had long overstayed its welcome.
Under the leadership of that trio to end all trios –Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese and Yakubu Mohammed – Newswatch was an example and an inspiration to many, a guiding light in those difficult times of the struggle against military rule. I recall the many battles fought against the military in court, through bans and harassment by security agents, with the obvious aim of silencing us.
My work in the media didn’t end with Newswatch. I also was a special correspondent for international publications like the Christian Science Monitor and Africa News Service, as it was known at that time, as well as a contributing columnist for The Guardian.
Media and technology
Thirty years after I left it, the media landscape in Nigeria has changed significantly. Print consumption is in what looks like permanent decline, with online consumption holding sway. While the mode of consumption of news has changed, the role of the media to inform has not changed.
We exist in a time that is defined more and more by what some have called an information deluge. In addition to traditional media like TV, radio, billboards and so on, we now have the constant barrage of notifications from our mobile phones, alerting us to all sorts of things, the majority of which could be described as trivial. And yet these trivialities have the capacity to take up all our time and leave us unable to focus on the things around us that truly matter.
Media these days is indistinguishable from technology. Where once the medium was separate from the message, they have become one and the same, fulfilling Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy. Our choices at every level are influenced by our exposure to the Siamese twins of media and technology. In this day and age, it is easier than ever before to become a news outlet, and the revelations about the use of the Facebook platform by organizations to harvest user data and use it to spread falsehood and influence the outcomes of elections and referendums, should give us all pause to reflect about the impact of news outlets on our psyche.
There are a number of schools of thought about the way media should interact with society, and development reporting stems from the development theory of media, which holds that media should be an agent of educating the masses in line with the development needs of a nation. It says that development communication is that which is employed for the purpose of social transformation.
What do we mean by development journalism? It is a bit of a controversial term because its critics call it “government-say-so” journalism.But it broadly means that journalism in developing countries should contribute to social transformation by educating and informing citizens on activities that contribute to economic and social development, highlighting the importance of those issues and activities. In this understanding, there is a conscious bias by the media towards what is seen as a larger goal of the society, and less emphasis on other issues that may be newsworthy but are seen as “trivial” or just not advancing the desired consciousness that development journalism seeks to create.
We had a lot of development journalism when the role of the government was in the society and the economy was very strong in many countries including Nigeria, in the 50s, 60s and 70s. In some countries with socialist governments, there simply was nothing else. As from the 1980s with economic liberalization, development journalism began to die a natural death as the media sought to survive in increasingly capitalist economies by being relevant to its consumers by giving more attention to new trends.
Today, development journalism is practiced only by specific, specialized media, much of it, ironically in the western world in the context of these countries’ roles in “international development”. We have as examples Devex, an organization that publishes news and views on development issues around the world.
Investigative journalism and social transformation
One of the major ways by which the media that play role of a catalyst in social transformation is through investigative journalism. By uncovering evidence of malfeasance and shedding light on social ills, journalists can influence public discourse in a major way. There is so much that is wrong with our country today, and a vibrant tradition of investigative reporting can help change this.
The tradition of investigative reporting in Nigeria has been dying slowly as news has become more commercialised, that is why the work of outlets like Premium Times and the Wole Soyinka Center for Investigative Journalism, for example, is crucial to keep those traditions alive. Speaking truth to power and going beyond press releases is never easy, but that is what must be done in order to truly make an impact.
Good investigative journalism is about resources, and the ability for editors and publishers to resist external pressure when reporters ask uncomfortable questions. There is a general absence of both, and that is a key reason why there are so many important stories which remain untold.
The ownership structure of the Nigerian press has always been centered around politicians, or those who aim to go into politics. Even back to pre-independence days, Herbert Macaulay, NnamdiAzikiwe, ObafemiAwolowo and other leading political agitators all owned media outlets. After independence, some of thesemedia continued and were put in the service of one ethnic agenda or the other, leading to the civil war and later, the end of the Second Republic and return of military rule. All those events had at their core the use of media to advance an agenda that served narrow interests.
Nigeria’s press cannot play an effective developmental role because the elite who own these media have no worldview. Their only concern is access to political power, and unfortunately, these outlets are deployed in pursuit and maintenance of this access.
That is why when your newspaper runs on advertising money from some connected people in society, that revenue is at risk if they or their friends are the subjects of an investigative report. Often, the choice is between the advertising revenue and the report. That is one of the reasons 234Next is no longer with us today. Business models that do not rely on the patronage networks of a corrupt political and business class are best for publications that want to do good work in this area.
Entertainment or real news?
There is another aspect to this. And that is the prevalence of news as entertainment that is sweeping the globe. It would seem as if people are more interested in Big Brother Nigeria, the English Premier League or following the lives of their favorite celebrities. So, there is this tension: can the serious, in-depth reporting necessary for good developmental journalism break through our increasingly cluttered digital lives? Even reputable media outlets abroad seem to move more and more toward tabloid-ism, in response to the tastes of their audience.
It is important to note here that the digital space is significantly different from the written word, and news outlets hoping to make an impact will have to deliver their information in ways that are effective. We have seen media outlets move toward the use of short videos and infographics in recent times, to get their message across.
Closely linked to the entertainment quotient of journalism we have today, is hysteria journalism which seeks to play on the latent prejudices of readers. This has the effect of reducing public discourse to a shouting match and leaving the public less informed. Let us be clear: hysteria journalism is a reflection of our country and the magnified fault lines that exist in it today. The destructive tone and divisive rhetoric of Nigeria’s political class is what is largely responsible for hysteria journalism in Nigeria today.
One of the most common examples in these parts is the recent controversy over a so-called “looters list” of allegedly corrupt past government officials and party functionaries of the past PDP-led government and the response of the PDP. This is one example of how, instead of doing the serious institutional and proceedural reforms necessary to reduce corruption, our politicians play political football with corruption and feed the hysteria mode of journalism that dominates our society today. There exists a loud and constant cacophony of divisive and bellicose threats, counter-threats and allegations that create much heat in the societal fabric but very little light.
The discussion on the removal of subsidies in 2012 was a seminal moment. While it is true that the communication around the removal was less than perfect, the narrative that keeping subsidies was a good idea was always wrong. The discussion should have centered on how to repurpose the funds to subsidize production instead. Years later, the oil price crash has exposed the folly of this position.
In the West, hysteria against immigrants is driven by right-wing media. According to them, the immigrants take their jobs and are out to replace them, when all available evidence shows that they contribute significantly to the economies of their new countries. The narrow win by the pro-Brexit campaign in the UK was driven in part by this, as well as a marked tightening of immigration opportunities in the United States. The world we live in is very complex, with many variables. Good developmental journalism cannot afford to be ignorant of this.
Investing in journalists
I cannot talk about developmental journalism without talking about the journalists themselves. Before journalists can carry out their role as watchdogs effectively, they need to have capacity. Typically, Nigerian journalists used to be highly regarded in society. People like the late, great Dele Giwaof Newswatchmade the profession appealing to many. That is hardly the case today. Journalism in Nigeria has become a profession where you are not guaranteed the basics. The working conditions of many journalists in Nigeria are appalling. They are not given the support they need.
In many outlets, journalists go for months without pay, while their bosses live large. The result is that the media becomes real estate to be bought by the highest bidder, because people have to feed their families. The truth is that much, though certainly not all, of what appears in news media in Nigeria today is paid for. In this state of affairs, journalism does not perform a public good, and it cannot serve developmental ends.
Before journalists can even educate others, they must also be educated. What is the financial literacy level of journalists who cover finance and economic topics? What’s the science and technology literacy of the journalists who cover those topics? If most media houses find it difficult to pay their staff, how would they be able to invest in their staff to upgrade their knowledge of their respective beats? Every day, new information is being created, and it is so easy to get left behind. It would now fall on a highly motivated journalist to educate himself or herself.
The result of this current landscape is the inability of the Nigerian journalist to inform the public, be at the forefront of social transformation, and hold the powerful accountable. Everyone loses. The Nigerian journalist exists within the Nigerian state, and unfortunately cannot rise above the average level of his or her environment. It would be unfair to demand this.
My vision for the Nigerian media
That is why we need a new elite led by a worldview that is focused on ensuring that Nigeria can fulfill its potential. Nigeria needs to become a worldview state. Only then can journalism in Nigeria play a developmental role, in line with that worldview.
Without an overarching worldview, what happens is what we have at present: several smaller views holding sway in various parts of the country. These narrow worldviews are driven by ethnic and religious considerations, and most importantly, corruption and a lust for power.
My vision for the Nigerian media is as a creator and promoter of a national philosophical worldview that permeates all aspects of our national life. This will reduce and even eliminate the various ethnic instabilities in our society. For a period of time in the 1970s, Nigeria appeared driven by a worldview: that of being a bellwether country for Sub-Saharan Africa, and actively supporting the fight against apartheid as well as other liberation movements in Southern Africa. However, this assured posture in the foreign policy arena masked a lack of economic strength that was quickly exposed by the decline of oil prices in the early 80s.
All the greatest countries in the world are driven by their worldviews, which are actively promoted by their media. The US, China, Russia, and others all have well-funded and highly sophisticated media outlets that promote national unity at home, and project soft power abroad.
There is no reason at all why Nigeria cannot do the same. The NTA used to be the home of great programs, and many of the first wave of Nollywood actors were trained by the NTA. Its decline is a prime example of how rudderless our elite have become. We aim to play a leadership role on the continent and even globally, while the government owned media, like many other things owned by government, is basically moribund.
It is my hope that in the coming years, the lot of the Nigerian journalist will improve due to the type of people who will finance media outlets; a new kind of Nigerian elite who understand the realities of our time and are prepared to use their resources to create and promote strategic national goals.
Thank you very much.
• Keynote Address by Professor Kingsley Moghalu, former Deputy Governor, Central Bank of Nigeria, President, Institute for Governance and Economic Transformation at The Niche 4th Anniversary Lecture, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos on 20 April 2018