THURSDAY Column with Mohammed Adamu
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Freedom of the press’ –ironically- does not belong to the press. Media ethicists say that it is a ‘public trust’ reposed in the media to be enjoyed not by the media, but by the people. And that although journalists must be constantly alert to see that “the public’s business is conducted in the public’s interest”, they must also “be vigilant against all who would exploit the press for selfish purposes, including from amongst themselves”. Virginia Whitehouse, an Associate Professor of Communications Studies once asked ‘if journalists are the watch dogs of the society, who watches the watch dog? Who regulates the regulator? And she asked “When journalists do their jobs in a way that causes more havoc than good to members of the public, who calls them to order?” Raising the question: ‘should there be external checks on the media to ensure that they do not abuse this power, or should the media be left unquestioned in the hope that they will self-regulate by the observance of self imposed ethics? Can journalists be trusted, as someone asked, “voluntarily to assume responsibility”?
The debate even among judges about ‘lawful journalism’ has always been about maintaining a delicate balance between two fundamental rights: the ‘right to privacy’ and ‘freedom of the press’. And in the frequent clash between these rights even rational judges tend often to prioritize the right of the individual to privacy over and above the ‘freedom of the press’ to report in a manner that invades that privacy or harms the individual. And it is in the defense of the ‘right to privacy’ that the propriety even of ‘investigative journalism’ is itself called to question; like: ‘whose interest is served or whose rights are abused when journalists have to deploy un-orthodox or illegal means to gather information?’; ‘who benefits from ‘investigative journalism’: -the public or ‘special interests’? But how can this delicate limit about protecting the individual be jealously guarded when everyone now who has a mobile phone and can load some data, has become a journalist? How can this limit not be transgressed when every ‘journalist’ now delights more in driving acrimonious controversy than in promoting healthy debate?
Our typical ‘journalist’ although he is happily librated from his unedifying ‘lap-dog’ past, and although too, he has pathetically unsubscribed to his once glorious ‘watchdog’ role, is now tragically imprisoned by a new genre of the art, namely ‘attack-dog’ journalism. And now the questions arise: how should the media manage the power of its freedom? Or how should it regulate the freedom of its power? If the media –as they say- is subject only to two fundamental restraints: the restraint of its self-imposed ethics and the restraint of the disapproving eye of the public; which should we wait on to bring sanity to this madness? The media itself or the public? Can the Media be trusted “voluntarily to assume responsibility” to regulate itself? Or can the public be relied upon unanimously to rise against the excesses of the Media? Or maybe we should ask: ‘is what is wrong with the society equally what is wrong with the press? Or is what is wrong with the press equally what is wrong with the society? Does the media take its freedom as an opportunity for self discipline in the sense of ‘voluntarily assuming responsibility’, or does it take it as an opportunity to give “the public too much froth –simply because- too few want substance?” and if too few members of the public want substance, do we have a duty to correct that ‘taste’ or do we have the liberty to exploit it by giving the public ‘froth’ and not ‘substance’? Should we care more about ‘ideology’ and less of ‘facts’ or more about ‘democracy’ and less of ‘law’? And if like Clare Booth said that “people are primarily moved in their choice of reading by their daily emotions… prejudices, ambitions, desires… hate and fears” are we to cater to this trivia or rather guide it to more edifying quests?
We must decide whether we are into this calling to make returns to the public or to the shareholders; to ‘build the national character’ as Spiro Agnew had said or ‘to expand the gross national product’; to enlighten or to debase; to cater to the nation’s whims or to serve the nation’s needs; to inform or to confound; to respond to the vibes of ‘deadlines’ or to hearken to the call of ‘accuracy’; whether to give more space to plane crashes or to ignore the thousands of daily safe landings; whether to ‘comfort the afflicted’ or to ‘afflict the comfortable’. Or maybe even to continue to ‘afflict’ the ‘afflicted’ and to ‘comfort’ the ‘comfortable’. We must sincerely decide whether the media has ‘too much’ freedom or ‘too little’ independence? Whether it truly protects ‘democracy’ or truly ‘democracy’ is rather hurt by it? We must ask if we have employed our powerful voice to ‘enrich the people or to debase them”. If in all honesty we exercise our ‘awesome power’ with equally ‘awesome responsibility’. Or whether our ‘vast powers’ equally are ‘vastly abused’? When ‘in doubt’ about a story should we ‘leave out’ or should we rather publish to ‘clear our doubt’? Should we have a ‘motive’ for publishing ‘the ‘truth’, or should ‘truth’ be our ‘motive’ for publishing in the first place?
On the whole, we must decide, whether to be William Safire’s ‘nattering nabob of negativism’, Adlai Stevenson’s ‘prophets of gloom and doom’, Spiro Agnew’s ‘effete corps of impudent snobs’ or to be Napoleon’s “givers of advice, regents of sovereigns and tutors of the nation”? The choice is ours to make. Lord Denning said: “In order to be deserving of freedom, the press must show itself worthy of it.” A “free press” he said “must be a responsible press.”
In ‘seeking and reporting the truth’, we must question the motive of our ‘sources’ and the accuracy of the ‘information’ that they give. In ‘minimizing harm’, we must show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by our stories. We must ensure that they too -and not only proponents of the most extreme views- have a voice in the story. We must seek out the subjects of our stories to give them opportunity to respond especially to allegation of wrongdoing. We must avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, disability or status. And we must prioritize giving voice to the voiceless, even if disproportionately with those that have always been heard. To be accountable’, we must put the reader first, we must admit mistakes and correct them promptly; we must expose the unethical practices of the few or the many among us. We must abide by the same standards to which we hold others. We must be constructive when we criticize, and factual when we praise. We must report fairly, accurately and without bias. We must convey knowledge and information, not just news and development; not just covering ‘conflict’ but also reporting ‘consensus’; not just ‘failure’ but reporting ‘successes’ as well.
Few institutions are more important to a democratic society than a free and independent media. It behooves us to be truthful, fair and balanced. And it behooves the public to demand that we be truthful, fair and balanced. Ethics is like keeping the tenets of the commandment: it is a ‘thou-shall or a thou-shall-not’. Marguerite Sullivan, author of ‘A Responsible Press Office’ said ethics are “the conscience of a profession”. The physicians are bound by the Hippocratic Oath; lawyers by the Rules of Professional Conduct; Journalists by the codes and ethics of journalism. But now that everyone is a journalist, how do we get all to mind the ethics of our dear profession?