THURSDAY Column with Mohammed Adamu
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Most of us, journalists –especially the cob, street reporters- are like duck hunters. We are the human version of skilled predators in the wild, if you like. But when we get too fainthearted, especially before braggarts, like in the case of the Daily Trust reporter before FFK, we too may be sumptuous repast for other wilder species of the human creatures. As duck hunters we angle not only for the regular news but -more often than not- we are not averse to hunting even for the ethically un-speak-able. I was reading Aljazeera’s Reporter Haru Mutasa, recently narrating her ‘brown envelop’ experience in Nigeria and how several times she had to politely turn down ‘envelopes’ stuffed with dollars.
Sometimes you wonder if reporters on the beat are in it for the ‘news’ or just for the magical ‘brown envelope’ -or for both. Because like duck hunters, we too may hunt either out of necessity –that is for the meat- or strictly for sport, to stir up controversy; or both. And like duck hunters, we too have our hunting season for the geese or in due season for the precious waterfowls. Plus we also have our own artificial decoys and even our tricky duck-calls -to quack our unsuspecting targets right into range.
But most importantly because we must hunt as a team to succeed, we do not like false starters. False starters are spoilers. They rouse the game off range and soon bring to naught a vigil of a thousand plans. Like duck hunters, we too do not like colleagues who are poor team players. In fact we may even prefer laggards to colleagues who are too forward. And worst, we hate false starters who will shoot out of synch with the collective ‘aim’ -and by so doing rouse the game out of range.
And this obviously was what the Daily Trust reporter must’ve done to his colleagues at the hunt recently with a loquacious bird, FFK, on the menu. By asking that ‘nasty’ question, Eyo Charles may not have known it at first, that he was unwittingly endangering the collective expectation of what Aljazeera’s Haru Mutasa described as a ‘normal’ here in Nigeria –post-coverage gratification.
All the verbal spanking that Eyo Charles got from a madding FFK ironically was in the presence of his very own colleagues; and none was on record as having intervened to let the former Minister know that an attack on ONE was an attack on ALL. On the contrary, the few among them who may have grudgingly said anything at all, played the ‘lapdog’: they apologized on behalf of their ‘erring’ colleague who actually was the true ‘watchdog’ of them all.
And so whereas the entire Nigerian Media was outraged one of their own was verbally assaulted for doing his job, Eyo’s colleagues, if they were really outraged, at all, it must’ve been for a different reason, namely that a ‘provocative’ question by one of their too-sabi colleagues was about to cost them Haru Matasa’s yummy ‘reject’. And for that poor Eyo was left to stew in the pot of his own journalistic daredevilry.
Nonetheless the entire Media itself that would almost kill the fly of FFK’s malfeasance with a sledge hammer was still no less guilty of collective self-centeredness than Eyo’s colleagues were of group self-interestedness. Our collective anger against FFK was not only terribly a gangsterous overkill, it was ironically mis-primed and grossly misdirected. Because you wish that we are equally always as collectively angry at ourselves first for our own roles in the daily erosion of ethics of the journalism profession, before we get this thin-skinned and so easily pregnable even by the most innocuous of public impertinence directed at us.
We claim to be ‘comforters of the afflicted’ and often in fact we also arrogate the right to ‘afflict including the already comfortable’; but then we insist always that no one dares to afflict us beyond our ‘watchdog’ affliction. We may be dis-united on all ethical fronts of the profession; yet collectively we insist on being off the leash -to do as we please; malign, insult, abuse and disparage both kings and paupers. We do not even believe that others have the inadvertent right to cause us a moment’s discomfort.
We quibble over our right to inquisition society and to call others to account, but we find it utterly repugnant to common sense and good conscience that others have a corresponding right to demand that we exercise our journalistic power responsibly or that we equally be reprimanded for failing to do so. We are neither capable of regulating ourselves nor are we disposed to allowing others lawfully regulate us. Every attempt by parliament to assist us exercise our awesome powers with equally awesome responsibility is by us massively resisted and collectively assailed as an affront on the free press and an attack on freedom of expression.
This idea that we alone have the right, as Clare Booth would say, “to be both part Saint Thomas, the doubter and part Saint Jude –the patron Saint of those who ask for the impossible”, is not fair on society. It is grossly unfair that we should demand from society what we will make no effort to live up to. It is even criminal that most of us now elevate to a new generation of journalistic right the liberty to sort the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chaff’ but then to ignore the sorted wheat and to publish the chaff. Virtually every ethic of the profession that once guided our daily conduct we have now turned on its head. Once we were taught ‘when in doubt’ to ‘leave out’? But now whatever is doubtful is the veritable juicy news.
If the journalist has the constitutional right to ask others ANY question why cannot others have the corresponding right to give the journalist ANY answer. And if we insist that others must forebear the inconvenience of our adversarial questions, why must we, journalists, not also forebear the obligation to tolerate adversarial answers?
We say that new laws must not be made to regulate our practice and to punish our excesses; because we insist that already existing laws of defamation should be deterring enough and sufficiently remediable. But then the moment those we recklessly offend dare to sue for libel or slander we are quick to tag them enemies of the free press and of freedom of expression. And we want to consign them to our own ‘Museum Of The Ignoble’.
There are no meteors of anger seen when we journalists willfully offend others but the heavens themselves must split asunder whenever a Prince of the Pen is discomforted with the mildest of afflictions; or even when others dare to themselves against the villainy of our erring pens. Nor are we known to willfully apologize even for our obvious wrongs; except when litigation stares us in the face. And even then the much that victims of our bad press may get is a half-hearted, take-it-or-leave-it, one-paragraph gratuitous corrigendum or a one-sentence apology usually tucked in-between morbidly unattractive multi-columned pages of ‘change of names’ and invitationals.
FFK had only offended one of us; but by the time our individual journalistic egos coalesced into a molten magma of collective anger, behold, even that once notorious spoilt brat of the Nigerian Media was soon spread-eagled on the canvass, obliquely star-spangled in his subconscious. Unless we are collectively ready to be equally yoked whenever we so offend others, this cannot be right.
Richard Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro T Agnew, who was credited with that popular blast on the American media as ‘an effete corps of impudent snobs’, in underscoring the power of the media, said “No medium has a more profound influence over public opinion”; and he warned that if “We would never trust such power over public opinion in the hands of an unelected government –it is time we questioned it in the hands of a small and unelected elite” –us, journalists.