IN the years I have spent as a journalist in Ghana, I can recall any number relating to the times I've heard a journalist stand up in public and discuss candidly, and from a subjective point of view, the problems and challenges that face his or her profession
General admonitions about in plenty: “Do not do this! Do not do that!” But when it comes to serious analysis stemming from the nitty-gritty of real life and seen by the speaker, the young journalist is not given any meat to chew on. He's at the mercy of his own resources (sadly).
Why is that so? It is due, mainly, to the hackneyed idea that if one dissects one's profession before the eyes of the prying public, three results would occur. First, the “mystique” that allegedly pertains to the profession, would be removed or diminished; (2) that the speaker would thereby betray “trade secrets” (such as they are!) and thereby hand over to the “competition”, important information that it could use to challenge the position in the media market of the proprietor whose largesse provides the speaker with a living; and (3) that by shining a torchlight on the profession, a journalist would be handing to its “enemies” (especially those in “hostile” professions, such as law and in particular, politics) a stick with which to beat the journalistic fraternity.
Let's take the first reason – the “mystique” argument – as our launch pad. There is nothing especially mysterious about journalism, in my opinion. In fact, like medicine, there are always plenty of “bodies” lying around, waiting to be used to provide students (in particular, as well as inexperienced doctors) what ailments a body can be affected by, and how not to allow the body to end up on the morgue slab. Similarly, newspapers, magazines, and radio and television programmes, (especially “news” programmes) are littered with a fodder of malpractices which can afflict the journalistic profession.
Off the top of my head, the greatest malpractices to avoid are (a) deliberatelying (meant to influence or deceive the public) from political, social or mercenary motives. Here, there is absolutely no excuse; any journalist who indulges in such malpractices is a criminal and should be exposed and kicked out of the profession. Such exposure and “ostracism” seldom occur here, however, because Ghanaian journalists have swallowed the corrupt notion, imported wholesale from Britain (in particular) that “dog does not eat dog”.
This notion has been disowned by many modern British journalists, and organs like PrivateEyemagazine, now ruthlessly take journalists to task for being untruthful, or corrupt, or both. Organisations like GlobalWitnesshave added a new dimension to the practice of denouncing journalistic malpractice, by scrupulously examining obfuscations in the media, as relate to corruption by multi-national corporations and the businessmen/politicians who live luxurious lives at the expense of the public.
In Britain, the BBCis also sometimes good at holding journalists up to account. I remember a programme called “What The Papers Say” that routinely used to examine dubious publications or broadcasts, and exposed the untruths in them. In the US, too, TV programmes like The Daily Show regularly lampoon journalists who allow their political biases to lead them up the corrupt paths laid for them by ideologues who habitually manipulate naïve media personnel; ideologues like – like Donald Trump.
(b) Inadvertentlying(usually resorted to in order to sell ideas or merchandise). The journalist who commits this malpractice may not be a mercenary, or a habitual liar, but allows himself or herself to be misled by accepting, in good faith, the word of a politician or public relations official, who resorts to deception and other tricks of his trade, to get the journalist to place a point of view before the public. Even as great a journalistic organ as TheNew YorkTimes,has been known to fall prey to this folly, as will be recalled by those who remember the role the paper played (with regard to the alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq, which was the excuse for the US launching a horrific war against that country) led on blindly by the duplicitous reporter, Judith Miller of inglorious repute.
It must be pointed out that the journalist who is thus used to deceive the public is just as guilty of malpractice as the one who deliberately writes or broadcasts lies, because although his offence may arise out of sheer laziness (such as being unable or unwilling to carry out independent research to verify the “snake oil” being sold to the public through him) his naivetydoes produce a result that is just as harmful as that of the barefaced liar. That's why all journalists must be very scrupulous in observing the advice of C P Scott of an early editor of the [Manchester] Guardian,that comment is free but “facts are sacred”.
The essence of the “battle” between deliberate lies and lies that result from ignorance or gullibility, is captured in a rather witty ditty written by a writer called Humbert Wolfe in 1930):
“You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do unbribed,
There's no occasion to!”
Change the word, “British” to “Ghanaian” and you will understand why there is so much nonsense on video and other social media outlets, propagating the annoying nonsense peddled constantly by false prophets; or the inanitiesuttered by politicians against one another; and the near-pornographic “revelations” about the sex lives of alleged celebrities, made by self-advertising whores on the social media.
Why are these vices not so often publicly debated in Ghana? I think it's just so much the “dog don't eat dog” mentality, as a guilty conscience, harboured by many working as media practitioners. Few are properly trained; the greater number, one suspects, are but willing instruments put in place by proprietors to do dirty political work to advance the proprietors' careers. Perhaps, too, it's an unwillingness on the part of practising journalists to dwell on the malpractices of a profession that affords to them, a popularity and even social respect, that many of them know they don't really deserve.
But why were others different in the profession they had chosen?What would I not have given to hear a public lecture by historical figures like Kwame Kesse-Adu of The Pioneer; K Y Attoh of the same paper; and that paper's greatest editor, Sam Arthur? Some of these guys went into Preventive Detention (jailed without trial) in Ghana between 1959 and 1966. What did their fellow prisoners think of them and their output? Were they venerated? Were they derided? We don't know, because – perhaps they were too shy, or had become too bitter, to “parade” their emotions before the public? Their silence, I think, has deprived us of a great store of educative material.
Others from whose lips would have liked to learn Ghanaian political history are Henry Thompson) formerly of of DrumMagazine) who was also condemned to spend many years in jail, without ever being tries, for his opinions. Moses Danquah was thankfully, never detained, though he was quite opinionated when he worked on Daily Graphic). His co-columnist on that paper was the humorist, Henry Ofori, who later moved to Drum Magazine. He too could equally have left us with unique material about Drum'srelationships with the Nkrumah Government. From the other side of politics, Nkrumah's editors, Eric Heymann of the EveningsNews and T D Baffoe of the GhanaianTimes, could have written interesting memoirs to reveal what it's like to wake up one day and find that one's power to use one's pen to send people into detention, had vanished overnight.
One phenomenon that will continue to dog our sociological life is, I think, the tension between the state-financed media and those appointed to head them. Those journalists are expected to ensure that the public, who are the real owners of the state-owned media, obtain an independent assessment of life in the country (through the efficient performance of their duties, of those put at the top of our media affairs). But Governments do have an abiding interest in trying to bend the ear of these professionals, so that they would propagate the Governments' policies to the public. That situation will continue to exist; what is important is that a fine balance should be drawn between persuasion and coercion, when it comes to creating a working relationship between the two sides.
The privately-owned media cannot altogether be insulated from this tense relationship between Governments and media, either, for a lot of advertising does originate from publicly–funded bodies and that can be harnessed as a means of
putting pressure on media organisations to tow the Government's line.
There is no doubt that a very good step forward has been taken, with the establishment of the National Media Commission. The MNC is, of course, finding its feet in a gingerly fashion, as it depends on the Government for funding. It's up to the Commission to visibly produce independent-minded editors and leaders, who will, in turn, nurture independent-minded reporters, columnists and contributors, the only people who can, quite deliberately, CREATE virile, scholarly, organs of public opinion, in the form of very accessible forums, in their media. “Have you seen that letter/article/editorial in today's paper?” should be the watch-word on the lips of readers of newspapers every day, every week, every month. As should the discussions in the electronic media. The current “social media caller” system is execrable and should quite clearly be called out and terminated.
It has been noted that every country gets the media it deserves. And truly, if members of the public read articles or hears discussions on the electronic media that seem to them to be one-sided or based on misinformation and they do not take the trouble to protest; if they do not PERSIST in making their point of view heard (just because their opinions might be initially ignored by self-serving gatekeepers in the media; if they leave the opinion column editors to be monopolised by self-publicists and public relations practitioners; if they fail to grasp the idea that “controversial” contributions from “outside” will always be received with reluctance (if not suspicion!); and above all – if the knowledgeable people in the society (SUCH AS SCIENTISTS, HISTORIANS AND SOCIOLOGISTS) contemptuously dismiss misinformation in the media as stemming from ignorance and REFUSE to write or phone in THEMSELVES to correct the misinformation, nothing will ever change.
Yes – we ought to be in it TOGETHER. Otherwise, we shall, truly, deserve the media we get!
By CAMERON DUODU