Sun, 08 Feb 2004 Feature Article

Learning From the Messenger

Learning From the Messenger

In the week under review three top personalities resigned from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) after an official investigation exonerated the government of Tony Blair from charges it embellished pre-war intelligence to justify the Iraqi war.

BBC chairman Gavyn Davies, Director-General Greg Pyke and Reporter Andrew Galligan whose story asserted that the Blair government “sexed up” pre-war intelligence that was used to go to war in Iraq resigned their jobs in a move that has left Bush House scrambling to salvage its hard earned reputation as a respectable news organization.

Embarrassed by Galligan’s eye-popping story which made international headlines the British government ordered an official judicial enquiry into the allegations with the government swearing that it would come clean of all the allegations.

The BBC on the other hand refused to back down. It went into aggressive mode, dug its heels in and waited for vindication.

Nope, said the sole judge tasked to investigate the allegations that the Blair government “sexed up” pre-war intelligence. Lord Hutton also investigated alleged government complicity in the suicide death of top British Scientist David Kerry. His report also drew blank on any government complicity.

Acting D-G of BBC Mark Byford weighed in on the issue the following statement, “The BBC says it recognizes it has made mistakes and we recognize that Lord Hutton’s report is a matter of some difference of opinion and the BBC will debate those opinions but the BBC will not have a view on the Hutton report itself.

What it will have a view on is that the BBC did make some mistakes. Lord Hutton criticized the BBC, and we are going to learn from those mistakes and move forward.”

Analysts described Byford’s statement and subsequent ones from Bush House as “groveling” and it seems most Brits think so too.

HOW THE BRITS RECEIVED THE STORY So how has this big story been received by the Brits? Not so well. According to the BBC Radio’s Talking Point programme most Britons are divided on where they stand on the resignations. While a majority accepts Galligan’s resignation as justified others hold the view that that of Lord Duke and BBC chairman was not necessary.

Asked whether they think the Blair government is trying to exploit the situation to muzzle the BBC a majority replied in the affirmative- and there is the rub.

When it comes to how much the people trust the government-any government- when it comes to the vexed issue of media control an overwhelming majority say they don’t.

Why? The answer is simple. Most constitutions that are fashioned in the spirit of libertarianism uphold the principle of separation of power which stresses a distinct separation in the work or operation of the three major pillars of government-executive, legislature and the judiciary.

The media follows closely on the heels of these three, hence the reference to it as the fourth estate of the realm.

Most people cherish their freedoms and they hold the unabashed belief that a free and independent media could best safeguard that right than a government.

Most polls have shown that people don’t trust their governments on the issue of individual freedoms. Ironically and perhaps for good measure several polls have also revealed that a lot more people don’t trust the media when it comes to protection of the individual’s zone of privacy-particularly when the individual involved is a public official or a prominent person. BBC AND GBC The BBC is an independent, publicly funded organization-far different from media organizations that were established immediately after independence in most African and commonwealth nations to act as the torch bearers of propaganda and misinformation-that holds its mandate of holding the government accountable very seriously.

Though publicly funded, it is not perceived as the ‘state broadcasting organization’ established to regurgitate government propaganda and misinformation. It operates solely to serve the British people. The Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, GBC on the other hand is a state-owned media organization that unlike the BBC is highly perceived to be beholden to the government of the day. Note the difference between the BBC and the GBC and to some extent its stable mates notably the Graphic and Times. While the later draws much of its operating funds directly from Parliament and is insulated from direct government interference and control, the GBC and the Ghanaians Times in particular still struggle to assert their independence in spite of one decisive Supreme Court decision that supports an assertive stance.

This crystallizes in the favourable coverage given to government and ruling party programmes to the neglect of the minority parties who desperately need the publicity to articulate an alternative on the gamut of programmes-which is a constitutionally guaranteed right-in order to fight the election on equal footing and to keep in touch with their support base.

The National Media Commission, NMC has achieved some modicum of success in its avowed objective to sensitise the aforementioned state-owned institutions on the significance of the decision of the Supreme Court but still more work remains to be done.

Officials of the state-owned media deny they are beholden to government. They say they give more coverage to government programmes because they have a constitutional undertaking to explain government programmes to the people. In order words they are doing their job-and well too.

The state owned media is suffering from a psychological deficit that flows from the history surrounding its establishment. The historical fact is that succeeding governments have kept a tight leash on the media and have used it only to advance its parochial self-seeking intentions and to serve a certain agenda.

Can the state-owned media recover? Sure.

First they have to learn to assert their rights even when it is at variance with the government. It must start with marshalling the will power to say no when a request comes from the Minister of Information (that is where it begins most of the time) to drop an article, news item, interview etc like it happened with reckless abandon in the PNDC, NDC days and in the other dictatorships we have endured in our short life as a nation-state. RICH JOURNALISTIC TRADITION Our country enjoys a rich journalistic tradition which spans several decades dating back to pre-independent days when Dr’s Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe who later became President of Nigeria in their nationalistic fervour established newspapers for two major reasons-to build support for the anti-colonialist agenda and also to explore ways of building a mass political movement.

Kofi Baako whose son Kweku edits the Crusading Guide and Kofi Badu who probably pioneered his own brand of investigative journalism when he sneaked into the offices of J.H Mensah, then Finance Minister and photographed a mysterious bed would without doubt find a place among the pantheon of journalistic luminaries this country has ever known.

Their trail-blazing feat have been reprised in the astounding work of the Kofi Coomson’s, the Ebo Quansah’s, the Haruna Atta’s, the Mohammed Affum’s, the Kwesi Pratt’s, the William Nyarko’s and the Alfred Ogbamey’s who in their own ways have lionized the press in Ghana. In spite of financial constraints, officially motivated trials, persecutions and at the pain of imprisonment and even death “this band of brothers” stepped in and gave readers what the state-owned media were not man enough to provide.

This is what we need. Our current democratic dispensation can only survive if the media takes its place and asserts its right in the face of government bullying.

This is a task reserved for men and women with grit. It is a task we cannot shy away from. When it comes to the last stand which is death we have to be prepared to take a stand against corruption, bad governance, dictatorship and spin. Paa Kwesi Plange (Gye Nyame Concord) By