The Media, Ethics And National Interest

(By Eric Omazu)

To speak seriously, the truth about conscience is that an individual has the right to hold an opinion and to express that opinion. However, the same individual does not have the right to express certain opinions in all places. It becomes more repugnant when the media elects to abet the public expression of opinions that should rather be unspoken. However, it may happen that the media persons are witnesses to certain persons expressing what should be locked up in their minds in the public, it behoves the media to bring this to the attention of the public, alerting it of dangers to its health and wellbeing through responsible reportage.

THE media has become an indispensible component of modern civilisation. This centrality of the media to modern life is often traced to an Englishman, Edmund Burke, who referred to it as the “Fourth Estate” of the realm. By this, Burke gave impetus to subsequent movements that effectively philosophised the media out of the old-time prejudice under which it was viewed as a subtle formalisation of gossips. It is also to the eternal credit of global media managers and operators that they have risen to the occasion and successfully transformed their trade to become the watchdog of the society and undisputable evangelist of freedom. In both instances – as watchdog of the society and evangelist of freedom – the media has provided unmatched checks and balances to the activities of governments around the globe: Cautioning for moderation and insisting that governmental acts accord to public interests.

  Its men and women have wrestled despots to the ground and a good number of them have paid for this with their lives. Our own Dele Giwa is the handiest example that comes immediately to my mind. Indeed, the enmity between the media and despotism is so deep that both are considered mutually exclusive commodities. The unprecedented worldwide spread of democracy attests to the triumph of media over despotism. Adroitly, we can refer to democracy as the reign of the pressmen.

    In celebrating the achievements of the media, however, we must take care that the media itself does not transform into a new form of tyranny. To ensure this, we must, again and again, raise the philosophical conundrum left to us by Thomas Hobbes: “Who will guard the guardian?” In this case, how do we ensure that the media keeps to the ideals that legitimise it and upon which it has guided us into resting the whole edifice of modern society? This sort of question is not new. Perhaps, the most dramatic example of it was in 1898. That was the year of the Spanish-American War. The proprietorship of the leading newspapers in America at the time was in the hands of two media magnets, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer (of Pulitzer Prize fame). In anticipation of the war, the two newspapermen sent their journalists to Havana (Cuba), the expected battlefield. Among those sent by Hearst was Frederic Remington, a famous artist of the time who served as illustrator to Hearst’s newspapers. Remington had spent time in Havana without the war taking place.   Concluding that war was unlikely, Remington requested Hearst to allow him return to his desk in the United States of America. Hearst had rejected the request with the following words: “You provide the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

    The subsequent leaking of this conversation alerted the American public to the powers of the media and its men in bringing into reality a non-existent phenomenon. Hearst’s sole concerns in making that statement were patronage and profits which reportage of a non-existing war would attract to his newspapers. This is far too dangerous, and the Americans took note. A people reputed for their penchant for asking the right questions, the American public rightly wondered whether the media magnets – as businessmen – should be propelled only by their own interests or should their private interests be subsumed under a higher interest – like truth and national interest. Various struggles to give answers to this late 19th century puzzle contributed tremendously to the emergence of what is today regarded as media ethics. At the core of this is what should constitute the ideal code of conduct for media men and establishing the extent of their responsibility to their societies.

   A recent study of the Nigerian media reveals a group of people ardent at setting standard for others while declaring themselves free from the shackles of any known standard. Albert Camus’s book, The Rebel, regards the exhibition of this attitude by any revolutionary as tragic. Tyrants who erect prisons for others whereas they themselves ought to be their prime inmates are all caught up in the web of this tragedy.

  The tragedy of the media lies in the conclusion that the ideals of freedom of information have freed its men from any moral responsibility for the information they disseminate. Within the matrix of such logic, how the information is sourced, the anticipated end for which it is deployed, and the general consequence to the health of society is not of concern to the media. This, actually, is the expression of the most radical form of liberalism whose proponents hold that no media man is to be held responsible for any information he puts out to the public, rather members of the public are responsible for whatever use they convert the information they receive from the media into. If the rest of us have acceded to this sort of radical liberalism for the media, it would have freed the Rwandan journalists known and convicted for instigating the 1994 genocide perpetrated by the Hutu ethnic group against the Tutsi ethnic group from any type of responsibility for their actions. Rather, “the stupid” mob that allowed themselves to be controlled by such hate broadcast should be held responsible for allowing the media men instigate their taste for the Tutsi blood.

  Despicable and condemnable as the Rwandan example is, any person who has had cause to follow the Nigerian media in the recent time, specifically the print media must have been alarmed by the close correspondence between the content of the Rwandan media of 1994 and that of the Nigerian media of 2013. It chills the blood to think that while Rwanda has evolved progressively considering that aspect of its history as the darkest moment of its national life that is good only for the dustbin of history, Nigeria seems to be evolving retrogressively as some of our fellow citizens wish Nigeria the Rwandan experience as part of a glorious future.

   It is with utmost difficulty and pain that I cite the recent media outings of Mr. Femi Fani Kayode as the perfect example of this malady. Severally have I suppressed the urge to reply Femi Fani Kayode. In each of these times, I was refrained by the impossibility of his essays serving as stepping stones for a value adding conversation. The most acerbic of Kayode’s malignant essays was the one entitled “My Struggle, My Dream”. The highpoint of that essay was Kayode’s open admiration for Hitler inspired version of nationalism and his (Kayode’s) failure to see that Nazism and the Holocaust were necessary consequences of that form of nationalism. Another major sore point of that essay was Kayode’s dream and struggle to put weapons in the hands of every single Yoruba person in readiness for an imminent war.

   To speak seriously, the truth about conscience is that an individual has the right to hold an opinion and to express that opinion. However, the same individual does not have the right to express certain opinions in all places. It becomes more repugnant when the media elects to abet the public expression of opinions that should rather be unspoken. However, it may happen that the media persons are witnesses to certain persons expressing what should be locked up in their minds in the public, it behoves the media to bring this to the attention of the public, alerting it of dangers to its health and wellbeing through responsible reportage. We must draw a clear line between doing this and affording such individuals column or opinion spaces to express their views and spread hate. To put things squarely, that Femi Fani Kayode’s article, by calling for preparation for war, subverts the Nigerian society as we know it. No responsible media house should publish an article that subverts the society upon which it depends for its existence. I engaged a Mass Communication colleague of mine in an argument about the indecency of Kayode’s essay as I sought to know whether the media houses have no control whatsoever over what they publish. While he accepted the subversive nature of that essay, he made it clear to me that his own judgement was personal. A newspaper editor, based on his own disposition, could still find justifiable reasons to publish it. This amounts to overstretching of relativism and no society built on it survives. Society is built on the understanding that certain acts are bad in themselves. Take murder, violence, terrorism, war, and their likes as examples.

   I must state here what I consider the absolute truth about the media. It is that the media is the greatest instrument for the cultivation of culture and nation building. It is this because a good number of people believe every story from the media as nothing but the truth and often organises and reorganises his life based on them. If the Nigerian media is conscious of this it will pay great attention to what David Berry, in his book, Journalism, Ethics and Society, regards as the challenge of the mass media: “The one challenge to the mass media is to revise its priorities, giving a lower one to the means of gathering or transmitting news, and assigning the highest to improvement of the quality of information it delivers each day. More attention should be paid to the content and less to the package. By pandering to the lowest levels of … taste … the mass media have surely helped citizens lose their identity and intensified their moral isolation from each other, from reality and from themselves.”’ Indeed, the assumption that the 21st century media is for everyone who has something to say is faulty. At the base, the forum of the mass media is for enlightenment and not necessarily for information. In this sense, only such information that enlightens is worthy of publication. The practice of mixing the wheat with the chaffs is evidence of a decadent media. Edward Wilson’s revulsion may indeed serve the rest of us here. Appalled by the quality of information that comes from the media houses he exclaimed that we are “drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.”

  Perhaps, it needs reemphasising that the media is a major instrument of nation building. In this matrix, the least of the media person has no less responsibility than the biggest of the government officials in protecting the national interest. Seen from this perspective, the media persons are also public servants. This means that the public also places the burden of expectation on them. They are judged, praised and blamed as they meet those expectations. The media becomes dangerous when its people consider themselves as mere businessmen and women, only intent on using their brains and brawns to acquire as much wealth made possible by the nature of their trade. Herein is the beginning of “anything goes journalism”. The danger of this does not affect society alone. It also affects the media as it eludes public trust on them which once lost everything is lost as far as media business is concerned.

   I am a proponent of having the media in the thick of action in protecting the national interests. This places the media at the same level with the military, and even higher, for the pen, we say, is mightier than the sword. In this age of interdisciplinary dialogue and “inter-professional” exchange, the media has a lot to take from the military. The most attractive of all these is the bushido, the ethical code of the Japanese warrior. The bushido demands that the soldier engages himself in rigorous training of his mind and body. The four cardinal engines that drive the bushido – absolute loyalty, spontaneity, collective responsibility, and personal sacrifice – can also be of great importance to the media. The bushido if adopted by the media, disposes the media person, a warrior in his or her own right, to make good judgment and to die defending his nation and its interests when circumstances call for it.

• Dr. Omazu is a philosopher and lecturer at the National Open University of Nigeria, Lagos.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”

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