Written by Okey Ndibe Monday, 20 June 2011 21:24
“The Fourth Estate and the Other Estates”
June 17, 2011. Permit me to begin by expressing my profound admiration for the family, friends and colleagues of the late Dr. Onuma Onwuka Oreh for their decision to honor his memory by instituting this lecture series. In a country with a poor history of celebrating stellar citizens and noble work, one must commend the Department of Mass Communication, the Faculty of Arts, and the Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria for enthusiastically supporting this event, and working to ensure its success. Your individual and collective contributions are a tribute to the loftiness of your social vision. An institution reveals itself in who and what it upholds and honors. In honoring the exemplary work that Dr. Oreh did as a scholar and citizen, this university has demonstrated fidelity to refined values.
For me, it is nothing short of a blessing to be invited to deliver the inaugural edition of this memorial lecture series. I’d like to thank the Oreh family and the University of Nigeria for their confidence in me. I am hardly an easy person to pin down, and I am notorious for accepting far more assignments and tasks than I can handle. Even so, from the first moment I spoke with Obinna, the youngest of the three Oreh Boys, I was sold on this assignment. Obinna spoke with infectious reverence about his late father and his mother, Dr. Catherine I. Oreh, who still serves this university in the Adult Education Department. Then there was palpable admiration as he told me about his two older brothers, Onwuka and Ndudim. Since I also hold my parents and siblings in the highest regard, I knew – even before meeting any of the Orehs – that theirs is a special family.
In the intervening months, there were several hiccups arising from my failure to make deadlines for the completion and submission of my lecture. Through it all, Obinna – the family’s direct contact with me – remained gracious and unflappable, displaying a quality of patience and composure that made a deep impression on me. Since we are inevitably formed out of our parents’ clay, I came to see his warm, optimistic disposition as a revelation – in all likelihood – of his father’s mettle and fiber. Having made this broad claim about the debt we owe to our parents’ example, I find myself obligated to enter a disclaimer. That disclaimer is that my own trouble with deadlines was not inherited from my parents. My mother, a retired schoolmistress, as well as my late father, exemplified fastidiousness and scrupulous adherence to time.
The decision to institute this lecture series speaks eloquently about Dr. Oreh’s life, ideas and work, and is an important clue to the kind of values he shared with his beloved wife, and bequeathed to his children. Even though I never had the privilege of meeting Dr. Oreh in flesh and blood, I feel a vibrant fondness for the life that he led, the legacy he left, and the imprints he made.
On one level, that life was marked, it seems clear to me, by abiding commitment to professional excellence in mass communication practice and scholarship. In looking over his CV, I was struck by the magnificent convergence of praxis and theory in his work, the way in which he was at once a doer and a thinker, a communicator as well as a teacher of the art of communication. Just as remarkable was the man’s brief foray into partisan politics, an arena where we need more and more enlightened and morally astute citizens.
Going by the testimony of those who knew him best, Dr. Oreh brought a certain sense of elegance and purpose as well as a habit of rigor to every task he undertook. These attributes earned him remarkable success in the two spheres of the communicative profession that engaged his energies and interests. Those of us gathered here today testify, to one degree or another – and in one form or another – the extent to which we are in the debt of Dr. Oreh, a man of impressive humanistic depth and extraordinary professional accomplishments.
The symbiotic balance of practice and theory that he exemplified is today sadly rare, if not altogether absent in the field of mass communication in Nigeria. There is no question that Nigeria boasts some outstanding scholars in the area of mass communication, several of them on the faculty of this esteemed university. Our nation is also greatly endowed with women and men who excel as practicing mass media professionals. What’s so sorely lacking, or in short supply, is the kind of cross-disciplinary flair and organic dexterousness so effortlessly demonstrated by the man whose work and life inspired this lecture and whose memory animates our celebration. The kind of synergistic gifts that the late Dr. Oreh possessed are indispensable ingredients for the growth and maturation of any community, be it academic, political, religious or whatever.
When I was invited to inaugurate this lecture series, the organizers had also proposed several prospective titles. I told Obinna that I would leave the choice up to the family. When he rang back to say that their favorite was “The Fourth Estate and the Other Estates,” I was greatly delighted. From the outset, the title had struck me as particularly cogent and intriguing. The title’s power and seduction lies in the fruitful tension between its seeming concreteness and its mysterious, even mystifying air. For somebody with my temperament – marked by fascination with narratives that go off on surprising tangents and distaste for any story that travels on a straight line – the title was tremendously attractive.
In its contemporary usage, the fourth estate refers in the main to the mass media as a collectivity. Edmund Burke, the great Anglo-Irish thinker and parliamentarian, is credited with categorizing the field of journalism as constituting a fourth estate in 18th century British society. In his book, On Heroes and Hero Worship, Thomas Carlyle suggests that Burke coined the term in 1787 at a time when the British press was rising to the challenge of providing more intense coverage of the deliberations of the House of Commons. For the staid, conservative British, that moment of transition was rife with possibility and peril. On the one hand, press coverage was going to demystify the legislative process. By beaming a light on the arcane rituals and ceremonial encrustations of lawmaking, the British press was going to bridge the gulf between the people and their legislators, with the added collateral advantage of vitalizing democracy, enhancing transparency and increasing the quotient of public expectations and political accountability.
We have it on Carlyle’s authority that Burke was deeply charmed by the prospective advantages of press scrutiny. Carlyle wrote, “Burke said that there were three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder there sat a fourth Estate more important far than they all.” In this Burkean social architecture, the press, despite the relative recentness of its mandate, occupies a monumental seat, no inferior to the first three Estates: the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal, and the Commons. In Britain’s tradition at the time, the two “lorded” groups constituted the upper chamber of parliament whilst the Commons was the lower chamber.
Of course, the term “the fourth estate” has a longer, richer, more slippery and variegated pre-Burkean usage, history and context. However, it does not serve our purposes to trace or excavate all of the meanings, histories and guises worn by the term. It suffices to remark that our contemporary sense of the term is infused with Burke’s spirit.
Once that is understood, then we are challenged to ponder the extent to which an idea articulated by a British philosopher speaks to the Nigerian experience. Would we be able to claim, as Burke did, that the Nigerian press – or the mass media, broadly – is a vibrant player in the nation’s fledging democratic industry, a champion of transparency, and sustainer of the principle of accountability? What are the odds that Burke, were he to stir from his grave and land in Nigeria, would gush about the Nigerian media, recognizing them as a fertilizing agent of our ongoing experimentation with a nasty phenomenon that our politicians often call nascent democracy? Looking at the Nigerian media, would a Burke proclaim them as surpassing the other sectors of the polity? Have the media in Nigeria risen to assume a consequential role in the twists and turns of the country’s political development? Have we ever witnessed – or are we witnessing – a golden age of mass media practice in Nigeria, one that rivals the vibrancy that moved Burke to make his effusive assessment of the British press?
Before venturing to propose answers to these difficult questions, I should emphasize, as a matter of prudence, that I speak, not as an outsider objectively dissecting an institution, but as a veritable insider. In disclosing this fact – which, at any rate, is public knowledge – I hope to confess both the subjective nature of my responses as well as a recognition of the way in which, as a part-time member of the profession, I am implicated in these matters.
In 1999, shortly after Olusegun Obasanjo moved into Aso Rock, the Guardian of Nigeria asked me to start writing a weekly column. The original conception was to create a forum to enable me to comment on the goings-on in the United States. But after writing about the U.S. in my first two or three columns, I served notice of my wish to begin meditating on Nigeria, especially its politics. It seemed to me somewhat odd to be discussing the curiosities of American life as seen from the perspective of an African immigrant when the country of my birth was undergoing transition from many years of military rule to a system that aspired to and usurped the name of democracy – even though, in practice, it often resembled the blighted dictatorship it succeeded.
The vicissitudes of Nigeria’s political adventure soon became my dependable subject. In my novel, Arrows of Rain, an elderly woman tells her journalist-grandson, “A story that must be told never forgives silence.” That stricture from my fiction has informed my weekly commentary both in the Guardian as well as the Sun, which since 2007 has been the new home for my column. Nigeria’s story can be wearyingly sad, a narrative of a nation conceived in hope but nurtured into hopelessness. Or, as the inimitable Chinua Achebe might say, Nigeria is a nation that manages the feat of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Week after week, I seek to examine one facet or another of our country’s malaise or promise. I have done this in the spirit that our national story, a narrative of missed opportunities and disasters as well as resilience and undying hope, cannot forgive silence. My column is an act of memory, a way of reminding us – as well as future generations – of the road that we have traveled, as individual actors and as citizens of a country in search of itself. As our bard Wole Soyinka has stated in his book The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness – paraphrasing the Holocaust writer Elie Wiesel – “A people who do not preserve their memory are a people who have forfeited their history.” I make much the same point, if less eloquently, in Arrows of Rain: “the fabric of memory is reinforced by stories, rent by silences.” In the prefatory section of his complex, polyvalent novel titled The Cattle Killing, the African American writer John Edgar Wideman writes about the “terror of…forgetfulness.” We fall victim to the plague of forgetfulness when our storytellers, among them journalists, shirk their responsibility, when they fall asleep on duty. And our memories are impoverished just as often when, as citizens, we choose to be nonchalant, apathetic and unheeding of the stories we are told.
Why have I found it necessary to take this circuitous route to a confrontation with the questions I posed earlier? The chief reason is to underscore the complexity of the problem. Another reason is to foreground my fascination with the twin phenomena of memory and forgetfulness, which constitute two sides of a coin. Above all, I envision the mass media as engaged in the memory industry. It is that sector of society that ought to, on the one hand, offer us an inventory of events and, on the other, mine that harvest of events for the meanings they yield, the way they illuminate our fate as a community.
To what extent, then, have the mass media exhibited mastery in the reportage and explanation of Nigeria’s drama? I don’t believe I make a controversial claim at all when I contend that Nigeria is, everything considered, a disappointing middle-aged nation. Even the most incurable of optimists would be hard put to it to deny that the country has hardly met the euphoric expectations that attended Independence in 1960. In his brilliant book, This House Has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis, journalist Karl Maier describes Nigeria as “by far the most confounding, frustrating, and at the same engaging place I have ever visited.”
Despite prodigious endowments in human and natural resources, Nigeria regularly inhabits the top positions in indexes of social misery – poverty, disease, child and maternal mortality rates, investment in health and education. Just as reliably, our country is ranked among the most corrupt, least transparent nations on the globe. Our public officials have looted hundreds of billions of dollars from the public treasury and deposited these funds in their private accounts. Nigeria is a veritable paradox: a nation of conspicuous consumers that produces little; a community where a few primitively accumulate ill-gotten wealth, indifferent to the severe social dislocations wrought by their greed.
Given the gargantuan scale of the nation’s dysfunction, it is easy to argue that the media have been manifestly inept. But this judgment would seem to me to demand some qualification. One is the danger of viewing the Nigerian media as a monolith. Instead, one should clarify that the mass media in Nigeria display stupendous heterogeneity. They embody great variety in terms of forms, foci, professional and ethical standards, ownership, and territorial reach or penetration. In fact, Nigerians – like most people elsewhere – live in a time and place saturated with newspapers, radio stations, TV channels, websites and blogs. These media vary widely in their focus, the spectrum ranging from “general interest” through politics, finance, arts and culture, and entertainment to outlets that highlight and venerate the obscene and execrable obsessions of Nigeria’s parvenu.
It ought to be noted, too, that the patterns of mass media ownership in Nigeria also constitute varying levels of constraint on sound professional practices. State and federal governments own some newspapers as well as radio and TV stations, and that fact shapes how the media envision and serve their mission. Sometimes, it is retired or serving government officials who found and finance these organs. Yet again, the owner’s whims, caprices and interests color the media’s posture.
Implicit in the acknowledgement of this multiplicity is a recognition of the undeniable presence of bright spots in the history of the media’s engagement with its historic duty of informing the Nigerian populace. Sections of the Nigerian press worked tirelessly to confront the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida after it became clear that its vaunted transition program was little more than a ruse, a gimmick aimed at self-perpetuation. In the bleak days of the Sani Abacha dictatorship, the media – certain newspapers, magazines and radio stations – emerged to lead a strong resistance. In more recent history, some principled news organizations and journalists were as much as factor in frustrating former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s illicit scheme to effect an amendment to the Nigerian constitution in order to award himself a third (and possibly fourth and fifth) term.
Besides, in the last ten years or so, we have witnessed the birth of something akin to a revolution in the way information is generated, disseminated and used. The Internet has radically remapped the landscape of Nigeria’s – and the globe’s – mass media practice. By its nature, online news has a limitless potential in terms of readership and impact. The Internet affords instantaneity of product and access. Increasingly, it also empowers the reader to respond immediately to the material she has just consumed. Websites that carry news and commentary have emerged as the wave of the present, the most democratic of news sources. They breach borders and nullify the constraints of time to reach any reader with a computer and Internet connection. Let me be clear: these Internet outlets have not always served noble ends. However, some of them – and here, I must single out the outstanding www.saharareporters.com – have become nothing short of powerful and transformative tools, adept at ferreting out some of the hitherto concealed scandals of money laundering and abuses of power committed or authorized by some of Nigeria’s most highly placed elected and appointed officials.
Yet, after allowing for these exceptions, I am persuaded that much of the Nigerian media is far from discharging its burden to a degree that would impress Burke. In a lot of ways, too many reporters, columnists, editors and website administrators have felt comfortable suborning their witness for a mess of porridge from the master’s dining table. Unfortunately, too many members of the fraternity of the mass media have permitted themselves to be infected by the same grasping impulse that has polluted the political space. There can be no sweeter music to the ears of corrupt politicians than to realize that some journalists – too many of them, if you ask me – are for hire, willing to look the other way, to falsify accounts, even to invent tall tales of politicians’ accomplishments for the right price.
One of the most disturbing trends that have emerged since 1999 is the practice of newspapers or groups of journalists handing out questionable performance awards to politicians. It is not uncommon for individual newspapers or groups of journalists to award “Governor of the Year” or “Best Minister of the Federation.” Others confer equally meretricious awards for “Transparent Governance” or prizes in the categories of education, health, agriculture etc. It is common knowledge that incompetent governors are all-too willing to spend small sums of cash to finagle these awards. Were Burke to witness the practice, chances are that he would reach for some fitting expression. Filled with disgust, he might speak about “a descent from the fourth estate to the first slum.” It behooves journalists to scrutinize the activities of occupants of public office. When, instead of doing so, journalists take to peddling prizes to governors, ministers and other politicians, then their ethically stinky practice deserves to be called by its proper name: a scam.
To be clear, I suggest that Nigeria’s fourth estate of the realm is bedeviled by the same pathologies that have afflicted Nigerian politics and other sectors of the nation’s life – including its law enforcement and academia. If the situation of mass media practitioners were exceptional, then one would be sounding greater bells of alarm. Many factors account for the huge gap between our legitimate expectations of what our journalists ought to be doing and the reality of what they do. Unfortunately, however, we hardly have the time to explore that territory in any depth. But of this I am convinced: The media’s travails both mirror and reinforce the malaise in the broader society. The toxicity of the political space poisons the atmosphere of journalism practice; but journalism’s susceptibility to political meddlesomeness and corruption also exacerbates swindles by politicians. When the media abandon their role as watchdogs, or worse, when they exhibit an inclination for corruption, then the entire mechanism of checks and balances is dealt a terrible blow.
Some might blame the decline in professional standards and paucity of ethical outlook among many journalists on the fact that media jobs, on the whole, pay relatively poorly. This factor cannot be discounted, but I doubt that it explains away the professional and ethical lapses. Far more important, I suggest, are two interlinked nemeses. One is the catastrophic devaluation of moral currency in our society, the other an equally deleterious fall in intellectual discourse. Taken together, these two failures debilitate what I would describe as the moral and intellectual estates. I insist that a vibrant tradition of journalism can only thrive through sustained concern with and investment in the moral and intellectual realms. There are always exceptions, even remarkable ones, but it seems to me that too many of our practicing journalists are, in moral and intellectual terms, wretchedly equipped.
A soundly educated class of journalists – and I use educated in the broadest possible sense – would realize, for example, that a person’s worth is not reducible to the size of her or his paycheck. Any journalist who justifies the acceptance of bribes from politicians on the ground that her salary is small has missed the point. Nobody ever mistook a career in journalism as a path to riches. A measure of discernment of values and motives ought to precede one’s entry into a career in journalism. If material enrichment is of the essence, then one had better look for a different trade or line of work.
Journalists ought to develop a deep sense of history. Such consciousness would mean recognizing that such stalwart political and intellectual figures in our nation’s history as Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Anthony Enahoro, Mr. Mokwugo Okoye, Professor Chinua Achebe, Chief M.C.K Ajuluchukwu worked at one point or another as journalists. Newspapers and journalists were in the forefront of the struggle to achieve Nigeria’s flag Independence from British rule. A profession with that pedigree and impact deserves to maintain something of its intellectual and moral standing, and to be jealous of its reputation.
One way of reclaiming that endangered professional prestige is to re-imagine both the nature and indispensability of the role of a journalist in a country like Nigeria. Nigerian literature, whether it is Soyinka’s The Interpreters, Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel or my own Arrows of Rain explore characters who are journalists, and who face or transcend various ethical or professional dilemmas. As I have already proposed, one of the journalist’s most important duties is to tell stories. Permit me to vivify the subject by focusing on the Igbo conception of stories.
For the Igbo, stories serve as a tool for constructing and enshrining individual and communal identities, for charting tracks to the past and projecting to the future, and for reinforcing memories. A rich harvest of pithy sayings within Igbo expressive arts foregrounds the perils of storylessness – or, just as often and with equal eloquence, heedlessness to stories. One such expression is, “He who doesn’t know where the rain began to beat him won’t know where he dried up,” a favorite of Achebe’s. Another related aphorism, used to chastise inflexible people, states: “The obstinate who won’t heed any warnings will certainly heed the summons of the death-mat.”
Igbo folktales are equally replete with tales that detail the harsh, often tragic, cost of disregarding, mangling or manipulating stories for selfish interests, or blundering into combat without their chastening benefit. In one cautionary tale, Chicken unwisely chooses to stay away from an important meeting of all the animals. We learn that the convention’s agendum is to discuss the unhealthy rate at which humans were slaughtering animals for food. Exploiting Chicken’s absence, the gathered animals decide to propose it to humans as the primary sacrificial animal. Through this deft stroke, the socially responsible and engaged animals receive some respite from their human antagonists, exacerbate Chicken’s grief, and hand us a chastening tale about the dire consequences of apathy, nonchalance, disengagement and abdication.
In Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, an elderly character dwells at length on the crucial place stories occupy in the matrix of society:
To some of us the Owner of the World has apportioned the gift to tell their fellows that the time to get up has finally come. To others He gives the eagerness to rise when they hear the call; to rise with racing blood and put on their garbs of war and go to the boundary of their town to engage the invading enemy boldly in battle. And then there are those whose part is to wait and when the struggle is ended, to take over and recount its story.
The sounding of the battle-drum is important; the fierce waging of the war itself is important; and the telling of the story afterwards—each is important in its own way. I tell you there is not one of them we could do without. But if you ask me which of them takes the eagle-feather I will say boldly: the story…Now, when I was younger, if you had asked me the same question I would have replied without a pause: the battle…
So why do I say that the story is chief among his fellows? The same reason I think that our people sometimes will give the name Nkolika to their daughters—Recalling-Is-Greatest. Why? Because it is only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us. It is the thing that makes us different from cattle; it is the mark on the face that sets one people apart from their neighbors.
This long passage from Achebe’s novel, I believe, constitutes a statement of the kind of exalted moral estate that every conscientious journalist should aspire to inhabit. Whether they report news, edit copy or compose columns, Nigerian journalists ought to embrace – or rediscover – the task of pointing the nation away from the spikes of the cactus fence. Rather than engaging in falsification or obfuscation in order to claim the cheap lucre held out by corrupt politicians, journalists ought to commit to the service of society, exposing the impunity of those who misshape our nation and malnourish our collective lives.
Speaking truth to power has become a cliché, even a facile phrase. Yet, our journalists ought to be able to say, like Teiresias, the blind seer in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, “It is the truth sustains me.” Or, like Socrates, affirm that the unexamined life is not worth living. They ought to cultivate the habit of asking hard questions. Why is it that Nigeria cannot seem to get a handle on its electric power woes despite the billions of dollars squandered in recent years in pursuit of regular, dependable electricity? Why are most Nigerians deprived of healthcare, while the well-to-do – who are often corrupt politicians and their coterie – make jaunts to such places as India, South Africa, Asia, Europe and North America to seek medical treatment? Why are Nigerian universities starved of research funds even as parasitic politicians gorge mindlessly on the nation’s ever-dwindling resources?
Many years ago, a colonial novelist named John Buchan wrote a novel, Prester John, in which a character is invited to trot out the following epiphany:
That is the difference between white and black, the gift of responsibility, the power of being in a little way a king; and so long as we know this and practice it, we will rule not in Africa alone but wherever there are dark men who live only for the day and their own bellies.
Achebe and many other African intellectuals have spent considerable energy combating this and similar racist depictions that state or imply that the African is beholden to the worst forms of hedonistic excess. Even so, in light of the scope of corruption exhibited by many Nigerian politicians, do they not leave the impression of being governed by their insatiable guts, their moral compass answering to the grammar of greed? And in choosing to ignore these monumental acts of treachery, are our journalists not guilty – at the very least – of cooperating with those who abbreviate our dreams and abort our aspirations?
In order to be worthy inheritors of Burke’s fourth estate, rather than usurpers, Nigerian journalists ought to reclaim the moral and intellectual estates. This process would entail, above all, attention to the place of language in journalism. The language of Nigerian journalism is often, one is sad to say, shockingly dated, pallid, disheveled. Part of this linguistic enervation is a product of the journalist’s often-lazy adoption of the politician’s language. George Orwell was certainly right in arguing that “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
The search for and reclamation of a language that clarifies rather than confounds is a necessary moral and professional undertaking. It is said that Confucius was once asked what would be his first step if it fell to him to govern a nation. He reportedly answered:
To correct language…
If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant;
If what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone;
If this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate;
If morals and art deteriorate, justice will go astray;
If justice does go astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion.
Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said.
This matters above everything.
In a few brilliant lines, those sentiments sum up the ideas I have been worrying in this talk. I thank you for your attentiveness.