By Abiodun Adeniyi
The question of media independence is an age-old one. Discourses around it sail through all notions and theories of communication and may continually be so.
The reason being that independence is more like an ideal, a state of objectivity, of elevation, where you are called by design, or by the dictate of your trade to be elevated, distanced, disinterested, detached and dispassionate in the evaluation or reportage of situations. Independence is salutary as it enhances believability, credibility, reputation and acceptability. Because independence is probably constructed over time and space, amid changing human conditions, it can be shifty, and problematic to achieve.
It is the reason why endeavors that are close to objectivity are easily identified and readily regarded. The discerning members of the populace also subtly or loudly celebrate them. It is the reason why Channels Television, one of Nigeria’s finest television stations in terms of content, presentation, professionalism, portrayal and representation is often in the spotlight for appraisals, being a beacon broadcast station, a star in the firmament and/or a surviving cranium amid a legion of threatened heads.
Not a few serendipitous appraisals have been appearing in sundry snowballing media channels in recent times. A lot more are sure to appear, especially with the atmosphere of politics in town, and against the background of citizen’s innate desire for the best media service. Shouldn’t Channels TV be considered lucky, or blessed for bearing this huge weight of a people’s expectations for quality journalism? We will see!
First, we need to appreciate that the social and political configurations of nations are often on trial. The trials culminate in contrasting opinions in the search for solutions. It underscores the nature of man and the tendency to be diverse, different, disparate and differentiated in reasoning, in opinions and in the framing of circumstances. It is ideal to be circumspect about the position of a thinker and best to build consensus on the plural positions, in what could be a bid to arrive at the finest, through integrations.
It is the reason why trades saddled with the reflection of the society, with evaluation of positions, and with the execution of decision are often required to be objective, disinterested, balanced, factual, distanced and dispassionate. It is the reason why occupations and endeavours like the media, the judiciary, and political policy makers are necessarily guided by rules, regulations, codes, ethics and even sometimes laws. Beyond that is the fact that the more reasonable, more considerate, competent and more dispassionate a person is, the better the functionality of the situation in view.
The media is one professional arm that preaches balance, neutrality, fairness, and honesty on the part of the practitioner. The trade assumes the reporter to be an arbiter of a sort. He is a quasi-judicial person in social processes. He should be above board. All the sides of the argument should rely on it, for trust, such that information will flow freely pursuant to truth, freedom and happiness. These pursuits would have been founded on confidence, respect for privacy and in adherence to constitutional provisions on right to information. The cover for the professional to freely inform, as close as possible to professionalism, is also a subtext. The media is, therefore, privileged for its role as a social ombudsman, making the guest for fact based reporting, and for objectivity a noble guest. Nevertheless, how challenging can this quest for objectivity be? And specifically, to what extent has Channels TV strived for it, and achieved, or not achieved it?
First, Channels TV is one of the few media organisations founded by core professionals. The Chairman, Mr. John Momoh, OON, had undergone one of the best journalism trainings available. He was at the reputable University of Lagos, for First and Second degrees and then at Cardiff and Manchester Universities for further honing, under the sponsorship of the prestigious British Chevening Scholarship. Check! He had also worked at the foremost Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), becoming one of the best broadcasters in the land, with his classy baritone, guttural voice, often deployed for measured, methodical and systematic rendition of news. John Momoh had proven to be one of the best in the trade.
His wife, Olushola, was also well honed. She was at the University of Lagos Mass Communication department, one of the oldest and most famous journalism training grounds in the land, like her husband, and has been a beneficiary of much other training, both locally and internationally. Madam was at the NTA where she proved herself as a resourceful reporter, investigating many insightful stories, especially in the Niger Delta. She then had a stint at the International Merchant Bank (IMB), before joining hubby to found the Channels TV. It is therefore clear that husband and wife were eminently qualified to do a good job of running a media organisation in the event that all other variables are constant.
However, in the discourse of the challenge of independence in any situation, can variables be constant? In the case of Channels TV, or the media, what are these variables? The first is that all the sides in a story will have to realize that the other side will similarly need to be heard. Second, all the sides need to know that the practitioners have commitments to ethics, regulations and codes of practice. They should do nothing to break these codes.
Third, the sides also have to realize that the commitment of the practitioner is not to them alone. It is even most importantly to the audience, the populace, the heterogeneous and anonymous viewers, listeners and readers. The advertising communities are also there relying on the credibility and reputation of the organisation to project their brands.
The fourth variable is that the government of the day would not be intervening, through pressures, intimidations, closures, harassments and muscling, amongst others. The fifth variable is the environment of practice. How safe is it? To what extent does the populace realize that the practitioner is executing a time worn constitutional responsibility to inform, entertain, educate and create awareness? How disposed is the populace to allowing or supporting an unhindered performance of these roles?
Sixth is that how will objectivity not be seen as the subjective viewpoint of the nascistic? Remember that the nascistic views are supreme, not because they are truly so, but only because they are constructed as such, given his delusion of maximum grandeur and the supposed stupidity of the otherside. It is not impossible that a trying, independent media organisation like Channels TV could sometimes be a victim of the nascistic. Just so to say.
Assessing Channels TV against these shifting variables would be best from the manner in which they have cultivated believability. They have strived to grow trust partly through the apolitical positioning of the Chairman and Vice-Chairman, and the fact that they have largely not being involved in any controversy like many of their media-owning peers. These speak to their discipline, sense of purpose, and a commitment to professionalism. The character has have consciously or unconsciously helped in building the much-needed credibility, for believability.
What about the content? Media content development is a project in progress. Regardless, Channels TV is complete with its coverage, hovering over multi-sectors, and with reasonably huge depth. Unlike the newspaper reporter, the TV journalist could be said to have a relatively much more encumbered by red tapes around gadgets. Reason being that he needs a visual embellishment of stories, cuttings and perhaps a voice validation. He needs to move with another, a cameraman, save in the unlikely event he wants to do this by himself. This, alongside the capital-intensive nature of the studio, structures and systems, combine to make the business burdensome and laborious. It makes the business requires more preparation. For a private firm to have been above average in the way Channels TV has been, especially in a developing economy, highly susceptible to many unpredictable things, has aided a stability and shaped its claim to independence.
We live in a difficult system, where egos are ballooned, and where the rich or the powerful assumes money can buy anything, including the souls of media organisations. Seeing that one of them is standing out alone, and unbending, creates an impossible myth, an ambiguity, that should be bent sooner than later. The situation is not also helped by the statistics of TV station ownership in Nigeria. There are about twenty-five stations, including the public and the private. Of this number, about sixteen are private. And amongst the private majority, many of them have famous affiliations to politically exposed persons, with undisguised partisanship.
There is practically no problem with this, given another nature of man to long, belong, to ride, override, in pursuit of power, happiness and prosperity.
Intertwined with it however is that try as the professionals in those organisations might often times be; or qualified and experienced as they could show in their practice, the tag and the tar of ownership often hardly leaves. It is always an unfortunate situation where blame could hardly be traded on the cause. The benefiting organisation in the society is the one that is closest to neutrality, the one with no known political, ideological, religious or cultural affiliation.
Like Channels TV, the detached groups are better known not just for their excellence, or their strive for perfection, but in the way they are being badgered by interest groups, and more especially the political groups. While it could be party A today, tomorrow it could be party B, and the day after, it could be party C, and continuously. And it could happen at different times, over spaces, in what appears a drive for control by each party on every occasion. The independent organisation like Channels TV is spared only when nothing seem at stake. The competing interest groups are pleased by objectivity in a contest-free situation, but resume it in the state of quest for an edge.
In the circumstance, accusation and counter-accusation as well, only the detached viewer, who are mercifully in the majority are appreciative, happier for it, and looking forward for more quality service.
Many thanks again to the talent hunting ability of its CEO, Channels TV is famed for recruiting promising professionals, and for the production of stars. The organisation is reportedly complete with well-heeled off-screen producers and managers, who have combined to support the exposure of multi-talented and exemplary users of the English Language that includes presenters like Maupe Ogun Yusuf, Chamberlain Usoh, Nneota Egbe, Ajuri Ngelale, Seun Okinbaloye, amongst others. With their upend professional efficiency, you can be sure, yet again, that Channels TV is not just bound for higher grounds, but ready to steady its gait on the steps of the challenge of independence. It should only get better. Over.
▪Dr. Adeniyi, diasporic and strategic communication scholar, teaches Mass Communication at Baze University, Abuja.