Is Watergate Possible Here?

This question was paraphrased from the piece by Leonard Downie Jr., who was executive editor of The Washington Post for 17 years, published in the same newspaper early this week. The piece, titled “Is Watergate Possible Now?”, was an analysis of American journalism in the age of the Internet. It was a retrospection inspired by the death, last Thursday, of W. Mark Felt, the whistle-blower popularly known as Deep Throat in the scandal that blew President Richard Nixon out of office. Mark Felt was the anonymous source of most of the stories filed by the Post’s reporter Bob Woodward after a break-in at the national headquarters of the opposition Democratic National Committee in Washington’s Watergate hotel and office complex in June 1972.

Mr Felt, who was at that time the second-in-command at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, craftily led Woodward in unraveling the cover-ups that were traced back to the Nixon Administration, eventually forcing the President to resign two years later in ignominy. The newspaper faithfully hid the identity of its source, merely calling him Deep Throat — after a porn movie. Mr Felt, who died at the age of 97, revealed himself only in May 2005. The Sunday Times of London this week aptly described him as “the most famous anonymous source in the history of journalism.”

The Watergate scandal, an unforgettable milestone, did spawn a plethora of investigative journalism not only in America but also across the world. The spirit lives in many journalists today. Many a journalist now treats the powers that be with caution, dreaming of fishing things out about them, nasty, smelly things that could help bring them into disrepute or even out of power. The feeling is apparently mutual. The powers that be — people in government, in business, in crime, in sports or even in the service of God — find journalists barely tolerable; in most cases they find them intolerable — and treat them so. Whenever they talk of mutual cooperation, you will out that the benefit is also mutual. Sad.

In America, the fall of Nixon created a frenzy in newsrooms as many news organs tried to equal or surpass The Washington Post’s prowess. Indeed, very big exposes were made by bigger and smaller media. The spirit liveth, no doubt. However, none has equaled the impact and glory of that newspaper’s epoch-making feat, not least because no President was forced out of office again but due to the watershed nature of the first case. President Bill Clinton was boxed into a very tight corner during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but he was able to weather the storm.

The news media have become transformed worldwide since the ’70s. The biggest change came with the Internet. Apart from making journalism ‘more democratic’ by turning anyone on a keyboard with a connectivity into a newshound and publisher, the Internet has made sources of information more readily available and also made information dissemination easier, instant and more widespread. Leonard Downie Jr’s concern is with making journalism not simply a medium of holding Presidents (and other leaders) accountable to the people, which is equally important, but a way of improving the life of the people. Journalists might be called “sons of whores” by powerful figures as Nixon’s character in the new movie, “Frost/Nixon,” played by Frank Langella, did. But it is worthwhile to continue doing the good work because in the long run it would be in the interest of the nation.

So is a Wategate-like scenario possible here in Nigeria? First, we have to examine the motive of anyone wishing for such a scandal. W. Mark Felt was suspected of having resentments, hoping, as the Sunday Times of London editorialised this week, “to elevate himself in the bureaucracy.” It noted, however, that “there was his sense that something was wrong and needed to be exposed.” Any Nigerian who dreams of seeing a President, governor or Local Government chairman felled should, first, have a motive which, ideally, should be in the best interest of the community rather than self. The same goes to the potential whistle-blower.

There are too many willing whistle-blowers in this country. Unfortunately, however, many a Nigerian ‘Deep Throat’ would usually want to step forward when he is left out of the booty-sharing after, say, a theft from the public till. Which means that most of our people would rather keep quiet when corrupt practices are committed as long as they are involved in eating the cake.

If most Nigerians were a moral lot, there would have been more exposes about election and examination malpractices, thefts and break-ins, robberies, infidelity by spouses and sexual pervasions, murders and assassinations, pay-offs and rip-offs, counterfeiting of currency and documents, smuggling and numerous other vices. But because the moral souls in our midst are arguably smaller in number than their opposites, or are beaten into the background, such exposes are few and far between. The result is the erosion of morality in the society and the frantic pursuit of material things. Hence the retrogression in the quality of relationships, family values, service delivery, capital projects, and total lack of direction in statecraft.

To get a scandal of Watergate proportions in this kind of environment of moral aridity can be quite a pipe dream. Besides, there are other factors. Granted that since the end of the Civil War there have been a great number of exposes made by the public-spirited Nigerian media. In pursuing the cause of public interest, our journalists have shown immense courage, working mostly under conditions not known to their counterparts in America; military rule, for example. Nigerian journalists have exposed numerous cases of corruption and fought dictatorship.

Indeed, given the political climate in the last four decades, they could be regarded as a more fearless and dogged lot. Whereas the American system guarantees all sorts of liberties and protections to journalists, we in Nigeria have operated mostly under military decrees; where a sort of democracy exists, such as during the Shagari and the Obasanjo/Yar’Adua eras, journalists are hamstrung by remnants of military-era edicts and mentalities that were lobbed into the constitution and our daily life respectively. In the American democracy no television station would be shut down overnight by government agents because of a faulty story aired or a newspaper sued by the President because the paper had reported something about his ill-health.

In this kind of climate it is easy not to witness a Watergate — a cyclone of a political embarrassment massive enough to force the Number 1 Citizen to throw in the towel. To the best of my knowledge, not even a Local Government chairman in this country has ever resigned because of a newspaper story. If anything, certain exposes have only helped steel the grip of some of our leaders, such as the state governors and the President, on power. In saner climes, Stella Obasanjo’s tummy tuck scandal could force a president to quit. But it only made the President a hero to sympathise with, and the late Stella a celebrated martyr.

Clearly, we are not there yet. We don’t even seem to know exactly where we are. The Washington Post and its two reporters were called all sorts of names in the early days of the Watergate scandal, but they held out till the end, refusing to be fazed by the loud grumblings of presidential aides and government contractors. That helped ease “all the president’s (bad) men” out of power. It helped the cause of American democracy. And journalism the world over is the better for it. That, in fact, is the greatest lesson for Nigerian journalists from the Watergate scandal.


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