Lessons from the phone-hacking scandal

Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah being accosted by journalists in London

The phone-hacking scandal rocking Britain – and inexorably moving to America, where Rupert Murdoch has substantial investment – may appear a far-off phenomenon to us here in Africa, but it really has lessons for the rest of us. The reason is that not only has the world shrunk into a global village, where parliamentary sessions on the ill-fated News of the World (NOTW) tabloid were beamed live to the whole world by satellite television, but also because journalism as it is being practised in the West is being aped everywhere on earth. We may argue that our newspapers, radio and TV stations are unique in many ways because of our different cultural backgrounds; the truth, however, is that the line separating Western thought and practice in most modern professions and those in other nations is very thin indeed.

That is to say there is a Murdoch in almost every nation, even in Lilliputian terms. There is also a NOTW in most of our newspapers, in as much as there is a CNN or a BBC in most TV and radio stations around the world. Moreover, there is an Andy Coulson and a Rebekah Brooks in many an editor and media executive. This is because the profit-motive has, over the years, tended to overshadow the ancient purpose of the journalism profession which says newspapers are established in order to inform, educate and entertain. They are now set up, in the main, in order to make financial gain and garner political clout.

Murdoch and his tabloid bunch have been skewered by most commentators as a rabid lot instigated by the profit motive, hence their unchecked intrusion into the private lives of politicians and celebrities. The commentators have, by taking this stand, committed the offence of someone, as a Hausa proverb says, who stands tall on the mountain of their own excesses in order to look at other people’s mountain. It’s like a person who holds a torchlight in your face and not turning it on themselves. The NOTW is just a part of the UK’s loquacious tabloid system. Its closure does not spell the end of the down-market tradition in the British press or even abroad where it is being emulated. Other tabloids, which have been as audacious in their intrusion practices as the defunct market leader, will continue to push the envelope. In short, we are all guilty. That is, every journalist or media owner.

In Nigeria, the mountain of guilt is so huge that it obfuscates our view and prevents us from seeing beyond our noses. So many media people are driven by the profit motive, thereby regarding theirs as any other business. They believe that they must make money and or accummulate political power at all cost. Hence the mad rush to outdo each other in committing many of the abhorrent unethical practices. The situation is not helped by the lack of standardisation of the profession so that only those trained in it (even at a rudimentary level) could partake in it. Worse, many half-baked or semi-literate persons have made a foray into journalism, committing all sorts of offensive practices.

Today, for all their grandstanding as anti-corruption and pro-democracy crusaders, journalists and their sponsors stand accused of all sorts of unbecoming actions. Many who write against corruption are in the forefront of not only condoning it but are also eating from corrupt practices. The saddest aspect of this is what I call the journalism of blackmail whereby persons in positions of authority are threatened with exposure/disclosure if they refuse to play ball.

Unfortunately, journalism cannot be made a profession like law, engineering and medicine because it is among the liberal arts. All attempts to achieve this through the Nigerian Press Council have failed. Now anybody who can write well and probably make some sense can become one. The option, then, is for journalists and media owners to appeal to their conscience. Without conscience, the mass media is doomed wherever it exists, more so in this part of the world where development challenges have stultified our progress as human species.


Published in my column in the current edition of the weekly newspaper, BLUEPRINT.

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