culled from The PUNCH, April 25,
The editors of ThisDay must have felt a huge sense of relief on Sunday.
After four days of being alone in emotional quandary over the publication of
a pro-third term wrap-around, Sunday Vanguard joined them, making it the
second newspaper to brand the controversial political advert. Perhaps if the
ThisDay Editor, Olusegun Adeniyi, had known that another national newspaper
would publish the advert in which a faceless group is asking for tenure
extension for elected public officers, he might have spared himself the
agony of writing that disingenuous Friday disclaimer where he made it sound
as if hemlock was just another glass of red wine.
Vanguard, obviously aware of the hazardous venture, tried to make the most
of a tough situation by emboldening the warning label Ė political
advertising Ė on its front page and publishing it on a weekend. The effect
of this precaution on the public mood remains to be seen; but itís obvious
now that after the public outrage that greeted the ThisDay publication and
the knowing smiles that greeted its spirited defence, there can only be left
for the press a smouldering disgust by readers who must be asking
themselves, so whoís next on the bandwagon?
As Adeniyi was at pains to explain on Friday, the decision to publish was
not an easy one. It couldnít have been. The newspaper had, at least
publicly, been opposed to tenure extension. Publishing a pro-extension
wrap-around was bound to send the wrong signal. There was also the matter of
free speech Ė the hallmark of any democratic society. A newspaper that
insists that its voice alone must be heard will sooner than later be
publishing for itself. Since the newspaper prides itself on free enterprise
and the promotion of liberal values, it was just as well that it should feel
compelled to give voice to other shades of opinion in the market place. But
at what cost?
Vanguard has not offered any excuses publicly. The winning argument
privately, however, is that the newspaper was swayed by the logic that if it
is not wrong to publish anti-third term wrap-around ads, then it should not
be wrong to publish the other side. Itís classic Oscar Wilde; the only way
to overcome a temptation is to yield. Iíll come to that later.
More newspapers will probably be wrapped-around before the end of the week,
anyway, in defiance of the public mood. If the latecomers are not inspired
by the whole shebang of the Daily Illini, a US campus newspaper which,
according to Adeniyi, was forced to eat humble pie against its enlightened
self interest, the newspapers might be motivated by the other nobler reasons
given by ThisDay, especially the virtue of free speech.
Of all the reasons given, however, there was one not given, that goes to the
heart of the matter Ė the money. Stripped of all the sophistry and
posturing, many newspapers in the country today will call a cow father if
the price is right. Most newspapers today are operating on a shoestring.
Production costs are rising while, in most cases, sales are either stagnant
The press is leached by waste and poor management practices, and journalists
are overworked and are either underpaid or unpaid. In the rat race to
survive, publishers and their employees are cutting corners: journalism is
the worse for it. Iíve said it many times before that journalism is in
trouble not only because of dwindling purchasing power and rising tariff but
mainly because the profession has refused to ask itself tough questions
about content, quality, costs, relevance and integrity. It is this demon
that makes the journalistsí union arrange special prizes for politicians for
a fee; it is this demon that has turned beat associations to a cabal and
editors to publicists and henchmen for politicians. Itís this very demon
that is driving patronage for the pro-third term wrap-around. Money is the
name of the demon.
The government knows only too well that regulatory framework in the press is
weak and finances parlous. The sponsor of the advert, the so-called Private
Sector Supporters for Good and Transparent Governance, represents the very
essence of the increasingly mad official mind-set, which simply says, buy
off whatever you can and muzzle the rest. The word in town is that the
Managing Director of the Nigerian Breweries, Festus Odimegwu, is the unseen
hand behind the phoney group. I hope, for the sake of the Breweries
shareholders, that this is not true. Only two weeks ago, the Group Managing
Director of NNPC, Funso Kupolokun, allegedly told NNPC joint venture
partners (Shell, Chevron, Mobil, Total and Agip) not to advertise in
newspapers opposed to the third term agenda. Nothing threatens free speech
like the insidious mercantilism that is obviously the favourite weapon of
the pro group.
Yet, it might have been easier for readers to decide what was really at
stake if ThisDay and Vanguard told them that they charged only N25million
and N10million as the price of one wrap-around in defence of free speech.
Knowing ThisDayís undisguised opposition to the government of Oyo State, for
example, would the paper have published a wrap-around for Governor Bayo
Alao-Akala, in defence of free speech?
I know that business decisions are not always cut-and-dried but ultimately,
every business has to decide where to draw the line. This is not about
sitting in judgment. On the contrary, I think it would be a great disservice
to the profession and to scores of decent journalists in media houses across
the country, if we simply looked the other way.
The transducers were in PUNCH on Easter Monday and offered to pay N40million
to run the same ad for two days. When we refused, they offered to pay more.
But that was a mistake, because PUNCHís refusal hadnít anything to do with
the price or the paperís financial strength. If it were so, the newspaper
would have begged Abacha to reopen it after 18 months of illegal closure in
1994 that brought the company to the brink of financial ruin.
PUNCHís assessment and perception of the public mood were that the third
term business is simply an outright evil being shoved down the publicís
throat. Third term is not black or white; with grey in-between. It is black
and black, with nothing in-between. Sadly, the process is driven by a few
people who would spare no cost and no thought for the future of the country.
The less that is seen, heard and said of it, the better. Would the paper
have published the ad if it were anti? As a rule, all political ads are
restricted to the inside pages. In my view, however, if a newspaper
published an anti-third term ad in accord with the public mood, it would
automatically be obliged to publish the other side as long as such a
publication is libel-free and in good taste.
In their book, ďMedia ethics, issues and cases,Ē Phillip Patterson and Lee
Wilkins referred to a case in 1998 where the Los Angeles Times had entered
into what ordinarily looked like an innocuous deal to share revenue with
Staples Centre, a private company that was involved in renovating a downtown
sports complex. The staff did not know the details of the deal. When the lid
was blown off the deal, however, more than 300 Times reporters and editors
signed a petition asking for the publisher to apologise and call off the
deal on the grounds that ďreaders have no reason to trust anything the Times
wrote about Staples Centre, or any of its tenants or attractions in the
paper, now or in the future, if the Times and Staples Centre were business
The thinking was that readers might be left to wonder if other improper
arrangements, formal or informal, might not already exist or would not exist
in future, to jeopardise the paperís editorial independence. The paper had
crossed the line and the three top executives who were involved in taking
the decision were forced to leave when the paper was bought over by the
Chicago Tribune in 2000.
If what looked like a harmless business transaction had such a serious
backlash, itís difficult to gloss over a wrap-around which tends to confirm
the worst public suspicion that this is a government-gone-mad.
This is not a treatise for a monolithic business model. No. But if itís
true, as I know it is, that the press is the last line of defence against an
impending disaster, then we must draw the line and proudly endure the
A government that is so desperate to manufacture consent will stop at
nothing, including paying handsomely for free speech.