What's The Price Of Free Speech?

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Whatís The Price Of Free Speech?

 

By


Azubuike Ishiekwene

 

 

 

culled from The PUNCH, April 25, 2006

 


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 or declining.

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 partners.Ē

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 consequences.

A government that is so desperate to manufacture consent will stop at nothing, including paying handsomely for free speech.
 

 

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