‘We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law’ – Edward R. Murrow.
The legendary John Peter Zenger case of 1735 in America set the precedent for press freedom as a watchdog against oppressive government. In that celebrated case, a colonial jury broke with loathsome and repugnant English legal tradition, which outlawed as ‘seditious libel’ all published criticism of the government – including true and accurate criticism – that might cause public interest. The jury decided that Zenger, a printer could not be guilt of sedition because his newspaper’s criticism of the British Government was, in, fact, true. Perhaps, this underscores challenge of public communication in Nigeria.
Today, officials particularly media jobbers in government houses seek to prevent sensitive information from being revealed to the public, there are no constitutional restraints to public information on national security grounds. However, Information management and public diplomacy has become a big joke particularly with the overbearing influence of government talking head often called ‘senior special assistant on media and publicity’. They have become all knowing and leaving consumers of government information in bad taste.
Regrettably, the flattering reputations anchored on courtesies, consecrations and exaltations of political leaders in office as ordained and overtly legitimate present a grave danger for incompetence and a rape on the collectives understanding of public policy and good governance. Government communication managers have mastered the art of lies, self-advertisement, and self-promotion and perfected the destruction of the work of others and those who engage government policies and actions usefully. Many of them have joined in the adulation and propagation of the ‘written untruth’. They all used their tongues and pens to establish and perpetuate myth and broadcast in its simple messages, which caught on: The president, ministers and governors is good, rest is bad, government policies a success, opposition a failure!
While public communication and diplomacy are not without bias, the primacy of objectivity and social responsibility of the press should not be compromise at the altar of parochialism and propaganda. Media jobbers make their principals flawless without concerns for good governance and nation building.
Constructive journalism is an emerging domain, which involves communication based on reporting solution-focused news, instead of the unscrupulous mock-up and reactive stance of media practitioners in the corridor of power.
For the avoidance of doubt, constructive journalism is somewhat new concept. Nonetheless, it is deep-seated in social responsibility theory of the press. This started from Europe and took shape with the Commission on the Freedom of Press that occurred in the US in 1949. The theory is one of the foundational stone for the practice of journalism and it requires the press to abide by a code of conduct and to develop an uncommon standard within journalism. This way, the facts provided by the press are analysed and interpreted so that the people get true information and an understandable public policy, which helps to maintain social harmony by revealing social evils like corruption and discouraging negative tendency of the executives and public servants from manipulating citizens.
Nevertheless, one of the major impediment to strategic public communication is the appointment of inefficient and incompetent media jobbers and brown envelope spokesperson who offer the least resistance, are often preferred by politicians, and the unscrupulous flatterer tends parade themselves in political positions within different administrations. Most of the appointees with no sufficient grounding in public policy expertise are most time act in emptiness without deep understanding of behaviour change communication, which is only tidiness in stagnation. Indeed media and society fit in together in the dynamics of dialectical relationship. The focus on existential defence of their principals’ actions, and in doing so, they misrepresent the public by inducing parochialism, prejudice and lies through their choice of reckless statements to cover up the ills of government.
The talking head of government media in contemporary Nigeria have become ogre and the social responsibility role of media, which essentially include impartiality and its self –censorship mechanism, in my view, is an enabler and a key driver in agenda setting for public diplomacy. In this, and given that media gatekeepers do not have monopoly of what constitutes information. The public and consumers of government information, particularly through new media has undergone some transformation in recent years. These uncommon developments cannot be underestimated from 24 – hours news stations to online media platforms, the Nigerian discerning public and indeed the world have many sources of information than ever before.
Against this backdrop, spokespersons should embrace constructive journalism, which aims to give stories more contexts and make public communication a dialogue and government – to – citizens’ journalism become more active, participatory and engaging. What is important in my view, spoke persons, as custodian of government information should be the willing to submit government constraints and performances to alternative viewpoints, robust criticism and balance reportage for the greater good. It should be noted journalism and public communication is an essential tool in a democratic political process.
Taking public information forward, practitioners of both government departments and state house journalist should come to the understanding of the role of bad journalistic storytelling and lies, which is affront to sustainable democracy and development. With the public good in mind, the bearer of public information must remain committed to journalism’s core values in searching for and reporting the truth and not but the truth, whilst leaving citizens feeling positive about government actions and inactions because positive communication will cause citizens to feel energized, open, optimistic and ready to engage in public affairs. Crucially, the ability and willingness of media men on the other side of the divide to re- examine critically its system of engaging and reporting government policies and programme is indeed one of the challenges of this administration and its leadership.
Finally, it must be remember, that the citizens demands that its elected and appointed servants shall not only be honest in fact, but beyond the reach of suspicion of dishonesty. It is my hope that the government at all levels particularly at the centre and its appointed spokespersons will rise to the occasion in the public interest.
Orovwuje, is founder Humanitarian Care for Displaced Persons, Lagos. firstname.lastname@example.org , 08034745325