Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Case for Leveson-Style Media Probe in Ghana

Three months ago, His Lordship Sir Brian Leveson was an obscure, albeit a senior judge on the British Bench but today he is one of the best known personalities in the UK with his face as familiar as a relative to people even outside the borders of the UK. Politicians and media people hang on his every word as if it were holy script because those words may have implications for people in high office. Mr. Leveson is the Chairman of an Inquiry into Media Ethics in the UK. The Inquiry was set up after it was revealed that some newspapers hack into personal phones of celebrities and people in the news in search of information.

The Leveson Inquiry is more generally a response to the public’s anxiety that there is something not right with the way media institutions and media people operate. This disquiet reached its height at the death of Princess Diana when it was revealed that she was being pursued by a hoard of photographers, collectively known as the paparazzi, when her car crashed into the tunnel in Paris. People believe that in many ways media people have overstepped an ethical red line for far too long. In the UK and other Western countries it is customary for governments to respond to such perceived institutional breaches with formal inquiries in order to find solutions to the wrongs that the inquiry unearths.

This is a sound method of government which is largely missing in this country; here such inquiries are not popular because they are often perceived as instruments of politics and likely to be denounced by the party in opposition as a witch-hunting exercise. We ought to change this attitude, and we can do this by setting up our own version of the Leveson Enquiry into Media Ethics in Ghana.

Perhaps such an examination is long overdue but it is now more urgently needed than ever before. Complaints about the media come in barrelfuls per day and these have become accentuated by the abuse of media by politicians and media people especially in election years, but the things that are wrong with our media go beyond politics and cannot be fixed with the usual calls on “the media to be circumspect in their reportage”, which is a nice-sounding but meaningless phrase at the best of times.

One often hears that the Ghanaian media is one of the freest on the African continent, which is true if by free we mean it operates in a free-for-all dog-eat- dog unregulated terrain. But free as an expression of quality and access would need to be looked at a bit more closely. As with everything in Ghana, what you see is sometimes completely different what really exists; the freedom of the Ghanaian media, even when used to mean insulation from government may not tell an accurate story. We do not know; which is why a full-blown enquiry is required.

The impression that the Ghanaian media is free comes from two premises. In historical terms it is valid to speak of two broad eras where the media is concerned; pre- and post- 1992. Contrasted with the pre-1992 era this is supposed to be the golden age of the media mainly because the excessive use of state power to lean on the state-owned media has been lifted by constitutional guarantees but whether this constitutional insulation has been effective needs to be discussed. Despite the presence of the National Media Commission a careful reading of the state-owned press reveals that editors and editorial minders still work under pressure, which may or may not be justified.

In many ways, saving the media from the state is the easiest of the many-sided nature of the Constitution’s purpose regarding the media. If for no reason at all, the state’s influence is both predictable and visible, if we care to look closely. What is more insidious is the influence of the practice of media corruption, commonly referred to in Ghana as “soli”, but which is more generally known as “brown envelope journalism” in media studies across the world. The phenomenon has become so pervasive in Africa that it now has its own academic discipline complete with gurus who pronounce on its every historical twist and development.

In Ghana we turn to treat “soli” as merely a sick joke or perhaps a moral failing on the part of journalists. But “soli” is a greater threat to the freedom of the media and expression than state officials and politicians abusing their positions. This is because whereas we all condemn state intrusion, which forces the state to find covert means of controlling the media, “soli” has a direct effect and does not hide its face. Indeed, you can meet “soli” everyday wherever a public event brings media people face to face with benefactors in the shape of events organizers. No amount of preaching against “soli” has shifted the ground one bit, so rather than condemn the practice blindly we need to delve into it, alongside the many other media ills, in a structured way.

You would notice that throughout this article I use the term “media people” instead of “journalists” because the former has become a vague and amorphous description of a whole lot of activities and occupations within the media landscape. In the olden days we had the “press”, and those who liked me reported and wrote news and features were known as journalists. In the course of the past 20 years this term, “media person” or its even elongated cousin “media personnel” is used to refer to disk jockeys, journalists, news readers, advertisers, actors and many others, especially in broadcasting. These are all important functions but the term “media person” is not only bereft of specific meaning but is adding to the confusion and anxiety about the media.

In addition to the above, a frightening development (I don’t know how long it has been) is the demand for “soli” money from journalists by their non-editorial colleagues who argue that because of their peripheral duties in the gathering news they are also entitled to “soli”. On the one hand, this we-are-all-in-it attitude makes sense; after all without the driver the reporter would not get to the assignment which yields the “soli”. On the other hand, this is a dangerous trend because it puts principled journalist under pressure. Last week a journalist told me about the time the driver refused to drive back to the office after an assignment without his share of the money she refused to take. She had to give him money out of her own legitimate earnings. As if that is not enough, apparently, typesetters and other ancillary staff at newsrooms all demand their share or else…

We cannot blame reporters or even drivers for being greedy because the story is far more complex. This is just the tip of the iceberg. We have stories of newspaper owners telling their journalists that their business card is their pay. In other scenarios news editors are said to demand their share too before a news report is published. If you add all these to allegations that newspaper vendors dictate front-page headlines it is not difficult to conclude that what you are being offered as news today is a compromised product and not the result of the application of true news values. We need an official inquiry so that our media can be strengthened to play its proper role in our lives. To paraphrase a famous statement, the unexamined media is not worth our respect.

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