NEWS COMMERCIALISATION IN THE NIGERIAN BROADCAST MEDIA: THE IBB LEGACY

Uchenna Ekwo


First, let me commend the organisers of this conference for their thoughtfulness in looking backwards into what has now become an essential history of this country. In fact, it is important to look back to understand why and how we are, where we are today and possibly determine where we are going. The common saying is that without a consideration of the past, there may not be the present and even a future

It is our hope that we shall maximize the benefits of this conference for national growth and development. Happily, I am made to understand that the symposium is addressing all aspects of human endeavours which the Babangida years actually touched either positively or negatively.

In discussing `News Commercialisation in the Nigerian Broadcast Media-The IBB Legacy,’ I would like us to preface the presentation with the following assumptions:

Firstly, General Ibrahim Babangida’s military regime made the most profound impact on the media, especially the broadcast media since the nation’s independence in 1960. Broadcasting was deregulated for the first time, National Broadcasting Commission, Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria, Nigerian Media Council, Nigerian Institute of Public Relations etc were all put in place with appropriate legislations.

Secondly, typical of most governments in Africa, the IBB regime was both a friend and foe of the media. The administration came to power and abolished the obnoxious Decree 4 but during its exit slammed a lot of anti-media legislations.

Lastly, information is the lifeblood of democracy. Consequently, the media and democracy are inseparable and therefore commercialisation of news is a threat to the fulfillment of the media’s role in a democracy.

It is the task of this paper to establish the effects of news commercialisation which started under the government of General Ibrahim Babangida both in the media and the nascent culture of democracy.

In journalism, there are criteria for judging events, ideas, places, and personalities as newsworthy. Today, such journalistic criteria have disappeared with the result that “important developments, especially in the countryside, are pushed aside by unimportant, even trivial news items concerning urban events and the activities of “personalities” (Macbride report: 1980).

This social service or public service role of the media has diminished considerably, paving way to a situation whereby access to the mass media is guaranteed by how much money one offers to the media. This is why when you listen to news on radio or watch television news nowadays you observe that some stories are pure commercials disguised as news sometimes without the audience’s knowledge. This practice tagged Commercialisation of News, as distinct from advertising in the media is one of the ugly developments in the Nigerian media industry which reared its head in 1988 when General Babangida was the military president.

Unfortunately, the practice has continued up till the present day when the masses, who are largely poor and illiterate, are seeking to make the government aware of their opinions, needs and grievances through the public media, some of which are run with their tax money. It must however be emphasised that advertisements have always been part of the media content since ages. Indeed, advertising has been the life wire of the media industry including government owned ones, whose operations also depend on subventions from the government. Advertising revenue subsidizes considerably the running costs of the media.

These advertisements are usually not difficult to recognise. Their tone is clear and distinct. They are a “paid form of non-personal promotion and presentation of goods, services or ideas by an identified sponsor” (Wirsing, 1963 et al). This is why we very often hear radio and television commercials or paid announcements, jingles etc, promoting products, services, ideas, and events.

Talking more specifically about the broadcast media, the only incursion advertising has made onto news bulletins has been during commercial breaks. News is clearly separated from commercials, Before August 1987, Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria operated a purely public service broadcasting. Adverts were not broadcast on Radio Nigeria as a matter of law and convention establishing the body then. But, with the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) by the Ibrahim Babangida military regime in 1986, the economy witnessed a downturn. Consequently, a number of public and private organizations started to experience harsh economic conditions leading to the demise of many businesses.

The basic thrust of that government economic policy was to encourage self-reliance and reduce dependency. So, as social institutions, the mass media, especially the radio and television stations owned by government were among the first to feel the effect of SAP (Akubue1989 and NTA Annual Report 1992).

Government subvention was reduced while advertising revenue was insufficient to sustain the day-to-day running of the media. Faced with the inability to pay salaries of workers, procure new equipment or service the existing ones, various radio and television organizations led by FRCN and NTA devised several other means to make money. One of such means is the commercialisation of news in the broadcast media.

Individual communities, private and public organisations, local governments, state governments, ministries etc, gained access to the news media if they are able to pay a prescribed fee. In other words, news about them and their activities can only be carried by the electronic media for a prescribed fee. In addition, news analysis, commentary after the news or news talk, as they are variously called can also be bought by prospective customers/clients who remains anonymous. NTA calls it LTP (let them pay) and FRCN simply commercial. All the private stations followed in the faulty footsteps of the government organs, understandably because most of the pioneer staff of the new stations came from NTA and FRCN.

Willie Nnorom (1994) has aptly defined news commercialisation as ” a phenomenon whereby the electronic media report as news or analyse a commercial message by identified or unidentifiable sponsors, giving the audience the impression that the news is fair, objective and socially responsible.

For us to be able to appreciate more clearly the effects of commercialisation of news especially on media credibility, it is important to appraise the free flow of information theory. The theory posits that communication is a continual exchange between reciprocally responsive partners; that this reciprocity applies in both horizontal and vertical communication.

Such concepts as “freedom of information”, “free flow of information”, “balanced flow of information” and “free access to the media” are the natural outgrowth of basic principle of freedom of speech and opinion (Maebride 1980). The struggle to remove all obstacles to the free flow of information dominated discussion in the international communications arena following the end of World War.

The first General Assembly of the United Nations on December 14, 1946 adopted Resolution 59(1) which declared: “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and is a touchstone of all the freedom to which UN is consecrated.” In 1948, the United Nations also passed the Universal Declaration of human Rights Article 19 which states that everyone has a right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinion and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Some barriers to free flow of information are easy to recognise. One of such barrier is the commercialisation of news which impedes exchange of information between equals or at least between reciprocally responsive parties. Only the rich can afford access and participation in the mass media of information to the detriment of the poor. Commercialisation of news engenders discrimination and threatens democratisation of information. Obstacles to freedom and distortion of democracy are dangerous symptoms in every society.

When the public has only a single source of news, or where various sources have the same orientation, as in Nigeria’s electronic media practice of news commercialisation, it is the monopolist or advertiser who is in a position to decide what facts will or will not be presented, what opinions will or will not be conveyed. This practice, which is common in private monopolies, concentration of media ownership or media conglomerates, is also obtainable in the news commercialisation culture of all electronic media in Nigeria.

This leads to the whole question of commercial influence on the media, particularly the impact advertisers, both private and government, may have on news selection or their possible censorship role. Even if they do not actually attempt to influence directly editorial policies or news selection, advertisers sometimes pose threats to free journalism by forcing self-censorship on the media, when their financial position is determined by maintaining the goodwill of those providing advertising support.

News content may also be diluted when the media, in order to satisfy the needs of advertisers and commercial rates’ appeal to the lowest common denominator– of public taste.{MacBride 1980).

The code of conduct for journalists in Nigeria, states inter-alia, that “every journalist must know that the public is entitled to the truth and that only correct information can form the basis for sound journalism and ensure the confidence of the people.

It is therefore unethical for the various broadcast media to collect money from news sources and broadcast such stories as if no money was paid. Such news items are aired with others which the editor has selected for their pure news value and the unsuspecting audience consume such information as pure news instead of as an advertisement.

All too often, you hear radio news analysis or commentary on topics such as Development efforts in Plateau State, The Jubilee anniversary of XYZ Bank and so on. No effort is ever made to tell the listener that the analysis was sponsored by Plateau State Government or XYZ bank as the above example shows.

The impression that is created therefore, is that, the topic(s) were chosen for social or public significance. Observers consider this practice as deceitful to audience, the consumers of radio and television messages. The potential customer to the media (Radio/TV) seeks information in order to make an informed decision while the potential seller (Radio or TV Stations) seeks to persuade in order to sell their air time. The ethical trick may be how to combine sales influence with respect for the individual’s freedom of choice and exercise of personal responsibility. If respect and support for the individual’s freedom of choice is at the heart of ethical advertising, therefore the commercialiation of news negates all advertising ethics.

As Mahoney (1990) argues “Unethical behaviour is found in inducing ignorance or error through lying, deliberate misrepresentation and serious omission. It is also interesting that widespread rejection of subliminal advertising arises from concern that influence is being exercised, literally, “below the threshold” of people’s consciousness which is thus regarded as an invasion, not now of their physical, but of their psychic privacy. So how ethical is it to manipulate people in the sense that they are fed with commercial news as if it was pure news stories put in the bulletin for its merit as a news item.

Obviously, the Nigeria Union of Journalists, is opposed to the commercialisation of news, insisting that news cannot be for sale and that such a trend is undemocratic, unethical and denies the poor people access to the media many of which are run with their tax money. Even the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria- APCON, the body whose primary responsibility is to control all aspects of advertising in Nigeria, believes strongly that advertising must be practiced honestly, decently and truthfully by all.

Femi Adeniyi- Williams then Chairman of APCON Corporate Committee said this was vital because if applied wrongly, advertising can equally be used to promote the inglorious machinations of unscrupulous or mischievous persons and organizations. “It is to prevent this potentially dangerous possibility that APCON declared that all advertisement and commercials that do not bear the correct and full names and addresses of persons or corporate bodies sponsoring them, are °illegal and must not be exposed through any of the media in Nigeria. Apparently, the practice of news commercialisation again, negates the stand of APCON. The definition of what constitutes commercial news is not very clear in the organizations which perpetrate this practice. It is determined arbitrarily by the whims of the editor and most of the times by the directors or managers. For example, an editor told me how a news item on the Late Dr. Akanu lbiam’s birthday celebration attracted a fee while that of the Late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe did not.

In his paper “Commercial Journalism and News Judgement and Management,” Dan Agbese argued that journalists wrestle daily with three imperatives- Moral, Professional and Commercial. The moral imperative, he said, imposes on journalists the responsibility of promoting peace, decency and the general good of society; the professional imperative codified in the various codes of ethics, guides the practice of the profession; and the Commercial imperative is simply about survival in a hostile and competitive market.

According to Agbese the commercial imperative is the ultimate test of the journalist’s ability and competence. Journalism today, he concluded is a captive of commercialism. It is no longer moulding the values of society, but seduced by the market demands whether good or bad. Consequently, there is a redefinition of news in practice. News is what sells, not what is true or objective.

In the circumstances, the voices of the weak and poor in Nigeria continue to drown under the current commercialisation of news. This is because only the rich can pay his way into the expensive national network news of radio and television. How can a poor man in Nigeria afford over N 100,000.00 to be mentioned in the news of Radio Nigeria Network News or twice that amount in NTA, AIT or MINAJ. In fact, this perpetrates a vertical flow of information from the top echelon of society down to the masses, without a corresponding feedback from down to the top. News commercialisation constitutes a barrier to the democratisation of communication.

It blocks the free access to the media and exerts control on the interaction of the various peoples in a communication environment, writes YVL Rao, an Indian scholar, where the channels of information are tight and controlled by the few, changes are difficult to make… the amount of information available and the wideness of its distribution is thus a key factor in the speed and smoothness of development.

The lop-sided and disproportionate information flow occasioned by the continued commercialisation of news in the Nigerian media is rather unfortunate especially now that we are in a democratic government. This is more so when one remembers that “communication can be used to some extent for manipulation, if the owners of the channels choose to use them for that purpose…… the greater, and freer the flow of information, the less likely it is that manipulative communication will have any effect. The basic social effect of free information is to liberate rather than to manipulate_ man. It is to free him from ignorance and from one-sided manipulation … an adequate flow of information is needed if the ordinary people of a country are to be brought into the decision process.

The commercialisation of news has also been discovered to pose serious credibility problems for the media and the practitioners. The term “credibility” refers to the trustworthiness or believability which the individual attaches to the person, group or organization communicating with him/her. In other words, a source perceived to be credible is seen as telling the truth, and this faith in the source could arise from a number of factors, such as the perceived objectivity, expertise and attractiveness of the source. In view of the central role which the mass media occupy in every society as professional communicators, their credibility is of great importance in the reception, acceptance and use of the information they provide daily for the maintenance of human civilization. (Edeani 1990)

One of the dangerous consequences of commercialisation of news has been the erosion of media credibility. It seems to exacerbate the unconfirmed suspicion among the public that government manipulates the news system in the mass media to suit its (government) purpose, at the moment writes Emma Ikwueze (1994) the attitude in several rural communities to the press, like to the government, is that of suspicion or even outright distrust leading to a certain aversion to press doctrines and exhortations.

There is no doubt that the confidence of the people in the news media has hit an all-time low in recent years. With the pervasive corruption culture in our land, the people are left with no option than to believe, that government bribes the journalists to write favourable news items, about its policies and programmes even when they are inimical to public interest.

So, for the public to realize that a policy exists in the media, which allows for some form of payment before being mentioned in the news, leaves no one in doubt as to the possibility of increased manipulative communication. “Even if he is an ethical journalist, hoping to write accurate accounts of what goes on, public officials and citizens may see him as lacking in education and experience, prone to taking bribes or “selling out to the highest bidder” (Hesterl986). As a result, the problem of media credibility progressively becomes a problem of personal credibility for the individual reporter.

Related to this is the censorship and perhaps the gate-keeping problem, which commercialisation of news constitutes for the editor. Obviously, the editor is handicapped and hoodwinked under the commercialisation policy. He cannot edit stories according to known standards or principles in journalism. The editor is often careful not to edit the substance and length of the story which payment has been made already. In fact, any story marked “PAID” or “LTP” is a sacred cow which must not be touched even if you have an over – running bulletin. Money is now the news editor.

Regrettably, this situation has persisted in flagrant violation of the code set by the National Broadcasting Commission, the legal body which regulates broadcasting in the country. The code inter-alia, states that: Commercials in news and public affairs programmes shall be placed and presented in a manner that shall make them clearly distinguishable from the content. To further crystallize the confusion inherent in the continued practice of news commercialisation, let us consider the following scenario:

In the aborted Third Republic under President Babangida, a civilian governor accused a Radio Nigeria station in his state of unfair and inadequate coverage of the state government’s activities, pointing out with regrets that the radio station preferred instead to highlight more of the activities of a neighbouring state government. Surely, the governor’s allegation seemed to be correct because in quantitative terms, the neighbouring state was actually receiving more coverage. Unknown to the complaining state Chief Executive was the fact that, while his counterpart from the other state dished out enough money for “commercial publicity’ he relied on the belief that he and his government activities were newsworthy in themselves.

There is no doubt that this feeling of maltreatment would not have arisen, if Radio Nigeria had in its news broadcast made it clear to listeners including the governor, that some stories found their way into the news bulletin on commercial grounds. Against this background therefore, one cannot but agree with Prince Tony Momoh, former information minister when he advocated that: “The practice of news commercialisation that has become rampant in recent times, particularly in the electronic media, should be discontinued as it offends the principles of journalism. It was recognised that commercialisation of news influenced fairness, accuracy, unbiased, and factual reports of events …… where payment has been specifically made for the dissemination of news, such should be fully disclosed to its consumers”.

From the vast review of literature, we have established that news commercialisation is unhealthy for the media industry. Yet, this is considered to be one of the legacies of General Ibrahim Babangida, who is believed to have made the greatest impact on the media more than any Nigerian leader, past or present. It is to the credit of his administration that broadcasting was deregulated, thus allowing private ownership of radio and television. It brought about competition, creativity and colour in the industry.

Even the topic under discussion has its good sides. It is a creative method of generating money for the sustenance of broadcasting. The only aspect that we quarrel with, is the deceit inherent in the system. If the audience could be told that a news item is sponsored, instead of deceiving them to believe that the news is pure, fair and objective. After all, news commercialisation is believed to have checked the incidence of brown envelopes or and acceptance of gratification on the part of broadcast journalists.

The controversy which trailed news commercialisation opened the eyes of practitioners to hitherto neglected sources of funding. For example, it was in the heat of the argument that it dawned on many of us that the collection of radio and television license fees by the local government councils was not only anachronistic, but ‘a colonial hangover that must be done away with. The various radio and television stations started the agitation for the collection of the fees to stop what amounted to robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Today, the National Broadcasting Commission has the legal right to collect these license fees on behalf of the different broadcast stations. Whether it is collected or not is a different matter but, the important thing is that the right to collect such fees has been wrestled away from the local government.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we have examined critically the origin of News Commercialisation, its effects on the credibility of the media, democratisation of information and communication and economic growth of media industry. Democracy depends upon a literate, knowledgeable citizenry whose access to the broadest possible range of information enables them to participate as fully as possible in the public life of their society.

Ignorance breeds apathy. Democracy thrives up–on the energy of citizens who are sustained by the unimpeded flow of ideas, data and opinions. Therefore, News Commercialisation, as presently practiced will continue to affect adversely the nations transition to genuine democracy because, either covertly or overtly we subject the destiny of the nation to demagogues who can hijack the polity with money some of which were acquired through questionable means.

Finally, I would like to leave you with the words of Newswatch Editor-in-Chief, Dan Agbese, “We may moan the intrusion of the commercial imperative on our professional sense of judgement and social responsibility. The media is in chains when it panders to the commercial imperative to the detriment of the moral and professional imperative. Nothing destroys credibility faster.

References

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