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On 3 May 2019 – World Press Freedom Day – I was a member of a panel of speakers asked to share their thoughts on press freedom.
On such occasions, what does one say and what does one leave out?
Now, sometimes, ,when one wants to be taken seriously, one should first – be funny. The contrast between laughter and serious cogitation does things to the neurons that inter-connect the different parts of one's brain! And that appears to work a trick – if the speaker is lucky, the audience will certainly remember what he or she says!
I tried this on World Press Freedom Day. I recounted the story of how, during the Watergate crisis in the United States in 1972-74, a journalist of the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein, managed to reach President Richard Nixon's Attorney-General, John Mitchell, by phone (whilst he was sleeping deeply in a hotel. )
Mitchell's first question to Carl Bernstein was “What time is it?”
Bernstein told him. He then read to Mitchell, the first two paragraphs of a story about money traced to an account operated by Mitchell (as chairman of the Committee to Re-elect the President); money that had been found on the “plumbers” (ex-CIA operatives) who had broken into the offices of the Democratic National Convention in Washington, DC, to bug the offices.
“Did you say you're from the Washington Post?” Mitchell asked Carl Bernstein.
“Yes!” the reporter replied.
Whereupon Mitchell put himself into the history books by uttering the most picturesque – not to say risque' – threat ever uttered to a journalist by a politician : “All that crap!",he said, "you're putting it in the paper? ….. Katie Graham [Publisher of the Washington Post] is gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer [vice] if that's published!”
But the Washington Post didn't get easily scared. The story was published and John Mitchell didn't manage ever to get his hands on Mrs Graham's boobs. Instead, the Washington Post pursued John Mitchell's boss, Richard Nixon, until Nixon resigned.
But it shows us how, even in a country with allegedly watertight constitutional guarantees of press freedom as the United States, reporters and their publishers can be threatened by getting into the noses of people who have power.
Indeed, offending powerful people can bring consequences far removed from fantasies about the female anatomy. In October 2018, a Saudi Arabian journalist called Jamal Kashoggi was tricked into entering his country's embassy in Turkey, believing that a Saudi politician he'd been talking to was so influential that he could win him back the access to the Saudi rulers that he'd been denied as a result of what he'd been writing of late. Kashoggi emerged from the embassy dead, with his body dismembered and – dumped in a nearby forest.
Why do journalists so often fall foul of both existing power structures and potential power-seekers?
It's because in the modern world, information is undoubtedly the most precious commodity that lies in the path of winning or losing power.
Some people wonder, for instance, how a man like Donald Trump could become President of the United States. What they forget is that Trump won a social information war – that of the Television ratings – before he embarked on his political journey.
He turned his informational victory to his advantage by playing on the sub-conscious of his fellow Americans: when he smiled into the cameras, they remembered how he'd “won them over” on their TV screens by wickedly (if not sadistically) yelling: “YOU ARE FIRED!” at game contestants whom the viewers too detested. They subliminally identified with him – and they voted for him.
The journalists of the United States have to answer for themselves the question whether they overplay the image game themselves; whether they pay too much attention to images presented to them – first by the cinema screen, and now by ubiquitous video – and thereby ignore their primary duty of dispassionately dissecting society and its would-be rulers, to get at the real facts that should inform the choices of citizens at elections.
Now, it is a fact that what happens in the USA today often happens elsewhere in the world a few years later. Consider this: Ronald Reagan moved from the big screen to the White House, only to be followed later by Donald Trump moving from the small screen to – the White House.
And what do we hear from post-Soviet Ukraine? An actor who played “president” on TV, Velody myr Velensky, has been elected to be the real president of Ukraine!
In the UK, a man who has become very popular because he often plays what the media terms “the buffoon” in public, may soon become Prime Minister. Also, do ask yourself: what would Nigel Farage be without TV? Or in France, how often has the blonde, Marine Le Pen, been described as “telegenic”? Or Macron as “young and good-looking”?
The evolution of media that enable a false or manufactured image to be unquestioningly foisted on the public, presents those who call themselves journalists today with a completely new set of challenges. We have to move away from our obsession with glitz and “personality/celebrity politics”. We should reinvent the news taster in our newsrooms; and pit him against the world-weary, almost cynical news editor.
I remember a time when you could hardly attend a press conference in Ghana without hearing someone ask a question about the contents of an election manifesto! What of today?
ANSWER: today, one even feels embarrassed when one watches Ghanaian journalists asking questions at a press conference. Politicians come with long, prepared texts and leave very little time for questions.
They constantly outguess journalists, for few of the questions asked by journalists themselves at press conferences, ever get any coverage at all, due to their being banal or at any rate, failing to catch the imagination of heir fellow scribes.
I urge our journalists to aspire to acquire again for themselves, the tools of real journalism. Study the real facts about the ministry or organisation you are about to cover. When a high official realises that you do know what you are talking about, he will be forced into being candid, or else appear incompetent. Pry for information with courtesy, though, for a journalist must be seen to be – shall I say presentable – even while he is being very inquisitive.
It saddens me a great deal that so many Ghanaian journalists do not show any awareness of one of the most basic requirements of the profession, namely, cultivating a questing and intelligent turn of mind. When journalists give wide publicity to outrageous “prophecies” by so-called “prophets” who relish the idea of someone else dying, or suffering a misadventure, does it occur to their organisation that it might be helping the prophet to increase the monthly tithes people pay to his or church? Is that not a form of “419” or “Sakawa?”
When journalists see brutality – such as a “prophet” kicking the stomach of a pregnant woman repeatedly, apparently to bring out a “conceived demon” in the uterus – and still regard that “prophet” as “news-worthy”, what are they telling the public?
So I end by praying that our journalists might be given superior intelligence: intelligence, for instance, that will make all journalists rise like one human being to fiercely fight against what is being done by GALAMSEY OPERATORS to the water resources that will ensure that our children's children will continue to live a sustainable life in the country called Ghana.
Let me remind you: the blind cannot lead the blind!
Thank you very much..
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