As a communications practitioner, I am scandalised by the response of Messrs Bayo Onanuga and Dele Alake, two media veterans and leaders of the Asiwaju Bola Tinubu Presidential Campaign, to a statement issued by the THISDAY/Arise Group earlier this week. If the statement was in their individual capacities, perhaps it would be excusable, but that should not emanate from a candidate seeking electoral office.
Of course, these long-time allies of the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress will justify their riposte and attribute it to the irritation from the media organisation which recently published damaging reports that the campaign insist is unsubstantiated.
There is one other thing. For weeks on end, presenters on Arise News Television went on and on about how Tinubu had refused to honour invitations for interviews. As one of the leading media outlets in the country, I found nothing unusual about the channel’s expectation that a frontline presidential candidate should make himself available to its viewers. But it soon looked like there was an obsession with the Tinubu refusal.
It is within the remit of Arise News to expect presidential aspirants to grant interviews or even take part in debates. Without a doubt, the channel has one of the largest following of Nigerians across the world, and it would desire to give its viewers the best. That is more so with the approaching elections and the need for Nigerians to get well acquainted with the candidates. However, candidates also may reject the offer. The channel may hinge its insistence on public interest, but politicians have a right to decide what’s best for them and bear the consequences of those decisions. That a politician must communicate with all Nigerians does not mean this communication must be through the Arise News channel. Tinubu’s team held this position, and they have the right to it. The media outlet should have accepted this graciously and moved on. There is not much more about democracy than the capacity to live and let others live!
None of these, however, justifies the virulent attack on the THISDAY/Arise group, some of the staff, and their proprietor, Prince Nduka Obaigbena. As legendary media practitioners, one of whom is a media owner, these gentlemen should have stuck to the facts and avoided defamatory personal attacks that made ridicule of their message.
Restraint is expedient, not just because their outburst can bring disrepute to the media, but because they represent the greater cause of selling a presidential candidate to Nigerians. In the end, the statement does no credit to the candidacy of their principal, who on his own steam, bears a formidability that only needs positive ventilation. But rather than moving Tinubu’s mission forward, this statement only promotes the egos of the men who would want to be seen as far more credible and ethical than Obaigbena and his media outlets. Unfortunately, the efforts are misdirected in the circumstance, as none of these three men is contesting public office, so Nigerians are not immediately interested in their lives, private or public.
This is one thing spokespersons for political aspirants cannot understand. Your principals surrender themselves to the scrutiny of Nigerians when they aspire to contest for office. And in those instances, no question is too sacred to ask, and now no ground is too hallowed to tread. The assumption that Nigerians have no right to beam their searchlight on the lives of aspiring or sitting political officeholders is a misconception of the idea of democracy. Assuming that every inquiry is from the satanic camp of some imaginary opposition also is like taking Nigerians for granted. This general disposition gets more upsetting when people who spoke truth to power at some point take the exercise of free speech as enmity.
Even after establishing enmity, spokespersons for persons who aspire to win elections do not go to war with the media! Not even proven cases of bias against a media organisation, which is traditionally a vehicle for improved citizenship, justify absolute confrontation from a candidate’s camp. We must understand from the outset that the idea of absolute neutrality, even for the media, is utopian. Yet, politicians must communicate with the people, which is why professional communicators should do their best not to alienate any segment of the citizenry for holding contrary opinions. This is what you end up doing with the readers and viewers of a media outlet that you go to war with. Now, when things get out of hand, there is an industry ombudsman or even the courts for arbitration. Even then, such situations should be rare because communicators are trained to manage issues and avoid crises as much as possible. It is indeed possible to reach a mutual understanding all the time. Even when people disagree, they should go into elections with being disagreeable, otherwise, politicians may win elections, alright, but they may lose the legitimacy battle.
There is one other thing spokespersons for the 2023 elections campaign of political parties must understand. With loyalists like veteran actor Ebun Oloyede daring all consequences to embark on the obscene act that went viral recently, one can conclude that the frontline candidates already have loads of supporters on lockdown. Yet politicians always aspire to win more supporters. This is one reason they say 24 hours is too long for things to change in politics.
So, what is the point? The largest voting bloc in the coming elections does not understand the combative language employed in the statement from the Presidential Campaign Council of the APC. Those who would be voting from this bloc were not here in the 1990s when the military bullied everyone into submission and the media fought without taking prisoners. These people are not interested in the quarrelsome tendencies of politicians and their aides. What catches their fancy is the levelheaded, savvy candidates, who are accountable, in tune with current global realities and willing to prioritise their interests. Buried in too much semantics is the suspicion of opacity, which will put this new generation off and create an advance opposition group that will haunt a new government from day one even. Parties and their spokespersons must therefore conduct themselves in such a way that they will win elections and win the minds and support of the people.
Leading lights in the media should never defecate in the room in which they once laid their heads. The questions raised about Reuben Abati and his affiliation with the Peoples Democratic Party in the last elections are mischievous. There is no way his few years in politics can obliterate his phenomena contributions to journalism and public discourse over the past 30 years. The same goes for Rufai Oseni and Shaka Momodu. We must resist every attempt to trash the media for political reasons.
Politicians remain friends. Nuhu Ribadu and Festus Keyamo, who once prosecuted Tinubu, are now some of his staunchest supporters. Just as Atiku Abubakar, possibly his most formidable opponent in the coming elections, sided with him in 2007 and 2015. Politicians always find their way back into the same bed; Professions and professional bodies never return from self-inflicted harm like what is in the offing.
If you are in doubt, check how the Nigerian Bar Association allowed politics in its midst about 30 years ago, and ask if it ever recovered. Life must surely go on after politics. This is something we must tell respected media men, even as we advise them to do their jobs, which is the marketing rather than de-marketing candidates because of their vitriolic attacks on ordinary Nigerians and assumed enemies of their causes.