By Osa Amadi, Arts Editor
The media of today has been described as non-performing assets. This assessment was given by Professor Adigun Agbaje while delivering a keynote address at the 5th Idowu Sobowale Conference held today at the Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos.
Speaking on the topic, “Media, Public Opinion and Governance in Africa”, Agbaje said “we need to begin to see the media increasingly as non-performing assets. The media are assets, but they are no longer performing. And it is not (only) the Nigerian story. It is an African story. And increasingly, we are seeing it as an American story.”
Agbaje said because the media that we have now are the media that are committed to all sorts partisan, economic, social, religious interests.
“The media is supposed to be above,” he said, “but now they are submerged.” He said it started long ago; that in Rwanda, for instance, radio only incited but also helped to organise the pogrom that led to the death of almost a million people within 10 days.
Comparing the kind of media we have today with the ideal, Agbaje said “the media, from the beginning, is an agent of public opinion in the best tradition – in the most supporting tradition of democracy and governance; the media, public opinion and governance interface with each other in a very positive manner. The media and public opinion are those instrumentalities and terrains where differences are negotiated.”
In Western understanding, public opinion is largely not divisive; it is uniting; it is just one. The media constitutes a central element to the formation of public opinion that is not partisan but free floating. The media is an instrument for bringing everybody together. It helps to create open and free public sphere where differences are negotiated and where unity is nurtured.
“It is in that context that we see the media basically as the watchdog, gatekeeper, and as an agenda setter in the public interest.” Agbaje said a top Western philosopher described the press as an instrument for liberty.
“The question that arises is this: is that our understanding of the press in Africa or even in the context of post-Trump America? That is not our understanding.
According to Agbaje, the Marxists say that media is essentially partisan. In the context of class division in the society, the media only serves the interests of the dominant class. He cited Professor Lai Oso who believes that media are sites of power and power struggles, saying they are ideological instruments serving the interests of those who control society.
Even in Western societies, he said, “we are now confronted by a fog of uncertainties; in a context of what I call maps of certainty and legibility that we used to attribute to the media and public opinion are fast disappearing.”
He said there is no longer certainty that the media will predominantly function in a manner to bring the people together. “Now, the media is being used to divide the people, even in Western societies. What does that have to say about the future of the modern society?
“It is a future in which we are no longer sure that these three major elements of the modern society – media, public opinion, and good governance – will interface with one another.
Recounting his experience as a journalist, Prof. Agbaje said “even in the early second republic, the media was dominated by the forces one could not see (talking about legibility – what you can see). What you saw was not what you get. The heroes of the media then were people who were taking bribes. I can say that, from experience. I won’t mention name. The people who were taking the bribes were the ones who were getting all the sources and publishing exclusives. They would take money from leaders of NPN in Kwara and take money from UPN leaders and they would write about both.
“So it was clear to me, with that insider knowledge, that we need to begin to see the media increasingly as non-performing assets. The media are assets, but they are no longer performing.
That is not to say that media has not played positive roles. But as scholars and media professionals, we need to take that seriously and not turn a blind eye to all those elements that some of us are aware of.
The media, he said, are not the only ones that are not performing. “The government itself is not performing too.
Take any key social, pollical or economic institution; What you see is a record of failure. So, that perhaps, sets the framework and background for the non-performance of the media if what you are thinking is how to use the media to bring about a better Nigeria and a better Africa. The media is already blinded, by and large, and muted by search for lucre, search for power; and you know power corrupts. Power seeks out those that are corruptible. It deliberately targets people that are corruptible. And what you have is a very vicious cycle.”