Message by Reuben Abati:Between The Journalist And The Spokesperson
In the past few weeks, my colleagues who have taken over as spokespersons for the Muhammadu Buhari government and the All Progressives Congress have found themselves in the line of fire, as they are accused of destroying their old reputation as truth-tellers, courageous journalists and activists of the Fourth and Fifth Estates of the Realm.
It is the same old accusation. Once a journalist crosses into government and becomes a spokesperson, he or she is called all kinds of names: traitor, turn-coat, hustler. Readers and fans feel betrayed. The defender of the people’s interest is accused of “joining them” to go and “eat”.
This is the dilemma of every Nigerian journalist who has taken up the job of spokesperson in whatever governmental capacity. I was abused, vilified and called all kinds of names, but it wasn’t so different with my predecessors nor has it been any easier for my successors. My favourite on this subject was a poem published online titled “The Death of Reuben Abati’s pen” (I don’t remember the author) but Pius Adesanmi was charitable to me in another piece in which he argued that I really didn’t need the job, but my “arrogance” could be tolerated. Pius, o kare oh.
In other parts of the world, journalists also get appointed as spokespersons. The assumption is that a journalist who has spent years communicating with the public, will be able to write, articulate views, understand the media system and the technology of the practice, cultivate his or her colleagues and forcefully defend the interest of the appointing system. But this is precisely where the problem lies. A journalist is required to be independent: free from partisan political involvement, be completely unbiased, and defend the underprivileged, the powerless, the displaced, and all victims of the oppressive, negligent or indifferent state.
The primary job of the journalist is neither advertising nor propaganda: his job is to shed light so the people can see the way, and their oppressors can be constantly reminded that there are barking and wailing watchdogs who will not permit oppression, or utter irresponsibility in the use of power. The journalist is to tell the truth so forcefully and forthrightly, the truth will cause the oppressor pain and distress, but at the same time set the people free. To jump from this background into government or a political propaganda assignment could definitely attract criticisms. The more prominent and influential the journalist is, the more controversial his new role could be. People put a tag on you over time, they don’t imagine you could assume another role in the public space, and when you do, they don’t see it as a new assignment, they use your original role to define your present.
And in the age of technology where every word that is written or spoken is eternally lodged in cyber-memory, you really can’t win the argument. I was hunted with articles I had written on fuel subsidy removal (my revision based on new facts and understanding was considered convenient). In the same manner, today’s men are facing the same heat, as tomorrow’s men would.
The simple truth is that the job definition of a spokesperson is not the same as that of a journalist. When you take up a job as a spokesperson, you have elected to defend the interest of the appointing authority, in this case, the person or organization you speak for, and in the case of a country, the national interest, the definition of which is probably one of the most contentious issues in public policy. If it is a political assignment, then you have the added baggage of being accused of endorsement: something a journalist doing basic reportorial work is not supposed to do, and if as a journalist, you become a brand ambassador, you have also again crossed the line, you have become a commercial face, not a dispassionate dispenser of truth who can investigate the truth and deliver it not minding whose ox is gored.
As a spokesman or brand ambassador, you definitely have no opinion of your own. You are a vehicle, a compromised special purpose vehicle: you speak according to directives, and in the name of the authority you work for. It took me some time to figure that out, when you work for government, you are not expected to sound like an activist in the corridors but you can make a lot of significant inputs. “When you eat, you don’t talk”, that was how some people rationalized it, unfortunately, not knowing that a lot of serious talking actually goes on in government.
What was not properly acknowledged is that the knowledge acquired working in the public sector is quite different from that of the private space: you will certainly as a former private sector person gain access to the inner workings of government. You will build a new network. You gain access to new knowledge and opportunity to contribute to the process of change – you are definitely better positioned to do so from within – except that forces of ethnicity, nepotism, cronyism and even the insecurity of key players could limit your ability to ensure the triumph of good reason in such an environment that is dominated by vicious search for advantages, rustic thinking and competition driven by fear and greed. But still, a spokesperson must do the job. You must be ready to take the bullet for your boss. You are a fall guy. You prevent unnecessary news if you can. It is not your job to tell the media – go and shoot. You are a spin master, a spin-doctor: you help the media to get the facts about government’s efforts, and persuade them not to “kill.” Even if the heavens are falling and every one is lamenting about the falling weight of heaven, it is your job to give the ordinary people hope. You must let them know that something is being done on their behalf.
To defend the ordinary people is at the base of the assignment: if you work inside government, you don’t throw people into despair, you reassure them, if you work outside government, you give the government people hell, so as to promote the same people, two sides of the same coin. On both sides, the most important element is the people-element, their rights, their relevance, because it is the reason government and society exist.
I admit the whole thing is delicate; it is a walking-a-tight-rope scenario. How do you convince the people you are serving their interest when they see you actively defending the government, the political head and his political party, in the name of giving hope? They would tell you pointedly you are lying to keep a job. The critical point is that government is not a media house. The rules of engagement are different. And that is why every government spokesperson becomes a target of virulent criticism. Where does this lead us to then? It is this: that the people’s mind works differently from government’s mind, particularly in developing countries.
The challenge is to find a synergy. And that synergy lies in government serving the people’s interest: not populism, but meeting the people’s expectations, keeping promises and being seen to be actually working, accepting responsibility, not shifting blames or goal posts, and having a good team. The last point is important- having a good team. You can interpret this whichever way you want, but a political leader must have around him, people who are ready to take the fall for him. They must be willing to shield him, and not throw him under the wheels. When you have ministers who don’t speak up and are virtually absent, or spokespersons who are busy hiding their necks and faces, then there is a problem. Can you imagine some government spokespersons at a critical hour posting Rio Olympics pictures, or talking about fashion or some other irrelevancies when they should be on their Oga’s case?
May be what we are dealing with is actually a conflict of roles. A journalist in government still thinks he is perhaps a journalist and in his mind, he is torn between two conflicts. Those who manage to walk the tight-rope carefully come out looking clean, those who stick their necks out get bruised: but whichever way, much reputational damage is incurred. But the painful fact of the Nigerian reality is that the entire Nigerian journalism establishment is in cahoots with the partisan establishment. There are more sponsored spokesmen outside than within, with the people outside perpetually peeping inside and the whole concept of professional independence trampled afoot as the media digs deep into Nigerian politics and business for easy profit. This must be a subject for another day.
All told, the fortunes of the government make the difference. The ambition of every political leader is to be popular with the people, to win elections and to be taken seriously. Nobody in a leadership position wants to end up badly. Every leader wants to make an impact and be remembered positively. The rub of it is that what the people see is what they believe, and this may be different from what they get to know in the long run. When a government does well, the people will know and acknowledge its achievements.
Unfortunately, Nigerian democracy in the last 16 years has suffered greatly from the rise of competitive propaganda, but the simple local logic is that if a lie travels twenty years ahead, one day, the truth will catch up with it. That is not to discount the fact that Nigerians only appreciate their present in the future. We condemn everything that is before us, only to look back a few years later and regretfully revise history. My take is that Nigeria is not an easy country to govern. How easily can anyone govern a country where everybody including the uneducated are vocal experts on every subject from football to politics, foreign exchange and governance?
When you are a spokesperson though, speak. Every job has its own definition. And when you are in the kitchen, don’t complain of heat. The same people who criticize and talk about “doing the job with wisdom” know the truth, and one way or the other, the truth gets told.