IBRU: RECLAIMING THE VITAL CENTRE
As the nation mourns the untimely death of The Guardian publisher Mr Alex Ibru, it is proper and fitting to as it were rise above the dirges and predictable encomiums to pin-point what one considers to be his enduring legacy to the practice of journalism in Nigeria.
Let me begin with the reminiscence that sometimes in the early 1980s as an apprentice lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, I paid a visit to the Daily Times where I interacted with the Late Dr Stanley Macebuh at the time Editorial Adviser of the paper. Macebuh as is well known was a formidable intellectual writer with a philosophic bent and in that capacity was a role model to those of us who aspired to be public intellectuals.
Macebuh and I discussed the plummeting fortunes of the Second Republic; the brigandage of the politicians, the grating shenanigans and the stunted vision of the rulers and what the media ought to be pointing out. We both regretted that although a section of the media was up in arms against the creeping civilian dictatorship, it was also unbearably partisan in for example yelling out at the abuses of the Federal Government while remaining virtually chloroformed or at least tongue-tied with respect to the vulnerabilities of the sub national governments.
That is another way of saying that the media had been captured by the fray rather than rising above it. Macebuh and I both concluded that while it was essential to have the excesses and the follies of a section of the political class exposed, it would have been better to have a bi-partisan media which from a professional point of view dealt even handedly with all sections of the political class, thus reclaiming the mandate of the media as society's conscience, watchdog and bellweather. I was not surprised when two or so years after this conversation Dr Macebuh under Mr Alex Ibru's financial imprimatur went on to found the Guardian, a scholarly newspaper which assembled a galaxy of eggheads to offer a critical voice which was not abusive, not partisan at least in an overt sense and which sought to educate the nation through a balanced if somewhat highbrow discursive temperament .
Of course, the travails of The Guardian and of Mr Ibru under the Abacha Dictatorship are well known, but perhaps we should merely broach that the paper was invaded, closed down and proscribed; subjected to arson attack; while Mr Ibru was shot at point blank range and had to be hastily flown abroad for intensive medical intervention. In a sense, Mr Ibru never fully recovered from this trauma and can be justly regarded as one other martyr of the nation's struggle for democracy and good governance.
The Guardian is of course not without its own weaknesses, soft underbelly and occasional contradictions; but in terms of providing space for contending political viewpoints as well as articulating fearlessly the imperatives of Democratic credo it can hardly be faulted. It is remarkable for example that even when its late publisher served in government as Minister in what some regarded as a neo-corporatist carrot to buy off the paper, The Guardian was somehow able to tide over this challenge and did not suffer a loss of editorial dignity.
It was so arranged that the paper continued to speak out on topical national issues even while its publisher served in the Government of the day echoing an advanced democratic culture to which Nigeria, in particular the journalism profession should yet aspire.
What I am pin-pointing here is the journalistic equivalent of what radical theorists describe as the relative autonomy of the state in which a capable state is able to initiate and engineer development by standing above the short term interests of contending capitalist factions. With reference to the media this implies the professionalization of the industry to a level where they can hold at bay the notoriously short term instincts and calculations of the class of proprietors.
I grant of course, that there is nothing like absolute objectivity, considering that our perceptions and standpoints are themselves the products of our location in society as well as ideological inclinations. But a world of difference exists between rabidly partisan journalism in which media personnel double as party apparatchiks and the more constructive and edifying posture of a medium that places itself or strives to place itself above the intemperate clamour and shenanigans of the political elites. Let me illustrate my thesis by asking the question with respect to the South-Western Governors whether they would not have been thankful to have a medium which at least occasionally criticizes them than the uncritical adulation that they get from the majority of our newspapers. Perhaps the same thing can be said as to whether President Goodluck Jonathan is not occasionally put off by the predictable ventriloquism of the National Television Authority (NTA) and would gratefully turn to Channels Television where at least he would hear an alternative viewpoint.
In other words, a journalism that merely second guesses the mogul is ultimately self defeating for as someone has quipped, when two people are always agreeing it may suggest that only one of them is doing the thinking. Matters were not always so degenerate. Consider for example that the New Nigerian once had a stature in which its editorials rang with a gravitas which made even its governmental proprietors adore it even if the opinions expressed made things difficult for them on the political front. Criticism in this sense is both a service and a duty and does not amount to subversion.
The Nation owes a debt of gratitude to Mr Ibru for creating a forum where the nobler ideals of the journalism profession such as speaking truth to power could grow. As we mourn him we should also ponder on enduring ways of revitalizing the public sphere in such a way that the vital center which was once occupied by the likes of Babatunde Jose, Anthony Enahoro among others can once again come into its own.
Olukotun writes from Lagos.