FACILITATING PUBLIC POLITICS – THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA

Originally Published, June 10, 2012

Nurturing a strong democracy needs the presentation of opposing viewpoints in a balanced and proportioned way. In this regard, the media in Ghana has a very significant role in facilitating public politics by setting an agenda based on issues of national interest rather than becoming a conduit for misleading and manipulating public minds by politicians.

The tensed political landscape in Ghana characterised by greed, corruption, disrespect for the presidency and disrespect for the honourable members of the House, sheer lies, personal vendetta, insults and rumour peddling can be partly attributed to the fact that, when it comes to the role of the media in politics and nation building, the political landscape is overly tilted in favour of the political media segment.

Political media, according to Harold Adams Innis and Herbert Marshall McLuhan, serves as communication vehicles, owned and managed by political entities, with the aim of propagating the views of the related entity.

Ideally, political media employing the services of qualified, highly dexterous and specialised personnel with a sense of patriotism and nationalism serving as mouth pieces and platforms for a political organization is not bad in itself since the concerns of political organisations and political parties with proper ethos and morals most times, coincide with national aspirations.

A search at the Media Commission or the Ministry of Information may reveal that only few media houses in Ghana registered to be the mouth piece of any political party.  However, a cursory look at the functions of most of our newspapers, television and radio stations portrays our media houses as one big political media outlet. Why?

What the public may not know is that some of Ghana’s newspapers are registered and owned by active political careerist to promote their political ambition.  Others too were established by businessmen who aside from business interest are influenced by their political leanings and so let their media houses assume the posture of Political Media.

For the past nineteen plus years, from dusk to dawn, the most common and popular platforms on all radio and television stations is the newspaper review segment, and political discussions with a phone-in segment. And like a monotonous meal, the entire nation is served with petty personal squabbles among politicians, personal insinuation among politicians, personal vendetta, character defamation, accusations and rebuttal among public office holders, rumour peddling, trading of insults which is deeply polarizing the society and highlighting political conflicts. The over concentration of our politics on personalities to the detriment of issues that will raise the quality of human life and accelerate national development is an overkill.

In journalism, the time and space allotted to a subject determines the value, the priority and what the media house wants to achieve, isn’t it?  So what do we achieve when we utilize radio waves – an important national resource to discuss “infinitum” the feelings of people who are aggrieved by how their party is treating them or when an ex-president returns from a foreign trip? My concern is the length of time allotted to such simple but straight forward issues.  Do we all have to catch cold when some political god fathers sneeze?

ISSUES OF NATIONAL MERIT

Unlike the traditional structure where the mass media are drawn into symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest, most media houses in Ghana are bent towards the propagation of politics that centre on personalities and with little concentration on issues of national merit.

Sometime last year, Ghana nearly submerged under water due to heavy rains. And as usual the media went to town with their cameras and notepads, the minority in government had their say at the floor of the House, the majority in government had their way, and the President came on visit as a father figure to console us. City mayors also went to town to ascertain the impact of the rains and made promises. The entire scenario looks like an annual ritual. Isn’t it?

Soon the rains will be here and what shall be our reaction?  As the fourth estate of the realm, with the responsibility of a watchdog, what did the Media do in the interim by way of articles, editorials, talk shows, investigations and research into the causes of flooding to engage ministers of State and State organizations on the issue?  Do the media have to wait till the politicians pick up an issue before they react?  The question then must be asked, who sets the agenda, the politician or the media?

The final report by the Constitutional Review Commission has been with the government for months now. The next election is just six months away. Is the media which is the conscience of society asking questions regarding whereabouts of the document? How is the President working on the document? The Ghana Space Science and Technology Centre (GSSTC), is currently converting the Earth Satellite station at Kuntunse into a Radio Telescope for astronomical research and data collection. What does this mean to the development of our country?   Is the media asking questions; juxtaposing the need for a Space facility to other national needs and moving on to do programs that will involve the School of Nuclear and Allied Sciences and students across the country to whip up enthusiasm?

What is the state of national infrastructures like bridges, science laboratories in our schools and our heritage sites?   What is happening to Lake Bosomtwi and other water bodies? Are they drying up?  There are parts of the country where humans and cows drink from the same source of water. Tap (drinking) water in most parts of the country when kept for few hours crystallizes into dirt which carries water borne diseases like typhoid fever.

How do we overturn the human deficit in our medical and educational institutions? How do we promote intellectual and scholarly debate on managing public expenditure in a way that will eliminate corruption in the civil service?   How do we make government act responsibly in matters like these? Where is today’s media in news and programs production?

Do we have journalists who have specialised in areas like Science and environment, International diplomacy, Economics and Governance? Are we satisfied with the quality, depth of knowledge and artistry employed by majority of our media personnel in posing questions during interviews?

WHO SETS THE AGENDA?

What is the big picture before us as a nation?  The nag with the political media in Ghana is their penchant for promoting the agendas of certain individuals rather than organizations and the nation. How do we explain this apparent lack of propriety?   In some democracies, the media engages the politicians with the concerns of the people like their social needs and human development as the public agenda.
Where the people are not politically educated, the media sets the public agenda and move on to help the society to think, thereby putting public office holders on their toes.  In our case, the political media which now dominate our media landscape only serve as the propaganda tool for politicians. In cahoots with political serial callers and hired political pundits, they set their agenda to shape public minds in their favour.

Interestingly, those who set the political agenda are the very people called upon to either explain or defend their position. Why not, in a situation where the academics, judges, chiefs, and reverend ministers, visibly don political party colours, who else would the media call to present a balanced view?  Sometimes the whole episode looks like a “crime” perpetuated on ignorant citizens.  Are we that ignorant to deserve such treatment? I hope we are not.
The journalist who host topical programs on the electronic media and in most cases, in establishing the agenda of potential stories, tends to reflect the ‘policy’ concerns of individuals or political parties where their sympathies lie far more than the national interest.

A critical observation shall inform you that most policy makers and political activists appearing on some of such programs don’t do any serious research before they appear. Why?  They either know the political disposition of the interviewer before hand, or they know the professional deficiency of the journalist in handling serious political issues. Their concluding assumption is that, the likely questions to be asked will fall in line with the normal conversation on the street.

The global media, through professional practice earned the reputation as the fourth estate of the realm – independent crucial agents of governance, development and stability. Professionalism does not only refer to the acquisition of a diploma or a degree in communication studies but also having a pedigree of astute knowledge and ethics in a chosen profession; ready to go beyond the average in terms of performance.
The media is supposed to give voice to the voiceless and where necessary, tame the powerful but unruly power brokers by putting the truth in the public domain.  Additionally, the media is supposed to provide the missing link in debates and offer novel information on issues to educate and empower society to deal with significant challenges.

THE HYPOCRISY
When practitioners in the mainstream media, assume the posture of political media, become a tool of political mobilization, set their agenda according to the views expressed in sectarian/parochial debate about a given topic, use personal agendas that sometimes take on tribal or ethnic dimension, and have no interest in the promotion of a national agenda that will bring development and safety, but consistently employ the art of conspiracy to churn out lies and deception, should that media outfit be accorded the “protocols” of the fourth estate of the realm?  How can the media, with such an image, hold in check the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary when all they do is become tools of political mobilization representing the selfish interest of a few people? Let us do some intellectual debate on this query.

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