Press and Politics in Nigeria: On Whose Side?

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Sunday, August 15, 2021 / 08:01 AM / by Lai Oso, Ph.D / Header Image Credit: The Guardian Nigeria

 

Being the text of an inaugural lecture delivered by Lai Oso, Ph.D, Professor of Mass Communications, on Press and Politics in Nigeria at Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos.

 

Mr. Vice-Chancellor,

Ag. Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academics),

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Administration),

Registrar,

The University Librarian,

Provost and Deans,

Colleagues,

Staff and Students,

Gentlemen of the Press,

Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen.

 

I want to thank God, the Almighty, for the privilege to stand before you to deliver this Inaugural Lecture. The Bible says "... it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth but of God that showest mercy." I am a product of God's abundant mercy.

 

I thank the Vice-Chancellor for giving me this platform and privilege to address this gathering.

 

Introduction

This is the second inaugural lecture from the Adebola Adegunwa School of Communication (AASOC). The first lecture was presented in September 2005 by one of Nigeria's leading communication scholars, Prof. Idowu Sobowale. The School of Communication is the only of its type in this country with a curriculum and mandate not only more extensive but more contemporary. At inception, apart from the popular traditional courses, Journalism, Broadcasting and Public Relations and Advertising, the school had courses in Human Communication, Book Publishing and Development, Information and Communication Technology, Photojournalism and Cinematography. This was quite novel and revolutionary in the country. But unfortunately, time came when the powers that be, more out of misinformation and poor understanding of development in other parts of the world, attempted to whittle down the structure and content of the School and hence destroy the vision of its founding fathers.

 

In the restructuring that followed, only the traditional courses, Journalism, Broadcasting, and Public Relations and Advertising were retained. However, recently, the Senate approved the curriculum for a degree programme in Photography, Film and Media Studies. On behalf of my colleagues, I want to thank the Vice-Chancellor and Senate for this. We may recall here that the School was founded with the active involvement and support of the State Government which set up a Committee of Scholars and Practitioners to fashion the philosophy, objectives and structure of the school.

 

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, Sir, with all humility and due respect, I want to say that there is no Department of Mass Communication in this country with a faculty as diverse in discipline as ours. Apart from those with background in Mass Communication, we have others in Information Science, Book Publishing and Development, Theatre and Film, Health and Development Communication, Peace and Conflict Studies and Literary Studies. Our concern and vision go beyond Mass Communication as popularly conceived but the totality of human communication experience placed within the appropriate historical and socio-cultural context.

 

For me, this accords with the historical root of communication as an academic enterprise.

 

Communication in the Academia

If the prediction of one of the earliest scholars in the field of communication had been fulfilled, probably we would not be here today. Bernard Berelson published an article in 1959 in which he argued that communication research was "withering away". In that article, Berelson, who many students of communication here will recognise for his famous definition of content analysis, must have come to his doomsday prediction based on his observation that:

 

The innovators have left or are leaving the field, and no ideas of comparable scope and generating power are emerging. The expansion of the field to new centres has certainly slowed down and perhaps even stopped... Some of the newer places are currently repeating what the pioneering places did years ago and are now disappointed with.

 

By the 'innovators' who were leaving the field, Berelson was referring to the pioneer researchers including the political scientist, Harold Lasswell; the mathematician-cum-sociologist, Paul Lazarsfeld; the social psychologist, Kurt Lewin and Carl Hoveland who was also a psychologist. These were the men who gave the field its foundational methodological and theoretical impetus. They laid the foundation which

 

Berelson must have felt was not being built upon and therefore was withering away. This prognosis must have been informed by the fact that, apart from the fact that some of them were either dead or dying, Lazarsfeld and Lasswell had announced that they were leaving for their original discipline, mathematics and political science respectively.

 

Another pioneering scholar, Wilbur Schramm has also observed that they came into communication research "carrying their own disciplines with them" (Schramm: 1983, p.8). They were then preparing to return to those disciplines to continue their academic sojourn. The analogy offered by Schramm to describe the beginning is quite apt:

 

For many years, scholars, travelling with their own disciplinary maps, had stopped to look at communication problems, as travellers stopped to refresh themselves at the Jordanian oasis, and then moved on. (Schramm: 1983, p.9)

 

The point is that the roots of communication and media studies are deep in many older disciplines. Communication research is a point of convergence from these various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. What unites them and their disciples is human communication, i.e. all forms of human symbolic interaction, not just media studies and related professions (Craig, n.d.). The multidisciplinary nature of communication research means that any student in the field, as Wilbur Schramm observed some decades ago, must "look in many places for his basic material." According to him, "to comprehend the sum total of existing knowledge of human communication," such a student "must search at least half a "dozen scholarly field..." (Schramm: 1974, p.6).

 

The other point clear in Berelson's lamentation was that, by late 1950s and early 1960s, some of the dominant theoretical orthodoxies in communication were already being critically challenged and even reversed. Berelson had worked with Lazarsfeld at Colombia University Bureau of Applied Social Research in the 1940s and 1950s. One of the canonical studies in communication research was conducted by the Bureau under Lazarsfeld's leadership during this period. Their interpretation of the study led to the premature conclusion that Mass Communication was not as powerful as earlier thought (Berelson et al (1954), Lazarsfeld et al (1948)). As Steven Chaffee has noted, many members of the Bureau "virtually gave up on Communication as a research topic" (Chaffee: 1983, p.19).

 

But communication studies and research did not end with Berelson and the other pioneers who went back to their earlier areas of academic concern from which they had ventured into Communication. As Wilbur Schramm and others later observed, the late 1950s was really a period of transition. An era was coming to a close bringing into being a new one.

 

While in the opinion of Everett Rogers the pioneers "provided a rich diversity of intellectual backgrounds for communication research", they did not create an institutionalised structure for communication research (Rogers: 1983, p.21). As one of the leading journals in the freed journal of communication remarked in 1983, Berelson's lamentation marked "the emergence of a vital new discipline".

 

By the 1960s, a new set of scholars was emerging. These were not itinerary visitors. They have come to stay and be identified as Communication scholars who, in the words of Schramm, "gave every indication that they intended to spend their careers in the new academic oasis" (op. cit.).

 

It is important to observe that these new scholars and the structures they created centred on teaching communication skills in journalism, speech and broadcasting. As the programme thus created began to develop, courses in theory, research method and effects of communication were added. "And so, gradually", Schramm noted, "the name 'communication' or 'communications' began to appear in connection with those departments and schools ...." (op. cit.)

 

Today, not only has Berelson's prophecy failed, the field of communication research and scholarship has blossomed in all parts of the world. In Nigeria today, there are Departments of Mass Communication in 54 universities and 26 polytechnics. These figures do not include many others that have been forced to contract some form of matrimonial relationship with communication in order to save their departments from rationalisation because of poor student enrolment.

 

Hence, you have in some universities,Yoruba and CommunicationArts, Communication and Language Arts, Linguistic and Communication, Theatre and Communication Arts, and such double-barrel nomenclatures. Sometime, the National Universities Commission (NUC) has been reluctant in approving such "flirting", preferring, to borrow the argot of Lagos street boys, that everyone bears his father's name.

 

The 'ferment' and explosion in communication research and scholarship is a worldwide phenomenon. The expansion is of course due to many factors. The Second World War clearly brought out the power of mass communication. The use of propaganda by the two sides in the war stimulated a lot of research, particularly in the United States during and after the war.As the U.N. declared, war begins in the heart of men, the super powers that emerged after the war came to the realisation that to conquer and control others, mass communication will be crucial. It has since then been a battle over meaning, a struggle over who defines the social, political and economic landscape we all inhabit as humans. Mass Communication has been a strategic instrument in the struggle for hegemony, both within nations and globally.

 

The global institutionalisation of Western liberal democracy has also been a major impetus to the development of communication at both the applied and academic levels. There is a generally accepted assumption across ideological and political divides that Mass Communication, particularly journalism is symbiotically related to democratic politics.

 

These days, Public Relations and Advertising are also assuming some importance in the political arena where symbolic politics looms so large. This has stimulated not only the practice of journalism but has also spurred academic interests in the study of political communication.

 

Whether they love it or not, politicians and other interest claimants need the mass media to push their claims in the public space. The desire of powerful social groups to conquer and dominate the minds and hearts of their fellow human beings in the struggle for power has greatly increased the importance of mass communication. While authoritarian regimes could rely on instruments of force and coercion to command obedience, democratic regimes have realised that it is more efficient and effective to rely on symbolic manipulation to 'manufacture consent.'

 

This is what some scholars (Nye 2002, Frazar 2003) called 'soft power' which flows mainly through the instrumentality of mass communication. As face-to-face communication has increasingly become more difficult and inefficient, the mass media have become highly prized and strategic resource for all forms of advocates, especially politicians and commercial corporate operators.

 

It is interesting to observe that this is one of the areas Berelson in the 1959 article earlier referred to as 'minor' and less influential during the period he regarded as the pioneering period of communication research.

 

Of recent, we have also seen the impact of Information and Communication Technologies in not only the way we communicate as individuals, but importantly in the practice (ICTs) of Mass Communication. Without doubt, ICTs have widened the public space, accommodating more voices, challenging the power of the ruling classes in many parts of the world over the control of public communication and eroding and corroding the mediatory and agenda setting power of journalism. In what is now called 'citizen journalism', everybody is a potential journalist just as everyone who can hold a microphone, especially if he/she has a good voice, a pretty face and dresses well, often claims some expertise in Public Relations. This has also opened up new areas of academic interests. The idea of Information Society has also further brought to the fore the importance of communication and its instrumentalities in this era of globalisation. In fact, the ICTs are the main instruments and channels of globalisation.

 

Another factor has been economic development, especially the development of big multinational companies. The applied side of communication, particularly advertising, has seen a phenomenal growth because of the needs of companies to market themselves, their products and the philosophy and ideology supporting their existence in a highly competitive economic environment. At the national level, particularly in the developing world, there is the academic tradition that holds that the mass media are crucial to national development (Oso, 2002). This tradition, promoted mainly by American scholars in the 1960s, has seen a resurgence lately in such areas as health campaigns, behaviour and attitude change communication through such U.N. agencies like UNICEF,UNFPA, etc.

 

We may also note the concentrated attention paid to communication by the whole world through the UNESCO in the 1970s during the debate on the NewWorld Information and Communication Order. That debate, with all the acrimony and controversies it generated, stimulated a lot of scholarly and popular attention to the importance of information and communication. The period stimulated research in the areas of news, cultural/media imperialism and media education development and curriculum.

 

Mass Communication education in Nigeria was not prominent until after independence. Like the situation in Britain, early Nigerian journalists and broadcasters acquired their professional training on the job. It was not until 1954 that a two-week vocation course was organised for journalists at the University of Ibadan. Others were to follow. Although most of the country's education in terms of structure, philosophy and curricula was inherited from Britain, this was largely not so with mass communication education. This is ironical in the sense that the mass media (newspapers, broadcasting and films) were British transplants.

 

The difference in the case of mass communication education was because the British had no model to offer. While early Nigerian journalists turned to liberal British ideas and opinion in their pungent anti-colonial writings, the model of Mass Communication education came from America. And this was after independence. In 1961, Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe (aka Zik) established a Department of Journalism called the Jackson College of Journalism at the newly established University of Nigeria, Nsukka. As should be expected, the college was an American transplant with emphasis on skill training. It will be recalled that Zik had been trained as a journalist at the prestigious Columbia University and practised the profession in Ghana and Nigeria where he established the first newspaper chain with the West Africa Pilot established in 1937 as the flagship. There is no doubt that communication has a deep root and foundation in praxis and this has largely influenced popular perception of its existence and the establishment of academic programmes in our universities.

 

The root of communication scholarship in journalism and other skill-based programmes has continued to define the field in the country. It seems to me that we have lost sight of our eclectic origin as a field that was planted by many people coming from diverse disciplines. While no one can deny the fact that in today's highly mediated world, Mass Communication is the most visible aspect of human communication, it is, as Denis McQuail has noted, "only one part of a wider field of enquiry into human communication" (McQuail: 2005, p.16). To me, communication studies is more than Mass Communication. It is a field, and not just a discipline which has, over the years since its beginning, drawn inspiration from many sources in the humanities and social sciences. While the social science perspectives (especially in its empiricist and functionalist tradition) seem to have prevailed especially in its research methodologies and even theories, the seminal contributions of literary and cultural studies could not be discarded.

 

In addition, the field has branched into many areas, e.g. development communication, health communication, agricultural communication, political communication, marketing communication, film studies which in some cases are now assuming their own distinctive personalities.

 

The main strength of communication as a field of scholarly concern is its interdisciplinary nature "where a range of existing academic disciplines meet, bringing their own particular questions, concerns and intellectual traditions with them. (Deacon, et al: 1997, p.2) This is as it should be because, properly understood, communication is life. The encounters between and among these different intellectual traditions give communication studies its dynamism and relevance to contemporary social and cultural life. Our research and teaching must reflect this broad interdisciplinary outlook in order to capture the rich diversity of contemporary life. I feel uncomfortable with those who want to limit the focus of communication studies to only mass communication translated to mean skill acquisition in Journalism, Broadcasting, Public Relations and Advertising. This, to my mind, does not only do injustice to the intellectual history of the field, but also easily falls into the current orthodoxy in education, i.e. the marketisation of intellectual enterprise.

 

In parenthesis, let me observe that this process is already evident in its debilitating effect in the choice students make in the trinity that predominantly make up mass communication education in the country. Journalism is becoming the ghetto of the three as more and more students go for Public Relations andAdvertising, and Broadcasting. Zik's emphasis of the training and acquisition of journalism skills should be understandable. Apart from being a journalist, Zik and the indigenous elite of the colonial period saw in journalism a weapon to fight the colonial power for Africa's emancipation. The world created by colonialism and its dehumanising experience made journalism a ready weapon in the struggle against British hegemony. The instrumentalist conception of the press in the hands of Zik and his nationalist counterparts is evident in the motto of theWest African Pilot, "Show The Light, The People Will Find The Way".

 

The role of the press as light bearers has never diminished in importance, across societies of the world. This assertion is further elucidated in the discussion that follows.

 

Download Full Lecture Paper Here

 

About the Author

Lai Oso is a Professor of Mass Communication, Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos.


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