In My opinion: Charles McGhee: Newspapers in Nigeria

AS gloom continues to pervade the newspaper industry at home, it was gratifying to discover that print is still in huge demand – at least in some parts of the world.

In the oil-rich federal republic of Nigeria, newspaper kiosks groan under the weight of more than 20 national daily newspapers and a raft of weekly, regional and specialist titles. And in the capital, Abuja, vendors descend on cars like swarms of flies when they halt at traffic lights or junctions, thrusting copies of the papers through open windows hoping for a quick sale.

The print media is a booming business and more titles, such the Peoples Daily which I was helping to relaunch, are queuing up to join the ranks of the established press. (Incidentally, the Peoples Daily has conveniently solved the annoying apostrophe problem by simply banishing it from its title).

While the western print media appears to be in terminal decline, The World Association of Newspapers reports that newspapers in around 80 per cent of the world are in reasonably good health. And, at first glance, Nigeria’s lively and colourful newspaper scene appears to be a perfect example of this print utopia.

It helps, of course, that the sophisticated delivery of news, information and advertising via the internet, TV and radio is still far short of the saturation levels in the developed world, leaving newspapers as the dominant mass medium. In fact, not only are they the main independent source of information but, most importantly, a free press also acts as a vital lynch-pin in the often fragile structure that passes as democracy in many emerging nations.

And the Peoples Daily – Nigeria’s newest national newspaper – sees itself as an important part of that democratic process in a country of around 150 million people. Unlike most of Nigeria’s established media, which is targeted at the English-speaking elite, the Peoples Daily is anxious to live up to its title, representing the interests of ordinary people who it believes are frequently not best-served by Nigeria’s ruling classes at both national and federal government level.

It also wanted to live up to the other part of its title – daily – and engaged the help of Britain’s Thomson Foundation to help it switch from being a weekly. “You’ve got three weeks,” said the Thomson Foundation’s head of training, Tim Rogers, when he called me about the potential assignment. “Oh, and by the way, can you leave next weekend?”

And we did it, bang on deadline, not least because of the paper’s enthusiastic and highly-motivated editor, Ahmed Shekarau.

Nigeria, of course, has a high ranking on the world’s corruption index and its effects impact on every aspect of life in the country. Nigerian newspapers are not short on opinion columns – in some they appear to outnumber the news stories – and they debate the corruption issue endlessly.

But scratch the surface and it transpires that the newspapers themselves are not immune from the problem. One leading oil industry figure told me he could buy his way on to the front pages of at least half a dozen newspapers. Oil, of course, is central to the corruption debate with many leading voices claiming that Nigeria is frittering away its oil wealth while large sections of the population live in poverty with sub-standard health and education services.

The journalists I was working with were also anxious to get a western journalist’s perspective on what they called their ‘brown envelope’ culture – where reporters receive cash for ‘journalists’ welfare’ in return for getting stories into the papers.

Most believe the practice is acceptable, within limits, because journalists are so poorly paid. And, in their defence, they point to the lavish gifts, hospitality and travel expended by PR companies on contacts in the western media. What’s the difference?, they asked.

I argued that PR companies can spend what they like, but there’s no obligation on western journalists to carry their material.

Accepting money to ‘plant’ stories would also be unethical in the UK, under the Code of Conduct operated by the Press Complaints Commission, I maintained, although specifically the Code only deals with the ethics of profit-taking in the field of financial journalism and payments to trial witnesses and criminals.

The Nigerian journalists weren’t convinced and it reminded of a colleague’s similar experience in Malawi. Arguing against the doubtful ethics of accepting cash for copy, she was taken aback when one of the local journalists responded: “Yes, but you can’t eat ethics.”

Which begs the question: Is low-level influencing – either through PR priming in the west or ‘welfare payments’ in the developing world – an acceptable price to pay if it helps journalists and newspapers tackle the bigger democratic challenges? I would say no, but I’m sure there will be many who disagree.

Charles McGhee, a former editor of The Herald, now works as an independent media consultant. He was in Nigeria with the Thomson Foundation, a UK-based charity which trains journalists in developing countries.