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“My government has always been and remains committed to the support and development of agriculture (or mining, or the manufacturing sector, or education, or health as the occasion demands) and will continue to allocate substantial funds to drainage and irrigation and sea defences.” How often we have heard government ministers, here and in other countries, say these words. Should they be reported. No way. These bland statements are not news but the stock in trade platitudes of politicians. Everyone expects a government to support basic sectors of the economy, it would indeed be news if a minister said the government had decided not to support a particular area of the economy.
What ministers say is newsworthy if they announce a new policy or a specific new programme with credible detail or if they report on something that has already been done or successfully achieved. The actual allocation of house lots and the development of infrastructure is a valid story, so is the building of a new school, or the christening of a new ferry boat, or the completion of a new road. That is not to say that any of those events should be reported uncritically. Were they completed within the specified time, was there a cost overrun, what was the system of allocation, these are some of the many questions an alert reporter would wish to ask.
Generally, what politicians do or have done should be reported, not what they say unless their statement itself breaks new ground, indicates a turn in the road or has its own significance. There may be exceptions to this rule on historic or ceremonial occasions, but reporters must be careful not to allow the rhetorical flight of some politician’s imagination to become a substitute for news.
What opposition politicians say is also often news, sometimes important news. However there is a tendency, here and elsewhere, for the ladies and gentlemen of the opposition to take pot shots at the government of the day without careful checking of the facts and it is good practice for any reporter to get a response from the appropriate government officials before assessing the newsworthiness of such statements.
Obviously, too, what businessmen, trade union leaders, churchmen, and many other persons say or do can be important news, though here again what they do is often much more newsworthy than what they say, unless their statement is to announce a specific course of action.
Careful observers of the media in developing countries have noted a tendency to treat anything new as important, often uncritically. In the latest issue of CPU News there is an article entitled “Value Judgments” by Phillip Ochleng, a senior editor and veteran columnist at the Nation Media Group in Kenya in which while recognising that the media had come a long way since September 1991 when President Moi’s protracted dictatorship succumbed to intense pressure to allow opposition groups to operate freely, and agreeing that the press had played a pivotal role in that struggle for freedom, he nevertheless expressed concern at certain manifestations of this new media freedom. Referring to this `liberation’ he said: “But it also exposed our own professional nakedness. It showed that we ourselves did not understand the meaning of freedom beyond the licence to clamour. Free expression, publishing, association, movement, the vote, the due process: all were, of course, vital freedoms. But confined to the stratosphere of politics and law, their advocates did not - could not - enunciate what they intended to do with the power, should they get it, to make a difference to people’s real lives. They didn’t seem aware that economic, cultural and intellectual poverty was the realm in which the majority most need liberation”.
Later he continued: “More relevantly, few people in the Press knew this difference between political freedom as an end in itself and political freedom as a tool for liberating society from the much more debilitating fetter of demagoguery. The result was we tended to swim with the current. Any attack on the ruling party - even by the most venal, most self seeking and potentially most tyrannical opposition activist - tended to confer political saintliness on the attacker.
This was where our professional nakedness was most embarrassing. Newsmakers made one outrageous statement after another. But the newsgatherers rushed to their computers to reproduce those statements without making any intellectual responses to them.
Even after 10 years of legalised multi-partyism and freedom to speak, our reporters tend to be satisfied with the “he said” kind of news report. None of ours has become a “thinking newspaper”, stories which answer not only the “Ws” of journalism - who, where and when - but also interpret the social, political or economic implications of what was said or done.”
The media have an important role to play in all societies. If they do it carefully and professionally they can help to define the important issues of the day and contribute to the discussion and elucidation of those issues. If they do it badly they can contribute to the disintegration of the society. Part of the problem is that the importance of the media is not understood, it is treated as a job that is not challenging and it often does not attract the brightest young people. But newspapers like The Times and The Manchester Guardian have in their time played a role in setting the temper of the times and defining the narrative of public debate. All things are possible given a proper understanding of the possibilities and a high level of training and commitment.