Dubious and worthless honours for sale - By: Dan Agbese | Dailytrust

Dubious and worthless honours for sale

The editors of the Trust titles asked me last week if it was ethical and professional for media organisations to give awards to public officers. They have good reasons to be worried about this fast growing award industry in the country. The awards massage the huge egos of important and self-important men but they denigrate the ethics and the professionalism in the media as the only institution mandated by the constitution to hold government accountable to the people.

The editors raised a very important question that has not escaped the attention of serious-minded professionals in the media and, indeed, the public at large. But it cannot be answered with a simple yes or no, given the rather complex nature of the subject in the context of a) the craving by our narcistic public officers who are willing to pay anything for the validation of their performances in office and b) the surfeit of award givers in the country, from traditional rulers to tertiary institutions, has more or less solidified the award industry as a tradition with no one frowning on them. Let me take you around the bend a bit as I attempt to answer the question in more than one word.

The news media post their reporters to important and sensitive areas where news is sure to be made daily: the presidency, aviation, the ports authorities, sports, foreign affairs, the legislature, etc. We called them beats. The reporters now have a more elegant name for it: chapels. In our status-conscious country, the reporters renamed themselves correspondents. The name changes gave them a leg up on the ladder of professional importance. The big men no longer see them as reporters on a routine beat, chasing news and news-makers; they see them as important men who hold the key to their public recognition through the news media. All public officers, the successful and the middling among them, feed on a good diet of constant and favourable publicity. 

My guess is that a wag among the correspondents saw that given their craving for publicity, the big men they report on frequently could be asked to drop a few wands of the elusive stuff in the collection plate for a wider recognition. It was not enough to give them publicity; you could take it up a notch by giving them official media recognition with an award deemed to celebrate their uncommon performances in office. Given their vanity and their need for validation, they would be willing to pay any price to be celebrated in the public. The wag hit on a winning and lucrative formula. Once you have validated a minister or a state governor as the best in your own uncritical judgment, there is no turning off the faucet of the Naira flow.

The award industry took off on a modest scale but spread fast among the chapels. Part of what made the industry spread so fast was that by the early nineties, financial difficulties took residence in the news media. Many media houses could not pay the salaries of their reporters as and when due. The awards became a creative money spinner for members of the various chapels. 

The rash and the rush to honour public officers with awards of every title and every description by the various chapels took a pernicious hold in the news media. The awardees and their families and friends celebrated their award with paid congratulatory messages in the media. We watched and still watch this insensate celebration of dubiety with open contempt.

The stomachs of the analogue generation of journalists to which yours sincerely belongs, brought up with a different professional and ethical orientation from the digital generation, churned and groaned. We needed no one to tell us that we were witnessing the birth of a blight spreading on the ethics and the integrity of our beloved profession. 

The NPAN tried to steam the tide. As president of the association, Ray Ekpu struggled to stop the chapels from giving awards to men they were reporting on. The awards compromised the neutrality of the news media. Once you anoint a state governor as the best performing governor in the country, whatever that might mean, it would, all things being equal, be immoral to condemn the same man when his corruption and perfidy in office are exposed by the EFCC somewhere down the line. It is the downside of the award industry in the media.

Ekpu and his colleagues in the executive of the NPAN soon found they were up against the impossible. Some of the newspaper proprietors all of whom are members of NPAN, became converts to the award industry. They shunted aside  their reporters and took the award industry to the next level. The awards became the big dos  in the country. Award ceremonies became the most visible face of the award industry. They were held in glittering first class hotels. No one stopped to think of the integrity of the awards and what they really mean to their public image as public officers. All awards are good awards and are readily lapped up by the important people.

In a creative approach to the obvious corruption of the awards, the awardees did not pay for their awards; they paid for the tables they occupied at the award ceremonies. The table prices were as high as N20 million in some cases. The late former minister of information, Professor Dora Akunyili, once told me she was given an award by one the newspapers but was required to pay N5 million for her table. She said she did not have that kind of money. Two days later, she saw that the same award had been given to someone else who, obviously could and was willing to pay for it. Vanity exacts a stiff price, obviously.

The big surprise, really, is not that these awards have taken hold in the media and the public but that our vain public officers do not bother to look at how they won the awards. The awardees happily add them to their cv. The state governors believe these dubious awards validate their scrappy performances in office as stella performances. It is nonsense, of course. How does a newspaper rate a governor as the best among his peers? What are the criteria? The awards are not based on the deserving; they are based on the gullible who are willing to pay any price to burnish their public image.

The award industry is part of the degeneracy of every institution we hold dear in the country. Everything has been fouled up by the men of power and wealth. Our universities hawk honorary doctorates and award them to those who are willing to say a big thank you with Ghana-must-go bags. Our traditional rulers do the same, inventing strange and laughable chieftaincy titles to celebrate both the known and the unknown with deep pockets. It is immoral and takes something away from the esteemed trust with which our traditional institution should be held.

It may be argued that it would be difficult for the media to stand out as a spotless island in this polluted pond that our nation has been turned into. But that would be rather too generous to be helpful in appreciating the ethical and the professional mess the media have been pushed into with the indiscriminate and meaningless awards to our public officers. The press is a unique national institution and must be above board. It is like no other because of its considerable influence in public affairs. It is the moral compass in every democratic nation because it enjoys considerable public trust. The guardians of the flames in the institution have always fought to prevent it from losing that public confidence without which it would be of little public relevance. They have not always succeeded but they never stop trying. A lot rides on the neutrality of the media and the trust and confidence the public reposes in it.

When the late President Thomas Jefferson told his friend that if he had to make a choice between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government, he would readily choose the latter, he underlined the special place newspapers occupy in the affairs of modern nations. The press is the only national institution everyone looks forward to as a neutral body in the defence of truth. When our news media celebrate public officers with dubious awards invented solely to massage their big egos for profit, they soil and pollute the temple of journalism; when our public officers willingly pay to be celebrated as award winners, they corrupt the moral and the professional integrity of the news media; when the news media allow themselves to be  driven by the crass commercial imperatives of survival by selling worthless awards to our narcistic public officers, they sacrifice public trust for a plate of eba and okra soup.

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