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When the envelope is brown

Facts is, today the brown envelope more or less defines the unprofessional conduct of the average Nigerian journalist. The concept was popularised long ago by…

Facts is, today the brown envelope more or less defines the unprofessional conduct of the average Nigerian journalist. The concept was popularised long ago by politicians who held press conferences and proceeded to distribute money in brown envelopes to the reporters at the conference. Beats me why they chose that colour of envelope.

They believed then and still believe now, that the reporters and their editors needed to be induced or, perhaps, professionally persuaded, to see things their way. The habit of the politicians invariably became the expectation of the reporters too. The brown envelope became the colour of corruption in the news media.

The Nigerian Press Organisation, made up of the professional bodies in the media, namely, the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), and the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), aware of the irreparable damage the brown envelope was doing to the reputation of the profession and of individual journalists, decided to do something about it. In 1979, it drew up our first professional code of ethics, enjoining all journalists and proprietors to maintain a high moral and ethical standards in the discharge of their professional duty to the public.

That code of ethics had a poor circulation among the journalists. Most of them did not even know it existed.  Many of our senior journalists believed the code did not properly address what should be done to curb the corrupting influence of the ubiquitous brown envelope – and restore the good name of the profession to it and its practitioners.

The late Hadji Alade Odunewu, until his death chairman of the Nigerian Press Council, the media industry’s official arbitrator, led the NPO in reviewing the code beginning from 1996. The council held a series of workshops to sensitize journalists and media owners to the need for a good code of ethics for the sacred purpose of of enhancing the integrity of the news media. Two years later, on March 20, 1988, the NPO with the NPC, approved a new Code of Ethics. The new code is a product of what is known as the Ilorin Declaration by the NPO in conjunction with the NPC.

In the preamble to the Code of Ethics, the NPO made some important statements that underline the imperatives of the code of ethics. I wish to quote the following two paragraphs from the preamble:

“Journalism entails a high degree of public trust. To earn and maintain this trust, it is morally imperative for every journalist and every news medium to observe the highest professional and ethical standards.

“Truth is the cornerstone of journalism and every journalist should strive diligently to ascertain the truth of every event.”

Journalism is like no other profession — for at least one very good reason. It is the only profession in the world devoted to unearthing the truth and exposing the truth. Law, for instance, thrives on smart legal arguments, not on the truth. Telling the truth carries enormous risks to life and limbs. Every year, tens of journalists are killed, wounded or incarcerated in various countries for striving to unearth the truth and tell the truth. The big irony is that although the world professes to love the truth, the truth is that it cannot handle the truth. Truth is not pretty. It is often ugly, at least from the point of view of he whose integrity is exposed to be the colour of the brown envelope.

Why would the NPO and the NPC go to such trouble to give us a code of ethics they knew would be easily subject to abuse by the unscrupulous? Well, law-makers have never been discouraged by the possibility of the law being broken. A code of ethics is a powerful statement of intent by professional groups to prescribe a set of respectable behaviour among its members, their obligations to themselves and to the larger public.

A code of ethics deals with individual, moral and professional conduct. Individual members of a professional or social group cannot always resist the temptation to impugn the integrity of their groups for a mess of pottage. And this, despite the existence of a set of rules and regulations intended to keep the feet of all the members on the straight and narrow path.

In the first part of this discussion, I pointed out that all professional and social groups value their image. They take reasonable steps to evolve, promote and protect that image. It should not be difficult to appreciate this simple fact: a professional group without a good image has a short shelf life in the public. No group wants to be known for its corrupt image or the unethical conduct of its members. The behaviour of members rubs off on their groups.

Another way to look at a code of ethics is to regard it as an internal mechanism instituted by the members of a professional or social group to help them police the image of the group by ensuring that the members have the right attitude in the discharge of their individual responsibilities to the group and the public at large. A group in which everyone walks the same walk and talks the same talk is a responsible and cohesive group.

For all its vaunted social power, journalism is a dependent and vulnerable institution. Because it depends on news makers, it is easily manipulated and quite often becomes the vehicle for the spread of misinformation and out right lies. And because it is the chief image maker in all societies and climes, all those who desire to have a polished public image see its image-making capacity as nothing more than mutual business transactions between them and its practitioners.     Still, for good reasons the NPO Code of Ethics for Nigerian Journalists, encourages us to remember this: “Factual, accurate, balanced and fair reporting is the ultimate objective of good journalism and the basis for earning public trust and confidence.”

The brown envelope cannot induce or bend a journalist who stands on that principle.

(First published as a two-part series in May and July 2017)

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