Information minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, has charm and candour. He is sharp with a brilliance competently spiced with disarming humour. But last week, his charm failed him – and he had to pronounce a ‘Fatwa’ on a reporter who released a video of him serving a very big, expensive meal of a story: “It costs the government about N3.5 million every month to feed him (El Zakzaky). Honestly, don’t quote me, but these are the facts,” the minister said in the video that went viral and sparked an outrage. Then he fumed that the video should never have come out because he had invoked the ‘off the record’ rule while addressing the media on the Shiite leader’s case.
I pity him. Was that ground rule set in advance? Is “don’t quote me” technically the same as “this is off the record”? Besides, for a public figure, a cardinal rule in dealing with the media is never to lower your guard and get bloodied. “You have a right not to be ambushed. It is better to get back to a reporter than to misspeak,” ex-US First Lady, Nancy Reagan’s spokesperson, Sheila Tate, counseled government image minders decades ago. The rule has not changed. The sad truth is our minister was not even ambushed by any reporter; he simply mis-spoke.
Americans are a very well organised people, especially in public engagements. In June 2003 after I took up the job of spokesman to my state governor, the US Consulate-General in Lagos sent to me a 72-page manual. “A responsible press office: An insider’s Guide” is what the author called it. It details the dos and don’ts of the job that was to present itself to me as the grimmest of all human endeavours. In and out of that job, that manual has remained always very close to me. I don’t know if our Minister of Information has seen and read it. If he hasn’t, he should ask that embassy to give him a copy. He needs it – especially after that huge one he did last week – facing rolling cameras and pronouncing a big piece of news; then asking “please don’t quote me” – after saying it.
Every job has its rules. The press, of course, has – and the ‘off the record’ rule is one of them. The job of an information minister or press secretary has its dos and don’ts too. My American manual tells the government spokesman: “do tell the truth ALWAYS. Do be honest and accurate. Your credibility and reputation depend on it. Do admit it if you don’t know the answer to a question. Offer to get the answer, and do so as quickly as you can. Do correct mistakes immediately. State that you didn’t give an adequate answer, and you would like to clear up the confusion. Do assume that everything you say is on record. Do be as open with the media as possible…” The list is quite long.
Now, what are the don’ts? I can count them. They are not as many as the dos on that list: “Don’t lie — ever. Don’t say ‘No comment’ — ever. Don’t improvise, don’t speculate, and don’t guess. Good reporters check facts. If you are wrong, your credibility will be destroyed. Don’t try to put a comment ‘off record’ after you have said it. Don’t be unresponsive…”
Towering in the dos and don’ts above is the key question of what should be on record and what shouldn’t. You cannot call a press conference, face a battery of reporters and cameramen with video cameras rolling, shock your audience with the biggest news of the year and then “try to put (the) comment ‘off record’ — after you have said it.” What do you think you are doing or you have done? The press- a responsible press — is never in bed with any government. And, it is even worse now that what we have online is not the media as we knew it. What is buzzing online is a fast-paced monster whose survival depends on how much subversion it wreaks on the status quo. If you do not wake up to that reality you will be sorry soon. That was the own goal our information minister scored last week which his belated firing-squad fatwa could not cure.
The experienced PR guru told a group of people – journalists and online crusaders in Abuja — that his government spends N3.5 million to feed a single human being per month and he thought he could get away with saying that in this digital age. He should have known there would be consequences for saying that at a crowded press conference and in front of microphones and cameras that were not there as ornamental nonsense. There would be follow-up questions which would be asked there and then or later through other means. If the social media generation can’t ask questions directly, they always push the public to ask questions and demand answers from power. N3.5 million per month to feed one man? Three million, five hundred thousand naira to feed one person in 30 days! How much would that be per day or per meal? The maths would be done by everyone — including those of them who made F9 in Maths or even Arithmetic.
Now, I ask: Was everyone at that marketplace of a briefing a journalist who was obligated to act by journalism rules and who must hide his truthful audio and video clips in the soup pot of his wife? Who really is a journalist by today’s realities? We forget that this is 2018 – not 1998, the year of Sani Abacha when information was a helpless, obedient child in the strong arms of the professional newsman. The gates of the past have been demolished by technology — never to be rebuilt. This is post-ethics, even post-journalism era. The ‘untrained’ media horde of this era have a more assertive view of this space and they see no reason why information meals should be cooked at all before they are served. And the salivating, insatiable public who can’t wait appreciate them and their service. We are in a very dangerous era in media and public relations practice — and we should know.
Alhaji Mohammed enjoys bonding with the media. The media enjoys him too. And, truly, dealing with the media can be very rewarding; but it can also be dangerous and career-threatening, especially if you think you are on dry land, a terra firma, and can get anything done with anyone and everyone. It happened to me: A reporter called for my comments on a matter I did not want to be dragged into at all, and because he was my friend, I thought I could de-formalise the telephone interaction. I switched to Yoruba language and told him: “Wo, Tunde, mi o si n’le” – (meaning, Look, Tunde, I am not at home). The following day, to my horror, I read in his paper: “The Chief Press Secretary, when contacted for his reaction said ‘Look, I am not around.’” It was a life-long lesson learnt very quickly.
So, with this N3.5m monthly meal video, I blame the newsmaker who should have set the ground rules very well in advance. Why would a government spokesman face rolling camera at a press conference, say something big and scandalous, then make after-the- fact pleading: “please don’t quote me.” Is that how the rule works? Should a newsmaker’s “off the record” demand maintain the “off” part in all situations and contexts? And more fundamentally, is “don’t quote me” the same as “off the record”? Is posting a video of someone saying something exactly the same as quoting the person? What does it mean to “quote” someone?
Where really is the “off the record” rule in all these? And what does it mean? Media trainer, Brad Phillips, would insist that going “off the record” (when you have the option of keeping sealed lips) is a dumb idea. He adds that “off-the-record may be the single most misunderstood journalism term you will ever encounter.” He says that even journalists “can’t agree on what it means. If you speak to ten different journalists, you will probably hear ten different definitions.” And that was exactly what I saw online with respected media personalities delivering judgements and counter judgements on the rightness of the posting of the video and the justice of the apology that followed from Oak TV – the poster.
If this were a legal issue, you can be sure that our robust and dynamic jurisprudence would address it admirably – no matter how long it takes. But this is about the media and its ethics. It is also about public relations and its rules of engagement. I doubt if there will ever be an agreement on who was right or wrong in this ‘expensive’ matter. But it throws a challenge at our media and journalism schools to reinvent and retool themselves to fill potholes being dug daily by the Internet on the expressway of information management.
In any case, lessons must have been learnt by all of us, including the grandmaster himself, Alhaji Lai Mohammed. If you want to be off the record on a bit of information, you have the obligation to declare it so in advance – invoke the ethical rule before saying it – not after saying it as our minister did. More importantly, not saying ‘that thing’ at all saves you of heartache. If you are in public life, you should be very guided by the golden rule: “If there’s a microphone around, then it is live.” It is worse in this age of live streaming – words are literally eggs, once they fall off the lips, the odious mess must glide to the market square.
Dr. Olagunju is an editor and columnist with the Nigerian Tribune newspapers