Broadcasting as a form of mass communication can be split into two distinct categories. There is the public type as opposed to the private type. The public type, more generally referred to as public service broadcasting is designed to treat its audiences as citizens, while the private type sees audiences as consumers to be delivered to advertisers. There is thus a profit motive inherent in private broadcasting which is clearly absent in public service broadcasting, which on its part is more concerned with issues of the public good or public interest.
The preoccupation of public service broadcasting with the public interest dictates that all interests, both the dominant and minority ones are adequately served by it. Observing the public interest ethos in public broadcasters in Western Europe, Denis Mc Quail stresses that “ the general rationale for their operation is that they should serve the public interest by meeting important communication needs of the society as citizens ,as decided and reviewed by way of the democratic political system” (2000:156). This Western European ideal of public service broadcasting is one that is also claimed by many nations of Africa, including Nigeria.
This paper, working with the Public Sphere theory, examines how the Nigerian Television Authority,NTA, the public broadcaster for Nigeria treats the ethnic minorities of the country. A qualitative analysis of the station’s network news is undertaken for the examination. With a political economy approach, this essay will show that under representation and stereotyping are the standard fare when it comes to NTA’s news treatment of ethnic minorities. Minorities, who despite their relatively small number are part of Nigeria’s citizens and thus should be adequately served in all aspects by the NTA. The essay will conclude with recommendations regarding how the situation can be redressed.
THE MEDIA AS THE PUBLIC SPHERE
Critical to this review of Public Service Broadcasting and treatment of ethnic minorities is the Public Sphere Theory. Postulated by German Philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, the Public Sphere theory, deals with issues of inclusion and exclusion. For Habermas, the Public Sphere refers to an ideal space where the members of a society engage in rational critical discourse over matters of common concerns.Ultimately,the Public Sphere enables the formation of true public opinion, forged by the force of the better argument. In his 1962 work,translated in 1989 into English as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas traced the origins of the Public Sphere to the bourgeois haunts of seventeenth and eighteenth century European societies. He posits that as society evolved, the Public Sphere lost its exclusivity and has been so transformed that today, it is the press that can be seen as performing the Public Sphere function. This is an extremely valid position to take, bearing in mind that society has so evolved to the point where it is impossible to gather all or most of its members physically in one space at the same time.
Much as the idea of the Public Sphere has been widely cherished, in view of its bearing on democracy, debates continue to abound regarding the possibility of its true realization. A key area of such debates has been the participatory aspect or inclusiveness of the Public Sphere. There is a strong concern about whether a Public Sphere can truly accommodate all interests in a society, bearing in mind the complexities increasingly observable in modern societies. For Nancy Fraser, if the concept of the Public Sphere is to be accepted strictly in line with Habermas’ postulations, then it is promoting domination as a utopian ideal. She asserts that that Habermas’ single Public Sphere is too exclusive, as it is restricted to upper-class, well-educated propertied men. Instead of an over-arching Public Sphere, Fraser proposes what she terms “subaltern counterpublics”. These are forums that would enable those whose voices would not necessarily be audible in the larger Public Sphere of powerful men, to congregate and discuss matters related to their own welfare. Fraser justifies the need for setting up such alternate arenas for minorities by pointing out that “history records that members of subordinated social groups- women, workers, people of color, and gays and lesbians have repeatedly found it advantageous to constitute alternative publics” (1996:67)
Similarly, Jim Mc Guigan talks of subordinate Public Spheres co-existing alongside the dominant types. This “sluice-gate” model of the Public Sphere which recognizes smaller ones takes into cognizance the need for minorities to air their views and be acknowledged. He however cautions that the use of new media by activist groups constituting subordinate Public Spheres is not entirely independent of the dominant Public Sphere which television represents. Mc Guigan takes the pains to enunciate that:
The anti-capitalist movement’s use of alternate and new media,for instance, must be seen in relation to its controversial appearance in the official public sphere of older media where television is of central importance. That is how the sluice-gate model of the public sphere works. Critical issues are generated outside dominant networks of meaning and power,putting issues onto official public sphere agendas that would not otherwise be there (2002:111-112)
Mc Guigan’s submission shows that the mass media can be a truly effective Public Sphere, when it gives publicity to matters that tend to be generally ignored. This means that minority views and issues can achieve a much broader prominence, so far as the media is alive to its function as a public sphere.
The Public Sphere theory correlates with the holistic strength of the political economy approach to media studies. David Hesmondhalgh cites Peter Golding and Graham Murdoch as noting that political economy approaches “ engage with basic moral questions of justice equity and the public good” (2007:33). This approach is thus the most apt for this essay and it is the one adopted for it.
BROADCAST NEWS AND THE PUBLIC SPHERE
If there is one broadcast programme genre that attracts the interest of all, regardless of class or taste, it has to be the news. No matter how fleeting, attention is given by all adults in the vicinity, to a part of a bulletin on a broadcast station. We tend to trust the news to give us accurate and up-to-date information about the world we live in.
The consideration of Public Service Broadcasting as a public good further confers on its news a legitimacy which stimulates interest and public trust. Public Service Broadcasting news is generally regarded as a collective experience for the nation. The unifying nature of the public broadcaster’s news is attested to by Michael Tracey when he states that the news “is the moment when the public broadcaster speaks to and for the nation. It is almost invariably a successful audience puller for the national broadcaster” (1998:270). This statement is in line with his earlier premise that the very nature of the public broadcaster is “to nurture the public sphere as a means of serving the public good” (1998:29). The news can thus be a vehicle for promoting the public good, since it addresses the various members of the audience as citizens with a common stake in national affairs. It is thus to be expected that these citizens all get fair and equal treatment in the news and the same access to it, since the news is seen as heightening the public sphere function of the medium. This issue of access for all is highlighted by Peter Dahlgren when he observes that “Our sense, of who we are, to ourselves and to others, takes on relevance for the public sphere because it shapes the way in which we participate and may well determine if we participate or not” (1995:22-23). Dahlgren states further that “television news must be made to matter to a wide variety of subcultures in modern society, inviting divergent readings and social interaction” (1995:51)
In the light of these submissions, it is evident that television news, particularly from the public broadcaster has the capacity to broaden the Public Sphere, or shrink it, if it so chooses.
ETHNIC MINORITIES IN NTA NEWS.
The Nigerian Television Authority, NTA, is the public service broadcaster in Nigeria. Funded by government subvention and advert revenues, NTA has at least a station in each of the 36 states that make up Nigeria. NTA on its website,www.nta.org.ng, describes itself as “ the national television network for the people for Nigeria” thus aiming at enabling national integration. This aim is profound considering that this most populous African nation of 150 million people is made up of over 200 ethnic groups, with just 3,the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa ,forming the majority. Members of these majority tribes have rotated the leadership of the country amongst them since independence in 1960, till “fate” changed this order of things, in May,2010,with Goodluck Jonathan( an ethnic minority),succeeding his boss, Umar Musa Yar,adua,who had succumbed to ill-health.
NTA’s integration aim becomes even more daunting, when one considers the fact that over half of Nigeria’s population do not speak the nation’s official language of English. Indeed each ethnic group has its own language, very different from that of others. Dennis L.Wilcox rightly observes that:
African media derive their impetus not from the tradition of defending individual civil liberties but from the felt need to harness for national liberation and then national integration. The latter is particularly relevant since many diverse groups found themselves in the same nation due to arbitrary boundaries set by the European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1855. In most cases, the criteria in establishing boundaries were geographical and mutually agreed colonial spheres of influence rather than ethnic groupings (1975:31)
Wilcox’ observation is indeed accurate as far as Nigeria is concerned, in that many of its ethnic groups seem not to have much in common, apart from Negroid features. A public broadcaster in such a complex society, obviously has a great challenge in forging an all –inclusive Public Sphere. This challenge is attested to by Mustapha Abdul Raufu’s comment that “Nigeria is a federation with very strong unitarist elements in its constitution and operation; the concentration of powers in the centre is cause for both instability and disaffection” (2003:21). The concentration of power in the centre can be noticed in the administration and operations of NTA. Though the station claims to have over one hundred local stations across Nigeria, the functional ones are less than half that number. Moreover, the functional ones act more like relay stations, as they are perpetually hooked to the main programming coming from NTA’s headquarters in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja. This concentration of NTA,s programming in the centre, strongly impacts on its news productions which are supposed to be meant for all Nigerian citizens, including its ethnic minorities.
QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS OF NTA’S NEWS
Access to NTA’S news productions can be quite an uphill task due to the fact that the station’s website does not contain such materials, in fact its online service is virtually moribund. However, a website, www.africast.tv from time to time showcases one or two bulletins of NTA. One of such bulletins is thus used for the qualitative analysis which follows.
A 60 minute NTA news broadcast of October 5, 2009 had 30 news items. The news was broadcast from NTA’s headquarters in Abuja to all parts of the country. It had 17 stories dealing with activities revolving round the nation’s President. In fact, there was an interview that lasted for 16 minutes with a political analyst who was praising the President’s cleverness. 6 of the stories were foreign reports about places like Iran and Ethiopia. 2 of the stories were sports related. 1 story dealt with a book launch. Interestingly, the remaining 4 stories had to do with an ethnic minority group. However,the framing of the stories leave much to be desired considering the universality principle of public service broadcasting and the Public Sphere theory. The stories featured ‘militants’ in the nation’s Niger-Delta region responding to an amnesty offer by the President. One of the stories was introduced with this line by the news anchor “The President has won the battle against militancy in the Niger-Delta without firing a single shot” The 4 reports were all centered around the issue of militancy to the extent that a viewer in another part of Nigeria will come to associate the ethnic minority in the region with militancy and nothing more. Indeed, this particular ethnic minority known as Ijaw, hardly makes it into NTA bulletins except in connection with the militancy of some of its aggrieved youths. This under representation and stereotyping of the Ijaw ethnic minority by NTA has resulted in other ethnic groups having just a single story, that of violence, about this particular ethnic minority. Wendy Rogovin has pointed out that “minority voices need to be heard and allowed to influence the majority culture “ (1992:53) But how can NTA enable this suggestion with only a one-sided depiction of ethnic minorities? NTA’s tendency towards negative stereotyping becomes even more disturbing when one considers this other comment by Rogovin that “We have ceased to question the role of television in shaping our society, and have come to accept as true, the view of the world given us on television”
It must be noted that as customary, this bulletin will be translated later in the evening by some local stations for the benefit of non-speakers of English. Reviewing NTA’s news translations, Mustapha AbdulRaufu cites Okon Essien as noting that “translation of national network news on the national television are done in the three major languages” (2003:20) This means that quite a substantial number of Nigerians will not be able to access the news as many of them are ethnic minorities who do not understand any of the three major languages. The preferential treatment of ethnic majorities by NTA news productions is further confirmed by Oluwole Oyetade who recalls that “ some time ago it was customary for newscasters on National Television to symbolically greet their viewers “goodnight “ in the three major languages at the conclusion of the 9 o’clock news. This was fiercely opposed by speakers of minority languages and the practice was consequently abandoned” (2003:109). Still, restricting the news translations to just the three major languages ,shows that NTA still has a lot of ground to cover, if it is to be an encompassing Public Sphere, truly inclusive of ethnic minorities.
To conclude, one can begin with the statement made by Paul J.Traudt that more recent researches on agenda setting reveal that “ news agenda setters not only tell audiences what topics to think about but what to think about in terms of those topics” (2005:172). This revelation naturally invokes a consideration of the values that drive those involved in news production particularly in a public broadcasting setting. These values according to Peter Golding and Phillip Elliott are the “guidelines for the presentation of items, suggesting what to emphasize, what to omit and where to give priority in the preparation of the items for the presentation to the audience” (1999:118). Relating these scholars’ views to the news production ethos of NTA, a bias towards promoting a stereotyping of ethnic minorities is evident.
This issue of the values of the news producers at NTA, forms the basis for the first recommendation this essay will make, taking a political economy approach, toward making NTA a true Public Sphere. The recommendation is that more ethnic minorities should be elevated to positions of authority in NTA. In addition, more ethnic minorities need to be involved in the production of the national news as reporters, sub-editors, producers and the like. The NTA news bulletin reviewed for this essay showed that most of the contributing reporters were from the three major ethnic groups; this makes essential the inclusion of more minorities. Georgina Born speaks of the need for inter-cultural communication, which is about minority groups speaking to the majority and to other minorities. Born states that “ it is not enough to represent a diversity of viewpoints or cultures in terms of content produced without attending to diversity and inclusion at the level of practice “ (2005:112).So far,NTA not only fails to provide diverse view points but also limits inclusion, and both need to be critically addressed.
Furthermore, there is the need for greater de-centralisation of NTA’s operations, particularly its news productions. The local stations should be empowered to be more than just relay stations. These stations should be made to connect at a much deeper level with the ethnic minorities in their coverage areas, particularly with regard to the translations of the national news.
It is also recommended that ways be found to make NTA more independent of government and by extension, the ruling party, if the organization is to be a viable Public Sphere. This is crucial since Nigeria’s rulers always come from the ethnic majority and since NTA is largely funded by government, the organization will tend to serve the interests of the ethnic majorities more. This recommendation is in line with Alhassan Abubakar’s submission that:
In a country like Nigeria where the bulk of broadcasting is still supposedly public-owned but government monopolized,any initiative aimed at learning from the new BBC Charter must begin with legal reforms that will guarantee independence of both the governing and regulatory bodies from the executive and secured funding while ensuring adequate parliamentary oversight and accountability through mechanisms like the audience councils established in the new charter (2007:1)
Indeed, efforts must be made to make NTA live up to the concept of public ownership. A step in this direction will be encouraging inputs and feedbacks from viewers, across the length and breadth of the country. These viewers who are citizens vital to the Public Sphere NTA is supposed to serve, should have a say in the station’s output. The necessity of the public’s participation matches the recommendation given by Jay G. Blumler and Wolfgang Hoffman Riess that “ those who run and provide television and radio should continually be exposed to feedback expressive of the interests of viewers and society as a whole and be encouraged to take account of it” ( 1992: 28). Heeding this advice will surely augur well for the functioning of NTA as an ideal Public Sphere, serving Nigeria and its citizens. By: Oladeinde Falase. (M.A. Communications Studies,Leeds) ([email protected])
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