When a journalist asked Mr. Femi Fani-Kayode, a former minister with immense political capital, a simple question during a press conference, all Nigerians saw the lack of respect with which those in the upper class can treat others.
The now viral vituperation of the PDP scion was not just a display of annoyance of a politician at a journalist.
It was a reaction of the privileged elite to the audacity of an ordinary Joe, who is normally expected to kowtow.
We should not see that spectacle as an outburst resulting from a strained professional relationship, but one that portrays class behaviour within the Nigerian society.
What we watched on video was a multi-billionaire, the son of a famous and illustrious family and a third-generation Cambridge-trained lawyer, who, when challenged by an unknown avarage Nigerian, needed to put the “nobody” in his place for not being subservient.
In an increasingly class-based and economically stratified country, it is only natural those in the working class, where journalists belong, would be disregarded and mistreated by the excessively rich members of the political class.
Mr. Fani-Kayode has been under the public glare long enough.
As a former minister, presidential assistant, opinionist and political highflier, he would have mastered the art of public engagement, and interaction with journalists. What upset him was what he considered disrespectful behavior.
In an increasingly class-based and economically stratified country, it is only natural those in the working class, where journalists belong, would be disregarded and mistreated by the excessively rich members of the political class
The former minister was holding a press briefing on August 25, 2020 in Calabar, about his own political tour when a reporter from the Daily Trust newspaper, Mr. Eyo Charles, asked how his nationwide inspection of state government projects was being “bankrolled”, ostensibly because Fani-Kayode is a private citizen.
The journalist got more than he bargained, as he was dressed down by Fani-Kayode. On camera, Fani-Kayode gave no answers but launched into a polemic.
If Fani-Kayode had been as urbane and cultivated as he would have us believe his Cambridge University education had endowed him, he would have shown some polish instead of ranting and shutting down the entire briefing.
What is a journalist to do when the pride, ego and sense of self-importance of the news source is excessive?
The nature of journalism grants reporters that room to ask any kind of question.
There are hardly good questions or bad questions.
There could only be bad answers.
Journalists attend interviews and press conferences with only one thing in mind – to gather news reports that are of public interest.
Good journalists do not set out to embarrass public officials; but if they end up doing so, the result is always worth it.
The onus is on news subjects to prepare to outwit the reporter, and Fani-Kayode did not.
The Columbia Institute of Journalism (CIJ), one of the best institutions for the training of journalists in the world, explains in its guide, “Sometimes a young reporter finds that posing the right question is difficult because the question might embarrass or offend the interviewee. There is no recourse but to ask.”
The journalist in this case, Eyo, did his job. He asked.
He may have been aggressive, but that is allowed.
The news source, a rich politician of the upper social strata, failed woefully.
The sense that his briefing was about public service was completely lost, as he demanded, “do you know who I am.”
The nature of journalism grants reporters that room to ask any kind of question
I have heard this question asked so many times everywhere in Nigeria – even by nobodies on the street.
It comes from people with a sense of self-importance. It means – you are nothing, and I am King Kong!
Fani-Kayode displayed to all Nigerians how pompous, arrogant and conceited many of his kind have become from unearned privilege.
Nigeria is gradually raising a caste system, where public conduct is devoid of humility and mutual-respect.
Money has become the language of interaction, to the extent that any pairing between people is weighed in cash, and the poorer must genuflect before the richer.
Let’s unpack what happened at the press briefing in Cross River, where Fani-Kayode bared his fangs without shame at the press.
Soon as the reporter asked who was “bankrolling” his junket, Fani-Kayode let loose until he decided the journalists before him were no longer worthy of his presence.
The journalist, Eyo, was confused, apologetic, cowed and bowed.
One heard him offering profuse apologies, more than was necessary even if he was wrong.
For effect, it was not just the journalist who was exuberantly regretful. His colleagues, the other reporters, were just as sorry, blaming Eyo for being so stupid to have asked such an important man a bold question.
Fani-Kayode wasn’t done.
He threatened the livelihood of the journalist, promising to peddle his influence to ensure Eyo’s employers issued him a pink slip.
Following the incident, the Daily Trust responded in support of their reporter, putting to rest any apprehension that Fani-Kayode carried any weight in their newsroom.
The Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) also issued a statement, condemning the inspector-general of PDP governors for his loss of temper at a simple question.
Fani-Kayode has since apologised.
The first apology was measured and ineffective. The second was more generous but was still measured.
The likes of Fani-Kayode will always stroll our social and political landscape, but fundamental issues have been raised that Nigerian journalists must address.
During the conference, the former minister allegorically alleged that Nigerian journalists do take bribes in form of brown envelopes from news sources.
Surprisingly, the NUJ’s press statement skillfully avoided this accusation.
The allegation presents Nigerian journalism with a moment of deep reflection.
Journalism acts as a watchtower, protecting the best interest of the people against the powerful, whose decisions affect a multitude of lives
Self-evaluation is always a requirement for improvement.
That allegation itself is more serious than the attack on the reporter.
It requires investigation, introspection and a humble reply.
The apologies to Fani-Kayode by reporters at the briefing is strange.
What was on their mind when they apologised?
It was reporters who should have been enraged and demanding an apology.
It is possible that at that event in Calabar, journalists were sorry because of the brown envelope that could be withdrawn.
It is also possible that journalists were sorry because a generous godfather was unhappy.
Journalists have such an important role to play in national development that we cannot have a band of reporters who have no cojones at any event.
Journalists cannot cozy up to power if they must uncover the truth.
One of Nigeria’s brightest journalists, Mr. Bayo Onanuga, a co-founder of TheNEWS, made this point when he stated: “Journalism is not meant to make the environment cozy for leaders of nations, it is meant to prod them to act in the interest of the larger society: it is meant to cause them sleepless nights”
Journalism acts as a watchtower, protecting the best interest of the people against the powerful, whose decisions affect a multitude of lives.
Journalism, according to the American Press Institute, should “offer voice to the voiceless,” with “a responsibility to improve the quality of debate by providing verified information and intellectual rigor.”
Fani-Kayode missed an opportunity to provide facts, to inform and to help the Nigerian citizens decide if his very reason for holding the press briefing was credible and legitimate.
Corrupt public officials will prey on journalists either by verbal attacks or financial inducements until the employers of our journalists rise up to their calling
Journalists may be poor in cash, and may even appear poor in appearance, but they have a privilege derived from the right of people in every society to receive information that enables them to make informed decisions.
Corrupt public officials will prey on journalists either by verbal attacks or financial inducements until the employers of our journalists rise up to their calling.
It is a fact that many media houses do not pay their journalists regularly.
As I write, there are journalists who have not been paid for several months.
Media houses that pay at all do not always pay decent salaries.
Many owners leave journalists to the mercy of new sources who offer bribes for publishing reports.
Pay-for-play journalism makes all of us poor morally and materially.
We cannot continue to do quid pro quo in public affairs reporting.
Journalists attend news events under difficult circumstances, making it to the venue in public transportation or on hungry stomach, at times.
Some are unable to go to work without borrowing.
It is a problem that has gotten worse.
When I was a news reporter, a friend once remarked those attendees of a conference or seminar not properly dressed on television were often journalists.
By it, he meant the most haggard-looking at public events were journalists.
He was not entirely wrong.
Nigeria cannot afford to have any journalist who is not paid a salary, who is not properly trained and or who lacks the resources that would make him or her stand up to power.
It is a matter the professional bodies, journalism schools and media infrastructure owners cannot ignore any longer.
Journalism is not entertainment, nor opinion, advertising, talk or reality show.
Journalism is serious business that affects people’s lives.
The confidence of our journalists to go after public figures and extract reliable news must be strong.
The quality of our discourse and our insight into public affairs is enriched by news journalism.
It is when journalists are truly independent and equipped to do a good job that they can place the public good above personal benefits.
It is in the interest of every Nigerian to ensure people like Fani-Kayode are muted harshly and excoriated roundly when they bare their fangs in public.