Last night, a former working colleague and a buddy called me over the day’s events. The Ghana Journalists Association, GJA had just conducted an election and its outcome was surprising to many.
The favoured Presidential candidate who had conducted a professional campaign and has an impeccable professional record across multiple fields lost to a less favoured competitor. Due to the closeness of my friend to the losing candidate, I probed further from him what could have accounted for his candidate’s loss.
It was then that he confirmed what I had suspected: eligible voters were purportedly bribed to vote for the winning candidate (https://fb.watch/dVzONCtFIx/). Seriously?
We bemoaned how the Association by this single act had lost its moral gravitas to hold political office holders to a higher standard of accountability if its practitioners are guilty of the same crimes they so loudly decry. As the conversation progressed, he reminded me of an incident that set my mind thinking. He reminded me of a pronouncement I had made during an editorial team meeting where I had declared that “I am a socialist”.
He pointed out that he was very concerned about my claim knowing the political orientation of some of the team members who were present and the high likelihood that my statement would be weaponized. He was sure that pronouncement would not only be garnished and reported to operatives at the Jubilee House, the seat of government, it could also account in some measure for the woes I suffered soon after as the Director-General of GBC. I sat down quietly after the telephone conversation to reminisce over the encounter.
This reflection, if I may call it so, is more an attempt to clarify to myself what I could have meant by that pronouncement “I am a socialist”, and for what purpose? It was on the 31st of December 2017, and I had assembled all the senior editors in the radio and television newsrooms to a brainstorming session at Barclays Link, one of our conference rooms.
As the D-G and Editor-in-chief of GBC, I had begun the administrative process of merging the three newsrooms: radio, television and the newly refurbished GBConline, into one. The meeting was my way of sizing up their professional and operational preparedness as well as make a personal pitch for them to assimilate and own the merger. At the meeting, I reminded my team about how scarce resources get dissipated through duplication and how there was a compelling need cut down waste and cohere our editorial processes to stay efficient as well as reflect our national character and public service mandate.
I argued that as a state-owned broadcaster aiming to transition into a public service, we served many publics, including minorities and we owed it to our viewers/listeners/readers to reflect this diversity in our bulletins. To reinforce and illustrate my point, I cited an example where a recent GBC radio news story from a village in the Volta region failed to lead the day’s bulletin.
The compelling story was about the debilitating effects of rural-urban migration on nuclear families, the slums it created in the cities as a concomitant and the growing population of vulnerable rough sleepers that gave the phenomenon expression. I questioned why such a powerful human-interest story, done at great human, technological and economic cost, reported live and insitu, failed to lead the day’s bulletin? Instead, a story of the President inspecting a change of military colours in front of the Jubilee House was the lead story.
I argued that for reasons of impact, inclusion and relevance, the story about the impact of rural girls migrating into the cities was far more compelling and qualified to lead the day’s bulletin rather than the pointless, predictable one which merely reported the president inspecting military men go through a military ritual.
I strongly encouraged them to avoid the habit of making the president’s story lead the bulletin at whatever cost. I told them that the president’s story should henceforth, pass more than the news determinant of personality and that they should feel confident to justifiably drop the president’s story as a headline knowing that I was there to cover their back.
It was within this context of unpacking the obligations of a public service broadcaster and our mandate to serve minorities through inclusive programming that I might have spoken about my socialist orientation. What my friend did not know, and I did not disclose was that a few hours after the meeting, a minister of state called me to enquire if it was true that I had ordered that the president’s stories should not lead the bulletin?
As a communication and media practitioner/scholar who is embedded within the political economy tradition, my socialist gravitation should come as little or no surprise. More importantly, I also inferred from that declaration that as an ideal, PSB’s lodestar is socialist in vision.
I will outline a couple of reasons to buttress this point, guided by Mazrui’s poignant observation that “socialism is both an ethic of distribution and an ideology of development” (“The Africans: A triple heritage”, 1986). By extension, it has an embedded logic of resource/wealth generation, management, and distribution, making it highly susceptible to great contestation over who gets to define the problem of the day, allocate social resources for its articulation and solutions, and to whose benefit?
Consequently, I am certain that I used the “I am a socialist” declaration as a heuristic to underline some critical pillars of PSB, and to direct my audience’s minds to the ideal’s “socialist” orientation. For this reflection, I highlight PSB’s critical characteristics of 1. universal access, 2. emphasis on reaching out to minorities, 3. preference for public finding, and more importantly, 4. its implicit assumption that it could serve as a public sphere for deliberation and social discourse formation.
One of the crucial characteristics of PSB according to UNESCO’s (2004) definition is its universal access. By this, PSB is mandated to have a “universal” geographical reach, meaning its signals should be available to all within the confines of the nation-state. This condition is to ensure that all citizens, in contrast to consumers, within the coverage of the nation-state have access to its signals and programs. This orientation is socialist in intent. But it is more so in practise.
This is because over time, universal access has gone beyond availability of signals to all, to include the capacity of citizens to participate in the formation of national discourse. This capacity is demonstrated not merely by having the economic means to purchase a television or radio set, but also having the needed competences to actively engage in media content/programs as active citizens.
It is obvious that once again, the nature of this access can only be engineered through legislation and policy, both of which fall within the bosom of the political elite and their state institutions. It is for this singular reason that subscription has been discouraged as a means of funding PSB. If I underlined the need for our editors to constantly bear in mind the universal trait of PSB, I was doing so to signify that more than its geographical reach, how PSB reflects the nation to itself through its programs is equally important.
This objective to “reflect and refract the nation” onto itself is embedded in the second characteristic that obliges PSB to cater to the programming needs of minorities within the nation-state. This feature outlines its multiple publics and serves as a constant reminder for it to remain inclusive through diverse programming.
It cautions PSB against one of its formidable foes: the appetite for market share instead of program reach. While the former conceptualizes its viewers as audiences and commodifies its programs for profit making, the latter sees its viewers/listens as citizens and assesses “success” not by how many people are watching each program, but by how diverse its audience are “over a period of time”.
This means that PSB must deem commodification that leads to a narrow scope of programming as a “vulnerable value [and] an implacable foe” (Blumler, 1982) and must endeavour instead to do programs that are relevant, topical, and inclusive. Central to achieving this important socialist imperative is how PSB is funded.
McChesney (1999) is right in pointing out that a PSB which is not funded by the public ceases to be so called. In preferencing public funding, typically through licencing, PSB is guaranteed of regular and predictable funding that enables it to plan and mount bold, controversial programming, insulated against market vagaries and political pressures. The attendant editorial and operational independence are intended to ensure that PSB is not beholden to the strong pulls of either the market or political forces but remain accountable to the public that fund it.
My socialist inclination will, therefore, be provoked if a PSB relies more on advertising and sponsorship than public funds as GBC does and, understandably, make every effort to rectify this maladjustment.
By sabotaging GBC’s efforts to collect TV licences in order to remain editorially and operationally independent, political actors and their institutional actors defanged the institution and starved it of critical resources that will enable it to compete with its commercial counterparts. The neoliberal motive for the sabotage becomes clearer if one squares it against government’s efforts to replace the duly legislated TV licence fee with a policy of digital access fee, a policy that will effectively transform free-to-air TV into a subscription service.
This neoliberal objective is not just an antinomy to the raison d’etre of PSB, it is also an existential threat to the “socialist orientation” and communal benefit of PSB as a free-to- air service. Because I devote significant time to this subject in a forthcoming article “To prosecute or not to prosecute: the instrumentalization of Ghana’s TV licence policy”, I will not belabour the point except to say that how PSB is funded is central to its conceptualization and operations as a “public sphere” (Habermas, 1989): a crucial deliberative space within a liberal, multiparty democracy.
Together, the above points underline PSB as both a communal service, and a great equalizer of all citizens of the nation-state. It is when it is perceived as a free, equally accessible, communicative space where participants engage in public/national discourse that its deliberative nature gains full expression, and its socio-political value gets highlighted.
By declaring myself as a socialist at this editorial meeting, I sought to unabashedly signal my political economic orientation as a media/communication scholar whose worldview of PSB is socialist and public interest in nature.
It is also for the above reasons that engender various forms of capture that the purported accusation of monetizing the election of a professional organization as the GJA should strike alarm bells for all who cherish media freedom and independence..
But it should also come as little surprise given that the media regulator, the NMC itself does not only have a chairman who is a representative of the President, thereby bastardizing the logic of insulating the state-owned media from political interference, it has increasingly shown signs of capture by the executive and its agents. Contrary to the law which forbids any commissioner from holding office beyond two terms of two years each, its current president is in his third term of office.
This is more than an illegality; it is also an abiding example of institutional arbitrariness and gives credence to the “politically paralleled” (Hallin and Mancini, 2004) image that continues to plague the institution lately. I am compelled, in conclusion, to restate Chaucer’s poignant question in the Canterbury tales: “If gold rust, what will iron do”? From all indications the fourth estate is under siege and should, therefore, alert us to the fact that if we are to reap democracy’s full benefits, its freedoms should be constantly defended through rigorous debate and advocacy especially within our democracy which is fast degenerating into a choiceless and illiberal variant.