Punch: Obasanjo, BBC, And Our bBrushes With Western Media

I have many issues regarding my constituency, the media, worth pointing out. I look in on them now to offload a few as I do from time to time. On September 11, 2017, former president Olusegun Obasanjo was on the BBC’s HARDtalk. Two points occurred to me as I watched the 4:30 am repeat broadcast of this personality interview programme. The first is Steven Sackur, the presenter, and his approach to this particular episode.

By the way, I enjoy HARDtalk. It’s rare for me to tune in and walk away without listening, especially when the questions catch my attention. I also think Sackur is good, he does his research and takes on his guests effectively, especially with his capacity to pack so many words in one breath. The only challenge is that the findings in his research and the questions emanating from them are often skewed in favour of the negatives, and are sometimes tailored to follow a specific narrative that he has made up his mind to pursue. I know this is common to news platforms, except that where the western media is concerned the angles focused on and emphasised in researches are decidedly shallow; I mean the research that provides the questions is one-sided, not comprehensive. Even the questions are asked with a distinctly condemning mien and tone especially by the two males, including Sackur, who have featured in the 20-year-old HARDtalk.

Why am I of this view? It’s typical of journalists from western countries, many of whom I have watched over the years, to be rigid about the narrative they have in mind in the course of an interview. Sometimes, this gives an interview a distinctly unlikeable tint from the perspective of the viewer who is sympathetic to the interviewee or is interested in learning something new from the interviewee. The latter isn’t just afforded the opportunity to give his own side of the story under such unfavourable circumstances. I also conduct interviews, but I do with the mentality that I’m engaging the interviewee in a conversation, expecting to be enlightened myself, even as my readers are enlightened. I want to enjoy the conversation, the insight, soak in the information for other uses, rather than sit as a judge, condemning my interviewee with tone and mien. In fact, the most I do during interviews is to get my interviewee excited to respond better with the manner I frame questions, engaging him in such a way that he feels comfortable to be forthcoming.

I don’t always see this in the interviews of some journalists from western countries. A former male presenter of HARDtalk had been accused on air by a First Lady that he was sounding like he was judging her, intimidating her even. I agreed, because in the said interview I noticed that the presenter had a posture, mien and tone that were condemning. There was this general ambience that he was asking questions and condemning the interviewee at the same time. Presenters from western countries do this mostly to interviewees who have received some measure of bad press. What this means is that the presenter has made up his mind that the interviewee is guilty and he’s not keen to give benefit of the doubt to whatever the interviewee wants to say that may even be new, informative and insightful. I noticed this in the interview Sackur had with Obasanjo.

I don’t submit here that this former Nigerian leader did all he could have done in office. I would be the last person to state that a politician is perfect, because what fascinates me the most about people in power, makes me laugh heartedly, and regularly incorporated into my prose fiction and drama pieces, are the strange things that politicians do and get away with. Yet, I won’t sit down in an interview believing that the information that I find in the course of my research is all there is to it. I would be interested in knowing the other angle to the story, and this would be obvious in my tone and my questions. All of that was missing in how Sackur argued the responses Obasanjo tried to give regarding his action while he was in office. It was as if Sackur was convinced that everything he picked up from his research must be the correct piece of information, and Obasanjo was just there to listen to the proven allegations against him.

The second point that I noticed was how Obasanjo reacted to the questions, especially those that had to do with his time as the President. He was measured in his tone and responses, consciously keeping his hands to himself, a thing that I do when I’m being interviewed too. But his unruffled voice and face lasted until questions turned to his time in office and Sackur began to talk as though what he found recorded in the print media was unquestionable truth. Well, Obasanjo managed to explain his own version regarding such issues to the extent his interviewer allowed him. I wasn’t surprised he showed mild impatience at one stage because, as it was obvious to any viewer, Sackur wasn’t interested in any view that’s different from his own narrative. The former President conducted himself well on that occasion though, and I gave him a pass mark that I was convinced he deserved in that outing. And, wait for this, when Sackur shook hands with him at the end of the programme, Obasanjo said, “Steven, it’s a pleasure to be here with you.” He had the right mentality towards it all. Journalists from the western world need to adjust theirs, and do away with this stereotypical negative narrative about anything from outside the West.

Sometimes, I wonder how far some in the western news media would push the bar. On January 1, 2017, the CNN did something that had not particularly been changed since that date. In “State of the Union’, a discussion programme, the panel of four discussants were made to sit with their back to the camera, backing TV audience. The presenter was the only person that faced the camera. I find this odd, but it also occurs to me that the CNN may be pushing the border of correctness in TV journalism further. For instance, it’s one of the TV stations that come up with the use of the names of presenters as names of programmes, thus creating brands that are unique. There is “Quest Means Business”; “Best of Quest”; “Quest Express” that are anchored by Richard Quest, the CNN’s presenter with a peculiar manner of presentation. There is “Amanpour”, presented by Christiane Amanpour; “Political Mann”, by Jonathan Mann; “Wolf”, presented by Wolf Blitzer; “Anderson Cooper 360”, by Anderson Cooper; “Erin Burnett Upfront”, by Erin Burnett. It is good, but I notice that not too many TV stations are replicating this in Nigeria, possibly because they want to retain a hold on the brand of their programme, not one that a presenter will be able to take away when he chooses to leave. Lagos-based AIT is somewhat different though. It has “Moneyline with Nancy”, by Nancy Nnaji, which I think is most deserving by this young lady who has paid her due in the industry.

I feel the same should be done to Gbenga Aruleba’s “Focus Nigeria”, a discussion programme. The reason is that most Nigerians talk about “Gbenga Aruleba’s programme”; they hardly remember the name of the programme itself. I fall into this category. This in itself goes to show how many of our colleagues have stamped themselves on the programmes they anchor. I have also noticed how much room the CNN allows its presenters to express themselves. Such gives these presenters the opportunity to be creative, and it has translated into the kind of super-confident TV presenters that we watch and enjoy on that station, compared to others. Quest and Amanpour get away with many unusual manoeuvres which add life to their presentations, captivate the audience, and break barriers in TV presentation as we know it. For instance, Amanpour went with her son, Darius, who interviewed refugees in Jordan who were in his age group on February 22, 2017. I do think the BBC should do the same for its journalists such as Lyse Doucet, Yalda Hakim, a favourite of mine, as well as Steven Sackur. They’re worthy as brand names for the BBC programmes.