Saturday, 10 March 2012

Doing the Right Things in the Wrong Way

Harry Houdini, the great illusionist and contortionist wrote a book called The Right Way to do Wrong, in which he exposed the many ways by which criminals took advantage of their victims. If that most famous magician were to visit Ghana today he would have to write a new book entitled Doing the Right Things the Wrong Way in celebration of our famous ability to turn our blessings into curses. Ghana sometimes looks like a person who has who has all the winning lotto numbers but comes away empty handed because of wrong permutations.

Look at our media scene: when I returned to Ghana after living abroad for several years I could not get enough of our media. I grew up during the lean media years when we had one television channel, two radio stations and about four newspapers and the whole lot belonged to the government which controlled them with excessive jealousy. The contrast between then and now could not be starker. Instead of a handful of media outlets the country is now littered with perhaps more than 20 daily, weekly and bi-weekly newspapers being published regularly, more than 100 FM radio stations and a score of television stations and the number is set to rise dramatically when the analogue platforms gives way to the new digital system.

Indeed, my returnee feeling was that to wake up and be able to switch channels and listen to different voices and viewpoints was like a dream from which you just didn’t want to wake up. I don’t think it is just my imagination, but I remember good arguments on radio and TV, especially on morning shows of various descriptions. Television was especially lively and provided different insights; especially the format of GTV’s Breakfast Show on Saturday was brilliant both in creative setting and content. Newspapers were more propaganda oriented and partisan but less bombastic.

But the problem with the media today is not the partisanship and propaganda. Regrettable as that may be it is to be expected in a multiparty plural system in which to win is everything but to lose is zero. Today, what we see in Ghana is a parody of a plural media. The media scene has all the noise of a marketplace without any quality offering to justify the sacrifice of reading, listening and watching. To put it bluntly, our media has regressed over the past few years, and what is worse, it appears that those who run them are unaware or do not care that this is the case. 

A key feature of the media scene in the last decade is the accessibility to every Kofi and Amma who wants to express himself and herself to the rest of the world. Twenty years ago only professional broadcasters, journalists, public officials and such like had guaranteed access to the media. Today, anyone who has a mobile phone or can borrow one can participate in the big media jamboree. This should be a good thing, except it is not. Indeed, that is a classic example of Ghanaians turning positives into their woeful opposites.

Indeed, to understand the full impact of this mass access to the media, especially radio, one has to explain that it is not the rapid spread of telephony that has created the access but the massive use of local languages on radio in the country. Ghanaian languages have been used on radio even before Independence but it was a deliberate policy of the Nkrumah government to upgrade local languages that saw six of them used regularly in the early 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, as part of the general deterioration of the nation which took place under the Akyeampong regime, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation was starved of new investments into Ghanaian languages and the External Service.

However, with liberalization came new ideas, and the revival of Akan use on radio is generally credited to the University of Ghana’s campus radio, Radio Universe, and Professor Kofi Agyekum of the Department of Linguistics at Legon. By the mid 2000s, Akan had been established as the main radio language in the country while the use of other languages had increasing listenership.

This should be a good thing except that once again, a good thing is being used in a wrong way. In the last few years, everyone and every group that can voice displeasure at the violence of language in political “discussions” has had their say. The President, Vice President, Members of Parliament, Chiefs, the Clergy of all persuasions, and us ordinary folks, have all said very loudly that we are not happy with the way and manner in which political “discussions” are carried on in the media especially radio.

Two things have to be addressed. The discerning reader would not have failed to notice that the word discussion in the previous paragraph is in commas because what passes for discussions, say on morning radio, is nothing of the sort. The studio participants or discussants are mostly propagandists from the NDC and NPP who vehemently espouse and defend prepared positions at the cost of their lives. They provide the setting for everything else that happens in the course of those broadcasts as their followers then rush in like soldier ants to defend their respective battlements. No one changes his or her mind ever in these encounters!

This is all normal fodder for democracy. What is not normal for either democracy is the second point, which is the open glamorisation of personal insults. In a spirited democracy, insults are to be expected but they are often crafted creatively to address positions adopted or stated by the opponent instead of the opponent as a person. However, when the President is described in highly unflattering personal terms as every President of Ghana has been subjected to, that cannot be part of democracy.

Sadly, many people are beginning to question the wisdom of our opting for democracy, and most of them do so believing that the insults on radio are a necessary development of democracy. Some, including many well-placed people in our society think that this insult thing is a problem of the media. It is not. It is a reflection of the general indiscipline that is gradually engulfing all of us. There are no standards in anything anymore in this country. Everything is relative and down to the individual’s personal choice and this includes the option to obey any rules at all.

We all know the dangers inherent in loose talk on radio; there are too many examples from around the world, including Rwanda in Africa, to remind us that we have a responsibility not to overstep the mark. However, some people believe that we are hell-bent on pressing the self-destruct button. I am inclined to a more optimistic view. We are going through a phase and it will pass, but there are so many flashpoints along the way that we may self-destruct before we get to the better destination.

Harry Houdini used to make large objects disappear in front of live audiences so if he was here I would ask him which pack he would cause to evaporate – politicians or the media. Let us explore the solutions together next week in this column. In the meantime, if you have any ideas send them to the email or blog address below.

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