This way for editorial terror? By Olakunle Abimbola

There is an intriguing paradox in the control mix — of power, authority, legitimacy and influence.

Power barks and growls.  Yet, it is the most impotent, of all four, especially  when misapplied.  Influence, on the other hand, is muted.  But when deftly applied, it is the most potent.

Authority and legitimacy, mid-points in the continuum, belong to the realm of delegations.

Authority is the formal seal to wield power, which the ruled invest in the ruler.  Legitimacy is the “holding brief”, which the ruled retain, but are content to lend the ruler, until (s)he starts acting outside the agreed brief.

So, what’s this — some Tuesday morning voyage in power philosophy?

No.  Just clear though disturbing musing on emotive framing of media investigations, when the subject is safeguarding media power and influence.

The specific object of musing is “Recession: Governors lavish billions of Naira on bulletproof cars for selves, wives,” a story published in the Saturday Punch of September 24.

With all due respect to the conceiving and publishing editors, that was one story that could do with more clinical detachment, against base emotional outpouring.

The culprit, it is clear, is the editors’  failure to distinguish between the legitimate duty of the state to secure whoever is governor; and wayward governors that misapply public funds.

“Pouring editorial fire on crooked politicians”, may well be a laudable tradition with the crusading press, dating back to the evolution of the press, as a social cleanser, in the United States and Europe.  But such crusades are driven by facts — hardly on rumours and hearsay.

So, proceeding from a conceptual mix-up to build a sensational reportage on what, at best, even from the story’s offering, was glorified hearsay, borders on nothing but editorial terrorism.

Editorial terrorism abuses public and sacred trust to injure fellow citizens. It is bad for the polity.  It is bad for the media.  It is bad for everyone in the democratic space.

But why this seeming column excoriation of a rival newspaper?  Peer envy, aimed at de-marketing a competitor?  Certainly not.

Abuse of column space, just as Ripples claims the editors did of a sacred trust?  Neither!

The reason, however, is simple, even if the chore is unpleasant: to protect a polity and preserve a legacy.  More presently, on preserving a legacy.

Now, protecting a polity.  In February 1976, a certain Murtala Muhammad, then military head of state, was shot dead in cold blood, at Ikoyi, Lagos. Even with the instinct of a callow secondary school boy back then, Ripples scoffed at Murtala’s rashness as an impulsive messiah.  But many Nigerians roared their approval.

Forty years down the line, Ripples remains unconvinced — and with good hindsight too!  Indeed, even as Murtala’s tactical manoeuvres elicited roaring approval, they condemned vital institutions of state — especially the civil service — to strategic ruin, still plaguing the polity.

Still, Nigerians back then approved, in their thousands.  So, what then might have happened, had the Murtala government taken Gen. Muhammad’s personal security much more professionally?

Perhaps the brave soldier would not have fallen by Buka Sukar Dimka’s subversive bullets.  Perhaps the story of Nigeria would have been entirely different.  Perhaps the present ruins would have been averted.  Perhaps …

A thousand perhaps — and to safeguard only one life — whether in prosperity or adversity!

That single fact underscores the conceptual naivety, with all due respect to the editors, of this Saturday Punch story.  And the ringing illogic: because hunger rules the land, the state must shirk its duty to its high officials!

Besides, which loyal servant of state would disclose strategic information about its fleet of armoured vehicles?

And with scant any authoritative voice, do you now build your story on the soto voce — a story that clearly attempts to criminalize legitimate security spends, on the altar of cheap populism; and demonize governors, many of whom, even among the mentioned, may well be innocent of the charges?

Talking of gubernatorial demonization, the case of The Punch versus Osun Governor, Rauf Aregbesola, bobs up again!  For the umpteenth time, Aregbesola is leaping off the Punch black books!

Now, is the newspaper in earnest this time round? Or is this yet another example of a disturbing pastime of editorial terrorism, against Aregbesola and his government?

When Osun declared the Islamic New Year as work-free — a lawful and legitimate action by the 1999 Constitution — The Punch, in no time, dubbed the governor a gubernatorial mullah.  So did it when Christian-Muslim dispute arose over the hijab, as school uniform complement.

When it was time to demonize a few over the salary crisis — a mere symptom of a grave economic meltdown — the newspaper led the virtual Aregbesola lynch crowd.

Why, even Ben Murray-Bruce, the “common sense” senator from Bayelsa, drove himself into a falsetto, chirping merrily about donating part of his National Assembly bounties to feed starving Osun civil servants!

Now, it so happens: Murray-Bruce’s Bayelsa can’t pay its workers, but good old Benny has lost his sweet voice!  Are there no “starving” civil servants in Bayelsa, and shouldn’t charity begin at home?

Still, in the midst of the economic crisis, it is the much-lampooned Osun that sets the pace for others in social and physical infrastructure, a feat seemingly beyond the reach of even oil-rich Bayelsa!

Now, it is the gubernatorial armoured car campaign!  But given the story’s watery conception, with all due respect, would it be right to suppose it is yet another mega-garb, for the newspaper’s ready victims of editorial terror, among whom Aregbesola is prime candidate?

But why is even this a columnist’s headache, since Ripples is no spokesperson for any of the governors, even if he is, for the umpteenth time defending Aregbesola’s right to media fairness?

That returns the discourse to preserving a legacy.

Since 1859, the Nigerian press has earned a reputation for speaking out against any form of oppression, no matter the Leviathan from which it comes.

James Bright Davies, owner-editor of Nigerian Times (later Times of Nigeria) went to prison twice, for crusading against British colonial greed. That was in the 1910s.

Herbert Macaulay leveraged his Lagos News (later Lagos Daily News) as Lagos natives’ bulwark against colonial oppression, in land and water rate affairs, among many other agitations.  Its audacity soon earned the newspaper the unflattering elite moniker of “Lagos Daily Rag”!  That was in the 1920s.

Much closer, the military era stiff media challenge, against military feudalists, starred the likes of The News, Tell, The Guardian, The Punch itself and National Concord, among others.  All these were well acclaimed epochal feats, for which the Nigerian press earned due plaudits.

It is under this rubric of editorial crusading that The Punch may have positioned its armoured car story — no crime!

But to preserve this great legacy, the newspaper must strive at hard facts.  Otherwise, it risks chipping away at a reputation, built on patent good faith over 157 years, because of conceptual haziness.

Otherwise, the Nigerian press may well resign itself to thrusting raw power but losing real influence.