I see that Ghanaian journalists are once more quarrelling about what good journalism is. An investigative journalist is being put on the carpet by some of his own colleagues who think he might have been “unfair” to people they know and trust as people of integrity.
Given the recent spate of revelations about how rotten our system of winning contracts and procuring materials for public services is, I am afraid I have little sympathy for those who criticise investigative journalists, for there is just too little investigative journalism about in our country.
If we had more of it, our country might just possibly save a lot of money before it is guzzled up by the systemic process of “create, loot and share” being uncovered regularly, almost by the day, and some of whose products simply beggar belief. Software to track mere pensions that cost $72m? What if the software had been meant to manage something as complex as super-fast share-dealing worldwide?
Currency trading? Commodity trading? Weather forecasting worldwide? It just makes one sick to think about how our country has been taken for a mug and taken to the cleaners by clever scammers. Even more annoying is the fact that a combination of weaknesses in our machinery for prosecution and a lack of will to punish “white-collar” crime, generally, means that the SSNIT and Jospong smart-alecs might not see the inside of a jail, ever.
I mean, who would have thought that bins and other rubbishy items which are needed in our smelly country, and whose procurement, one would have thought, would be regarded as a national duty by those entrusted with it, would, instead, provide a feeding trough for shell companies and their cleverly-masked subsidiaries, all bidding for the same contracts in order to make it appear that competitive bidding is taking place?
Woyome has proved that there is no smoke without fire: I wonder what the Ghana Journalists Association thought it was doing when in blissful indifference to the Woyome expose, it warned journalists to be careful whilst carrying out investigative journalism.
It should leave investigative journalists alone. If even with such journalists around, Ghana's money can be filched as rampantly, in broad daylight, as we are finding out on a daily basis, then what would happen if investigative journalists didn't exist or were muzzled?
Which brings me to a related question: who and what is a journalist, to begin with, before he/she specialises in investigative journalism?
I have related this story before, I am sure, but it is so crucial to journalism that it bears retelling. One fine day, I had to tackle this subject while I was waiting for some friends at the International Press Centre in Accra. Some student journalists from the Ghana Institute of Journalism – just next door – had come to sit near me and out of curiosity, I began to chat to them.
As someone who once taught “Creative Writing” to some students at the Institute, I was keen to find out what sort of human material the Institute was dealing with and shaping into “journalists” these days. So I introduced myself to them by name.
With a smile that was trying to indicate modesty, I made bold to ask them: “Has any of you ever heard that name before?”
They all looked blandly back at me.
I was incredulous. I asked, “You are student journalists and you have never heard the name of someone whose columns regularly appear in your newspapers twice a week?”
They still stared blankly at me. Or looked down at their feet – out of sheer embarrassment.
I moved on quickly, for the implications of what I was discovering were not exactly flattering. You mean all that work one does is not considered relevant enough to the courses being taught to these youngsters at the Institute for the columns to be brought to their attention?
Goodness – someone has bagged an M. Phil degree at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology by writing a thesis on one of my regular columns! Academics can see something in the columns, but not my fellow journalists?
Quickly moving on, I asked a general question: “So, what is the biggest story in Ghana today, as covered today's newspapers and by the radio stations?”
Not one of them gave me a convincing answer. For actually, they hadn't read the day's newspapers! Nor had they watched TV news or listened to the radio. And they were studying to become journalists!
I asked them, “So why do you want to become journalists?”
“It was one of the courses available to someone with my qualifications,” one said. In a matter-of-fact manner.
“I wanted to become a Famous Media Personality,” the only lady among them confessed.
At this stage, the old teacher in me was tempted to come to the fore. I said to them: The first thing you need to have if you want to become a journalist, is a sense of curiosity. Yet you have shown to me that you have not read today's newspapers. That suggests that you are not curious enough about what goes on in your own country!
“Listen, as a journalist, you must instinctively feel a strong and irresistible need to know what's happening in your Country, your Continent and The World. And you can only find out what's happening from the media. So, before you came to school today, you should have listened to the radio. And as soon as you got to school, you should have gone to the library to glance through the newspapers of the day (if available).
“If that type of exercise does not become habitual to you, then I am afraid you will never become a journalist, let alone a good one. Listen, journalism has taken me all around the world. So u are right to choose it, for it can be a very rewarding profession if you approach it the right way. But if you are not even interested enough in the day's news – in the broadest sense of the word – in your own country, how are you going to be able to communicate news and opinions to the readers of the newspapers you work for? Or the listeners to your radio station?
“When I was your age and working in the newsroom of Radio Ghana, one of the best attractions of the place was that it exposed us to the newspapers of the world. Foreign papers were flown to us by air so we could read reports from news fronts that were only one or two days old. Then we discussed what we had read. So if say, Reuters or AFP filed a story from any part of the world, we would be able to relate the story to some background facts the news agency might not have supplied.
“It was that curiosity about the world that took me to so many countries. The first places I went to were Egypt, the Lebanon and the Soviet Union. I passed through Rome, Zurich and Prague, without going into town. Even so, my imagination was fired by these brief touchdowns made whilst I was “in transit”.
The Soviet Union was then a country that was featured in the news almost on a daily basis. So I was curious about what sort of country it was and what the Russians were like as a people. We knew some Britons and Americans, but Russians? My curiosity about them was fever-high, and when I got there, I was not disappointed.
“Then I went to China. Next, I went to Britain, because, of course, Britain had been Ghana's colonial master and I wanted to know what sort of country it was that had had such an influence on my life. France, Germany, the United States, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and others followed. As for Africa, it's been like my doorstep -- from the Cape to Cairo. And it's all been driven by an innate curiosity.
“When you feel a need to find answers to the questions posed by the world around you, and then feel impelled by an urge to pass on to others, the answers you have found, then you are a journalist. But that's not all – you must also know how to tell a good story and tell it so well that people would not only want to read you for the information you impart but also, to enjoy reading what you write.
“Best of all, at the end of your story, the readers should feel that they would have liked to have some more from you! Like Oliver Twist!”