While media is considered as a fourth estate of the realm, it is also a part of the civil society arena which is well known to overlap other functional areas of democracy and governance. There are societies where antagonistic relationship between media and government facilitates a vital and healthy element of fully functioning democracies. In post-conflict or ethnically homogenous societies, a tension ridden relationship may not be appropriate, but the role of the press to disseminate information as a way of mediating between the state and all facets of civil society remains critical. So the press play different roles when viewed from different perspectives.
Metaphors are expressions used to conceptualise reality. They also explain how the social world and the identities and relations in this world are constructed. This also applies to journalism. The dog metaphor is used to explain the relationship between journalists and the society.
Media advocates, critics and scholars have used a variety of canine metaphors to describe the relationship between the media and other institutions in society. Dogs are used as a metaphor to explain the various ways journalists carry out their duties in the society. For instance, the guard dog metaphor suggests that the media performs its role as a sentry not for the community as a whole, but for groups having sufficient power and influence to create and control their own security systems. This perspective of journalism is derived from other perspectives, which include (a) the traditional fourth estate role of watchdog media, (b) the lapdog view of submissive media, and (c) the view of media as part of a power oligarchy. There’s also the watch dog perspective which sees the press a playing the crucial role of ensuring checks and balances in the society (their traditional function). There are some other dog metaphors (attack dog, guide dog, guard dog, junk yard dog) but the focus of this article is the lap dog perspective of journalism and how it is practiced by the Nigerian mass media.
The lap dog is a model of journalism where journalists are seen to be licking the hands of those in society with power. This kind of journalism is common in Nigeria. Most states have state correspondents of National and local newspapers on their payroll (monthly allowances) and this could affect objectivity especially while covering events or happening affecting the state government.
A typical example here is the recent event that took place in Ebonyi State where the Governor, David Umahi, said in a live broadcast held on Wednesday, April 22, that he had banned two journalists from the government house and from covering any government function. The journalists are Mr Chijioke Agwu of The Sun and Mr Peter Okutu of Vanguard Newspapers covering Ebonyi State for their respective organizations. Umahi said he was displeased with the leadership of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), for failing to discipline their members. The governor also said he would seize the allowances paid journalists working in the state for two months because he was unhappy with the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) for not disciplining their members. This incidents sparked outrage by several human right groups and other organization. Though a government official denied the broadcast a day after, the incident stirred outrage but also revealed an existing relationship with the press. Because the state government was paying journalists monthly allowance they expected them to remain lap dogs but that didn’t happen in the case of the Vanguard and The Sun reporters. So the state governor had to get angry and make a serious mistake against press freedom. This reflects the dangerous nature of lap dog journalism in Nigeria especially to the development of democracy.
Under the lapdog model, the journalists lack power to bite or hold public office holders accountable. The role the media play here is that of a civic booster. They are afraid of losing support of the elite they get advertisements from. This approach to journalism counters journalists’ self-proclaimed ‘watchdog’ responsibility. It suggests that news media are channels through which the agenda of the society’s elites are achieved. The media are accused of supporting and perpetuating the exploitation and social inequalities on which they profit under this model.
The basic tenets of the lapdog theory is captured in the following three assumptions. First, the news media do not have independent power so they rely on government, corporate and elite sources for both information and economic support. Second, journalists show neither understanding nor interest in the opinions, attitudes and information requirements of any other group other than those of society’s elite establishment. Third, the news media are characterized by a consistent argumentative and political bias to the benefit of these social and corporate authorities to the extent that they appear to act as their trained pooch. This is a disturbing approach to journalism which is detrimental to the success of democracies as the participatory and representative approaches which characterizes such systems is not upheld by the media.
Lap dog journalism is a dangerous trend which is evident among many journalists in Nigeria especially due to the growth of brown envelop syndrome in the media sector. Journalists move from the watchtower where they are playing the watchdog roles, to the junkyard, where blackmail, cheap publicity, beggarly reporting, lap dog and ‘gangster’ journalism are seen as means of survival by journalists. A situation where most media houses are not paying salary regularly or not even paying at all, and lap dog journalism becomes the order of the day because journalists wouldn’t want to offend their pay masters with reports such pay masters might view as ‘offensively’ even if they are actually objective. This is what has led to the growth of fake news in Nigeria and across the world.
Though welfare issues have been cited as a major reason for lap dog journalism in Nigeria, there is still no justification for this form of practice by journalists. In a country where journalists are lap dogs you cannot go to bed with both eyes closed because every sector will be in danger of being raided by corrupt office holders who are the masters of lapdog reporters. You cannot leave the elites and office holders entrusted with public treasury to their own devices. To do so is to court danger and disaster.
It is based on this postulation that society needs men and women of courage in such a noble profession as journalism. Nigerian journalists should be men and women of substance that report the truth and ready to always be the nation’s conscience. Society needs such men and women to shape and to direct national conversations, its policies and politics. Colonial and post-colonial Nigeria had a lot of such noble men and women in the media landscape.
Journalism is pivotal to the development of any nation. The Nigerian mass media should strive to adhere to the tenets of professionalism in the line of duty. In a democratic dispensation, journalism is the last hope of the nation. This underscores the need for the Nigerian mass media sector to clean itself up. It should look inward, self-question, retool itself and retrain its members, especially with a view to preventing the practice of lap dog and guard dog journalism. Media houses in Nigeria should also improve the welfare of their staff and ensure regular payment of salaries to journalists to facilitate adherence to the ethics of the profession.