Idle Chatter On Media Chat

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President Buhari at his maiden presidential media chat...recently
President Buhari at his maiden presidential media chat…recently

By Mahmud Jega

In case President Muhammadu Buhari intends to do many more media chats in the New Year, it is necessary for the State House to take one more look at the tapes from last week’s Media Chat, identify the strengths of the president’s outing with a view to reinforcing them and also identify the weaknesses with a view to ameliorating them.
It is not a shame to do a practice session before one appears on television, especially a live appearance with no chance to edit errors. I think it was John Dean who wrote in his book that US President Richard Nixon often spent 60 percent of his time preparing for major speeches and interviews. This is because, next to concrete actions, speeches determine a US President’s political fortunes as could be seen from instant opinion polls.
In his article published in Daily Trust on Sunday, Malam Garba Shehu boasted that the president decided to go over the heads of newspaper editors and speak directly to the people on radio and television. You see Malam Garba, communicating to the public over the heads of editors is both an opportunity and a risk. It is true that newspaper editors edit out most of the contents of a leader’s speech. You might speak for an hour and deliver what you regard as an important speech, only to see a three-paragraph report on it in the next day’s newspaper. Quite often they leave out of the story what you consider to be the most important part of the speech. Sometimes this is a reflection of journalists’ incompetence. On the other hand, newspaper editors have a good idea of what will interest their readers. If a leader delivers a long speech reeling out figures of roads he constructed or of alleged GDP growth figures, the editor may leave this out of the story because he knows readers will be bored by it.
Speaking directly to the people above the editors’ filter is risky unless you are very eloquent, cerebral, knowledgeable, have been well briefed on all the important issues of the day, have a good sense of your listeners’ thinking on the issues, when you can think quickly on your feet, and also when you are not prone to gaffes. Pierre Salinger once wrote that, as his press secretary, he never had any fears about John Kennedy being caught off guard with any question because his ability for quick thinking was phenomenal.
It is true that a president’s ego is often difficult to manage but State House should normally evaluate the Big Boss’ strengths and weaknesses before it advises him on the best channel of communication to use. For all his very rich public service experience President Buhari is prone to gaffes, such as when he made references to “President Michelle of West Germany.” He made two more gaffes last Wednesday, one of them a reference to “Customs and Exercise.” He meant Customs and Excise, the old name of the Nigeria Customs Service which was changed with the introduction of Value Added Tax [VAT] in the 1980s. Also, while speaking about Nigerians using their naira debit cards abroad, Buhari said they withdraw “Deutschemarks and French Francs.” Both currencies were replaced by the euro more than a decade ago. Dr. Farook Kperogi has described these gaffes as “senior moments.” Two available solutions are to as much as possible make the president to read prepared speeches, and to augment his reading list.
I do not think State House needs to be reminded that before a major outing such as media chat, there should be a rehearsal. Or you could get around that by dictating to the panel of interviewers what questions to ask, or demand to know from them what questions they will ask. Neither option is palatable and professional journalists would probably not accept it. I participated in three Obasanjo media chats between 2000 and 2005 and I was on the panel on one of only two media chats that President Umaru Yar’adua did, and I know that questions were neither dictated to us nor were we asked to supply in advance the questions that we were going to ask.
State House’s best alternative is to rehearse. The media team could identify all the big issues of the day that are likely to be raised by the interviewers and go over them with the Boss, including the answers he should give. These should include the answers he should not give. I personally think that Buhari should not have admitted on live television that he has no useful intelligence on the Chibok girls’ whereabouts. What is military strategy after all, if not to keep your enemy guessing?
As part of preparations for a media chat, policies that do not have a sharp focus should be sharpened. If for example no firm decision has been made about whether or not to end the regime of fuel subsidies, a decision should be made before the chat. It is not good to deliver to the public a message that leaves people confused about government’s intention. The same thing applies to the Shi’ites issue. Knowing full well that this matter will come up in the chat, the Presidency should have adopted a clear position, rather than convey a mixed one in which the president said he is waiting for investigations but at the same time showed clear exasperation with the Shi’ites to the point of indicting them of forming a state within a state. Many will say the investigation is over before it began.
As part of rehearsal nothing is more important than to couch the president not to lose his temper no matter how provocative the question is. It is important to remember that the interviewers are there to represent listeners and to raise issues that agitate their readers’ and listeners’ minds. An interviewer sometimes knows the answer to a question but he must ask it anyway for his readers’ benefit. President Buhari lost his cool last week and asked an interviewer why he did not tell previous regimes to maintain the refineries, pipelines and depots built in the 1970s. While his temporary loss of cool amused his listeners, the truth is that the Nigerian media said all there was to say over the years about the nation’s oil facilities. More seriously, the important thing now is what Buhari will do about it, not the apportioning of blames.
Buhari also lost his cool when he was asked why security agents have been re-arresting Colonel Sambo Dasuki and Nnamdi Kanu after the courts freed them on bail or struck out their cases. His answer, a rendition of the gravity of the offences committed by the two men, was a double-edged sword. I think it played very well with most Nigerians who agree that the two men must not be allowed to escape from the country before justice is served on them. On the flip side, his answer created the impression that government is willing to step outside the law to bring the two men to book. Fugitives who are wanted for similar cases will use that to convince foreign courts that they will not get justice in Nigeria. Still, we expect more presidential media chats this year. If not nearly every month as President Obasanjo did, at least once every quarter.

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