Journalists and their ‘stupid questions’


I take note when I encounter in other cultures what my culture would not accept. One, I mean Yoruba culture in relation to other cultures.  Two, I mean African culture in relation to that of the Western world. I understand mine and I consciously let it guide me wherever I am. The Yoruba are sensitive to the values they hold dear, and to nuances too. If an outsider misses them, it’s pardonable. When a son of the soil misses them, it’s a criminal offence. And it doesn’t matter where the offence is committed, in Yorubaland or outside.

I’m keenly aware of what is expected of me when, for instance, I’m in the field and I meet elderly journalists who are of Yoruba origin. The practice is for journalists to regard one another as “professional colleagues”. But I don’t make the mistake of taking this as given.

The ones who are elderly and deserve simple deference among them get it automatically from me. The ones that deserve bending over double to greet get it as well. Note that the Yoruba ‘professional colleague’ wouldn’t talk about your indiscretion if you miss giving them their compliments the Yoruba way. But you can be sure they take mental note that you lack respect as is expected of a Yoruba person who has been properly brought up. Even when I was a student, I knew lecturers that I could stand to greet in academic settings and it’s fine. I also know lecturers that I willingly prostrate to greet because it’s what they understand as greeting when a younger Yoruba person is around a Yoruba elder. That’s my culture.

I went into all of that because I didn’t want to state the reason for this piece from the very first line. It’s because it has to do with the same journalist that I mentioned on this page last Friday in March. Last Friday is when I beam searchlight on the media, especially the electronic media. On December 1, 2017, Stephen Sackur of the BBC interviewed a female Russian politician, Ksenia Sobchak. At the time she was to contest against President Vladimir Putin in the 2018 presidential election. Of course, she didn’t stand a chance against Putin.

Sackur had even asked Sobchak if she felt she was a viable opposition candidate. She struggled to make one feel she was. Then, at 5:56pm, she was asked how she would feel after the election had been won and she had lost gallantly as was expected: “Will you feel like an idiot?” That’s it, idiot. Sobchak didn’t blink but continued with a response that her interviewee had interrupted.

I was expecting an angry response. It didn’t happen. I admire Sobchak for it; I had gauged her from an African perspective. I had stated this on this page before; I find it repulsive when some of our public figures are asked supposedly ‘stupid’ questions by my colleagues and they take it badly. Meanwhile, an opportunity has just been provided for them to show class, show how polished they are by not submitting to the expected and debasing instinct of anger. It’s an opportunity for them to clear doubts, use calm responses to rubbish critics as well as win the respect and support of polished audience watching them; but they often miss it. It’s the culture thing at work, and the embedded nuances. Ministers, lawmakers, governors fall into this ditch and, to me, they don’t come out looking good.

This reminds me of a time a lawmaker from the Kogi State House of Assembly was asked questions on Channel TV’s Sunrise Daily. It was about the crisis that saw lawmakers sit in the public space to make law after their Speaker was impeached by a minority faction.  The National Assembly had taken over the duties of the Kogi House of Assembly at the time.

The lawmaker, belonging to one of the two factions, was asked by Chamberlin Usoh in a telephone interview if he thought it right for lawmakers to abandon their chamber and sit in the market place. The lawmaker nuanced this, got angry and was raging on TV for millions of viewers around the world to hear. That time, he didn’t seize the opportunity to make his faction look good and win public sympathy. I read this to be an impression of the kind of faction he belonged to. His grouse was that he and his faction were being compared to a mad man who displayed in the market place. Usoh didn’t say that. But that was the nuanced manner the mind of this African involved in the encounter worked.

I’ve always insisted that it’s the duty of the journalist to ask questions, even supposedly stupid questions; it’s the responsibility of the respondent to use the opportunity to either look good and win minds of millions watching, or lose them. I know there are people reading this who admire it when a person reacts suavely on TV to an insulting question. They won’t clap, as some would, for a respondent who reacts angrily, believing an equal salvo has been delivered in response to a ‘stupid question’. In fact, it puts them off.

Presidential aspirants in the United States have been known to lose support and withdraw from the race for missing important cues and responding to questions inelegantly on TV. Those who understand however know that the stupid question that a journalist might have asked isn’t the point, but how a public figure seizes such a moment to show himself decent and above what is pedestrian is what matters. It’s one major point I would insist that a public figure should watch if I were to counsel any. It wins support.

Meanwhile, AIT, on November 30, 2017, at 8:39pm, showed primary school teachers in Lagos State who took their protest to the Lagos State House of Assembly. Their complaint was that payment of their salaries should be in the hands of the state government not local government councils. They even said they were not against autonomy for the LGs, but they wanted teachers’ salaries taken away from them.  A member of the Lagos State House of Assembly met with the teachers, saying the state government would look into the points raised. The episode drew my attention to the contradiction that is our nation, the short term, immediate solutions we often proffer to fundamental challenges.

The protest happened at a time the National Assembly was taking a look at the issue of autonomy for LGs. These LGs should handle primary school matters. They are closer to the grassroots. One would expect that laying the foundation of accountability and ensuring that no LG mismanaged public funds should be our focus as things stand. Instead, creating contradictions – autonomy for LGs, but salaries of teachers left in the hands of state governments – is the song some are singing. Each workers’ union for itself and members. No one is bothered about the overall health of the polity. I suppose state governments would only be too happy to take over more of the roles that LGs should have. Are we heading in the right direction that way? One day, saner heads will get into positions and do sane things for this nation.

The CGTN, the China-owned Beijing-based cable TV, promotes itself as having been repositioned as a world class TV broadcaster. Good. But sometimes, I wonder if the station is stingy or that it’s too underfunded for its new status. The station uses one studio, one desk, to host about four different interview programmes. It was Yang Rui who began to use CGTN’s flower-pattered grey desk to present ‘Dialogue with Yang Rui’. Later, ‘The Point’ followed. Then ‘World Insight’. I had been used to Yang Rui behind his desk. So the first time I saw other programmes taking place at the same desk, it took me a long while to realise that it was not Yang Rui’s ‘Dialogue’. This kind of arrangement can confuse viewers and nullify uniqueness. Each programme ought to be unique both in presentation and studio setting, even if it means adjusting only the angle of the desk and the lighting.