By Adebayo Williams
It is a thing of joy to write this foreword to a collection of newspaper articles written by one of Nigeria’s finest and most accomplished journalists. Titled Media On My Mind and subtitled, Ethics, Governance and Other Matters, 2009-2017, it is a compilation of columns written by Lanre Idowu for the highbrow but sadly defunct Next newspaper, the industry journal, Media Review, and other interventions in national affairs around the period so delineated.
To many within and outside his field, Lanre Idowu is an enigma wrapped inside a conundrum: A man whose name is better known than his person. Yet despite his quiet self-effacement, his public school boy good manners, there can be no doubt that he is worth his weight in gold.
Rare in our contemporary world is the person who succeeds in practising what he preaches and preaching what he practises. Rarer still in contemporary journalism is the person who has excelled in both the practice and precept of the trade. Idowu has made a name and a huge reputation for himself as a worthy practitioner of journalism and as an excellent preceptor of the sacred principles of the trade.
In many cases, there is a mutual antipathy between the preceptor and the practitioner of journalism. The preceptor tends to avoid the rowdy egalitarianism, the instant combustion and endless commotion of the factory floor of actual journalism, while the “field commanders” scoff and sniff at Ivory Tower elitism and the tenured superficialities of academic theorists of journalism andthe purveyors of its principles.
A famous professor of Humanities at Harvard once rued how his op-ed pieces for the New York Times were often subjected to merciless parsing by an old codger of a sub-editor who had probably been plying his trade before the professor was born.Nothing escaped the astringent puritan who had no time for fancy phrasing, clever equivocations or elegant ambiguities.
On a local note, yours sincerely could swear that in the early days of The Nation an old man often slipped into the editor’s office carrying a bundle of previous articles in the newspaper with red biro marks flagging off infractions and stylistic infelicities. It was the late Pa Mark Alabi, a revered sub-editor of the old school, who plied his trade for more than half a century in major newspaper industries in Nigeria, particularly The Guardian group. Even in retirement, the old man was not tired.
In Lanre Idowu, there is a glorious symmetry of the two widely divergent tendencies. Watching him from a distance over the years, one is often amazed by his unobtrusiveness, his self-erasures in public fora, his wisdom, his stoic forbearance in the face of professional and institutional adversity, his sunny tempered equanimity, his unfailing judgement, his sense of fairness and his political nous. As the years rolled by, one often wondered: what a great editor lost to the Nigerian world of journalism!!
Is this then another prime example of human wastage at the blood-soaked shrine of a dysfunctional society? It is to his eternal credit that the author has refused to be wasted. When a path is blocked, it often opens the way to alternative routes. Probing and working his way through the labyrinth of shattered expectations, Idowu has succeeded in carving a niche for himself in the annals of Nigerian journalism.
What Nigerian journalism lost in one department, it has gained in another. Idowu’sMedia Review has earned an unrivalled place in contemporary Nigerian journalism as a pace-setter for good writing and a trendy market place of ideas. Despite crushing institutional impediments, financial constraints and the fact that the old Nigerian reading public has disappeared as a result of the collapse of the middle class, Idowu has refused to give up a noble idea.
The annual Diamond Awards for Media Excellence (DAME) which Idowu pioneered and nurtured from infancy to institutional relevance and national prestige has become the most comprehensive, the most influential and the most respected Honours board in the history of journalism in Nigeria. Nothing approaches the rigour of its selection process and the scrupulous integrity of the eventual outcome.
It may well be then that it is the huge success of Idowu as the publisher of a trend setting journal and the national respectability of the DAME awards that have obscured Idowu’s immense gifts as a writer of distinction and master of felicitous prose. This collection of articles is bound to redress that imbalance and restore Idowu to his deserved position in the commanding heights of contemporary Nigerian journalism.
Many of these essays are a writer’s pure delight. Not a single word or phrase can be said to be out of place. Idowu writes with a sense of modulated urgency, a wonderful clarity of expression and the lapidary precision of a Swiss watchmaker. One is continuously surprised by the uncanny insights, the casually dropped bon mots, and the high sense of patriotic responsibility.
Reading through these articles, there are times when one is gripped by a sense of Déjà vu. Nigeria is a country where history repeats itself continuously with the national actors learning nothing and forgetting nothing.The articles frame a turbulent phase in Nigeria’s transition from military rule, particularly the high-octave drama and state intrigues surrounding the illness and eventual demise of President UmaruYar’Adua.
Idowu does not hesitate to give robust judgments, but without any indication of boorish distemper or bovine rudeness. He does not write to court controversy or to cause offence. Despite the occasional magisterial severity of his pronouncements on national ills, an innate good breeding and the ethos of omoluabi shine forth in many of the articles.
This is not entirely unexpected. Scion of a Lagos family originally from Abeokuta, Idowu appreciates the place and importance of civility and courtesy in national discourse. No matter the level of controversy and the acrimony generated, it is these virtues that separate civilized humanity from their animal cousins.
What remains to be said is that these articles are written at a period of global ferment and convulsion powered by the phenomenon known as globalization. The world is changing fast and so is the profession of journalism in both precept and practice as we know them. The transformations have led to radical disruptions in print journalism and electronic communication ushering in a major crisis of production and consumption in contemporary Nigerian journalism.
The advent of the social media and the blogging industry appear to have short-circuited the normal route to stardom and distinction. There are new kids on the bloc and the old rules of engagement can no longer hold up. It is a brave new world of ersatz communication and everyone with access to a computer or a high-tech phone is a news disseminator. In the age of internet revolution, the modern newsroom has become the e-estate of the realm. The development is akin to a Copernican revolution in mass communication.
While advanced societies are slowly addressing to the development with journalism seeking new ways to respond to the threat of extinction, it has caught the developing world flatfooted. The old precepts of journalism can no longer accommodate new perceptions. This is going to be the gravest challenge to people like Lanre Idowu in the coming years and it may result in their greatest professional triumph.
Just as the rampaging forces of globalization have smashed external borders and national boundaries thus posing a major challenge to the nation-state paradigm, they have also disrupted the old internal professional boundaries and disciplinary borders opening the route to their reconfiguration and redefinition. In advanced countries, this has led to an unfolding paradigm shift in the way they view the professions and a play of signifiers across rigid disciplinary demarcations.
This has led to a diffusion of institutional authority and a dispersal of old professional legitimacy. In Britain and America for example, it is no longer unusual to find sterling professionals end up as academic theorists of journalism and vice versa.
PhD reporters and well-credential interns proliferate in the industry. Disordered order is the order of the moment. Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of the Guardian of London, is the Dean of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the head of an Oxford College while renowned journalists in America are often headhunted to direct its most prestigious colleges of journalism.
This development is not restricted to journalism. Leading American institutions are pioneering what is known as “Professors of Practice”, a situation in which those who have distinguished themselves in their field of endeavours are appointed to professorial chairs in order to breakdown what Hayek has famously called “the dispersal of knowledge” in the contemporary world.
Sometimes it is a seamless and endless coming and going. Madeleine Albright, the former American Secretary of State, has quietly returned to her professorial chair at Georgetown University. Even in retirement and at over ninety years, Henry Kissinger continues to write astonishing books and can often be seen doing highly lucrative lecture circuits.
Some Nigerian private and public universities are already cottoning on to this international development, particularly in Law, Insurance, Stock Exchange, Banking and Public Finance. When the irresistible gale of globalization forces the rest of the Nigerian University system to open up their frozen and ossified innards, people like Lanre Idowu may yet have their day and their say. This collection of articles is a collector’s gem and is warmly recommended to readers.
* Williams, a distinguished professor of literature, penned this foreword to Lanre Idowu’s recently published book, Media On My Mind and subtitled, Ethics, Governance and Other Matters, 2009-2017.