-Chat with an Ace Broadcaster and Former Chief Press Secretary, Omini Oden-
Certainly, anyone that belongs in a profession that enjoins its practitioners to serve as “Watchdogs of Society” automatically has a license to offer selfless services to mankind. Such a person is obliged to be a watchdog over everything and everybody, including people who may be notorious and mischievous. Also, such a person has a license to earn popularity and goodwill, depending on how that person handles this license for selfless service.
In this regard, broadcast journalism offers its practitioners very good opportunities to earn recognition, goodwill and stardom. Omini Oden, one-time Chairman of Cross River State’s branch of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), exemplifies the certainty of this assertion. Omini is like a goldfish that has no hiding place. His face is almost synonymous with the screens of Nigeria Television Authority (NTA). His baritone and macho voice can be described as a microphone without a microphone.
Omini Oden’s popularity earns him recognition everywhere. Thankfully, this has not tampered with his selfless obligations to society. Senator Liyel Imoke, former Governor of Cross River State, must have recognized this fact, when he appointed Omini to serve as his Chief Press Secretary, when he was Governor of the state.
Recently, Omini Oden and I had a healthy conversation where we touched several salient issues concerning his background, journalism and governance in Cross River State.
Please read the first part of our gist.
As a former Chief Press Secretary to the Governor and a Senior staff of NTA International, how would you describe yourself?
I count myself to be that broadcaster who is itching to become that ace broadcaster of his dream; that journalist who knows that journalism is all about public interest. I believe in selfless journalism. Becoming an elder in the profession at the time I became an elder was a surprise for me. I would describe myself as an accomplished journalist.
I use the word accomplished because at a professional level, I got to almost the apex at a time I least expected it to come. I practiced as the Vice-Chairman of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) at the state level. Also, I became the state chairman of NUJ. After that, I became a member of the National Executive Council (NEC) of NUJ. Ultimately, at a professional stand point, I got an appointment to serve professionally and I think by all intent I did my very best within the short time I served in office. If today I find myself doing something else, journalism remains my first passion.
You also served as Chief Press Secretary to former Governor Liyel Imoke. What was your experience in government, based on your background in journalism?
The primary responsibility of a spokesman of government is to sustain and continually maintain the image of the government. I doubled as the image maker for my principal, former governor Liyel Imoke and by extension, the state government. Also, between the office of the Commissioner of Information and the office of the Special Assistant on Media which was my office, sometimes there is that overlap that comes in seamlessly.
So, for me, it was a worthwhile experience. It gave me the other side of the practice which is image laundering which I did at the early days of my practice as a Community Relations Officer for the then DFID-assisted community forest project in Cross River State. I saw things differently.
As you know, journalism is about ethics. However, I saw that when you launder the image of an organization, the image of a person like the Governor of the state, a lot of things don’t play out the way they should be. But you must tailor things to go the way they should be no matter how bad they are.
For instance, if there is so much criticism about the government, even if you do not tell a lie, you need to place the cards as clearly as they should be before the common man on the street. If you say, for instance, that the Governor cannot pay the wages of the workers, which was never the case in Imoke’s time, you have to continually explain to the generality of Cross Riverians why it should be so.
And I sustained one thing; I told my colleagues continuously that for every development concerning Cross River State and the Governor of Cross River State, always give us a listening ear. Don’t be one sided. The practice of journalism strives in balance, all the time. Even if you may not be fair to all, try to give the other party a level playing field in your reportage. I enjoyed that a great deal because to a large extent, I was never a square peg in a round hole. I was a square peg in a square hole because I just transited from Chairman of NUJ into SA (Special Adviser) Media to the Governor.
I was one SA Media who had unfettered relationship with his colleagues even while in office and that was the more reason even when I left office, they found me worthy to chair the 2013 Media Week in Cross River State. That Media Week has remained the best, and nobody is yet to break that record.
There must have been times when you encountered situations of conflict of interest that required you to violate your professional ethics in terms of adherence to the truth. If so, how did you handle such dilemma?
Yes, there were moments like that, but I tried to keep faith with the ethics of journalism. I tried not to abuse it. And I think I can be sure I never abused it. One, I never gagged any journalist, I never gagged any media organization on account of my position as Media Adviser to the government or Governor.
And two, even when the cards were falling on us in terms of unfavourable news, I tried to explain to the people, why the situation was the way it was. Most often, the people expect it to be right all the time. But when it appears wrong on the people’s side, because it is not going their way, the government needs to let people know why it is going that way.
For instance, there was a time the people expected a review of the wage bill of workers. The Governor did not say, “I will not pay.” He only asked for time initially, and at the nick of time, he paid. At the time he said he was asking for time, Labour did not understand it the way they should have understood it. It took us a lot of interactions and meetings. At some point, synergy was created.
There was that understanding that the wage bill has not been reviewed because so much money was not coming in, given the fact that we were removed from the list of littoral states. The Governor was battling to meet up the wage bill. He said “Look, I will pay this money as I promised”. At the nick of time, although I did not stay until the last day of his government, he fulfilled that promise.
So, ultimately, there were circumstances where I needed to violate ethics. But the question was “were you able to tell the truth as against the one-sided stories in the public domain?” For instance, the Governor flags off a litany of road construction projects in the rural areas. Work has started. Maybe a Contractor by dint of carelessness or oversight has not done his job. How would you blame the Governor for that?
You blame that on the Monitoring Agency, maybe the Ministry. If by the time that report comes up and the Governor does not act, you can blame the Governor. But former Governor Imoke always acted immediately, whenever he knew of laxity anywhere. So, there was no time that I ever gagged any media organization or their representatives in this state. We had a wonderful relationship.
What is your reaction to public perception of Spokespersons of Government as people who try to cover up government’s shortcomings?
At some point, former Governor Liyel Imoke took ill. But it was not as bad as the public perceived it. I went to the extent of ensuring that although I am not a Physician or Medical Personnel, I got to the extent of extracting as much common knowledge of medicine to give a dossier to the public that it is natural that a human being could have a health challenge. In as much as a Governor is a Governor, he also has a private life. It is only the Governor that could tell the people his problem, but that never happened. So, as much as I could, I made sure that the situation was not as bad as the public assumed.
There is a difference between explaining what it should be and telling a lie. That is where most people get it wrong. I tell people who care to listen that image management is not propaganda. Image management is telling the story the way it should be. For instance, in the recent case between the Head of Service of the Federation and the Chief of Staff to the President, people say that there was a quarrel. But if there was a quarrel, what led to that quarrel? How was it managed?
If you get it clear at the point of “how”, you would have solved the problem. If there was a quarrel, it does not mean that there shouldn’t be a quarrel. But “what” and “how” would solve that matter. To avoid misconception and misinformation, I always appealed to my colleagues to always give us a chance to give our own side of the story. I always told them not to go to press, television or radio without listening to us.
Another instance is the issue between the government of Cross River State and the Rivers State government over purchase of an aircraft. That was another thorny issue. There was a deal between the two governments when Rotimi Amaechi was the Governor of Rivers State and Senator Liyel Imoke was the Governor of Cross River State. Rotimi Amaechi granted an interview to a Media House and said they sold the aircraft to the government of Cross River State in order to use the proceeds of that sale to build schools.
However, the interpretation of the common man on the street was that “Oh, so Cross River State bought an aircraft and Rivers State with all its money sold an aircraft to use the proceeds to build schools?” The impression was that Governor Imoke bought an aircraft to use with his aides. When the other side of the news got to the public domain, I said let the government of Rivers State not make the government of Cross River State appear unreasonable.
That aircraft was bought for commercial purposes. It was purchased to be leased to Aero Contractors to assist Cross River State to do commercial flights to the ranch. It was meant to drive traffic and business to the Obudu ranch. When I explained the business side of it and what it was going to plough back to the state government on weekly and monthly basis, the tension died down. But if I did not explain what I did, the picture would have been that Imoke bought an aircraft to use for vain things.
(To be continued – Part 2)
- Cornelius Ellah