Political Elites, Mass Media and the Manufacture of Voter Choice in Nigeria

By Adamu Muhammad Hamid, PhD

 There has always been an intimate and intricate connection between mass communication and the conduct of politics, in whatever kind of democracy. This relationship is necessary because, without the media of mass communication, there can hardly be any means through which political elites can reach out to the wider public, whose opinions they want to manipulate or control. On the other hand, the media need adverts and goodwill to remain in business and one of the most important sources of advert is government or its allies in private businesses. Media chose to play a partisan role on behalf of a political party or interest, or are closely allied with some powerful economic interests or ideological bloc. In Third World countries particularly, the state, however, has considerably effective controlling power over nominally free media and uses this power to its own advantage.

Those seeking political office, those who sell products, and those whose goal is the modification of the social, political or economic structure of a nation, state, community or institution, always seek the approval of one or more publics. They seek access to mass media with the ultimate aim to advance their goals and through those messages being dished out to the people, helping them access public opinion. Elites use sophisticated techniques in their attempt to manipulate the message carried through those channels of communication. They stage events to capture media attention, and they often coordinate those events with media deadlines.

Late last week, the Arewa Consultative Forum together with 5 other organizations, an elite organization claiming to advance the interests of Northern Nigeria (and which replies to any political tantrums against the region from other regions in the country) organized a public show hosting presidential candidates of 6 political parties in Nigeria to showcase their plans for the northern region. Among the 6 invited presidential candidates invited in the meantime, 5 turned up, and only Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of NNPP turned down the invitation. Indirectly, it was an event organized to draw the attention of the media to the available candidates. The big question that bugs the mind is why didn’t the Forum organize such a public pageant to expose and or guide how the parties did their primaries, which widely claimed to be through undemocratic processes, marred with vote buying and many other irregularities and lack of political accountability? Now it can be claimed that the game is almost over because all the processes are set to play straight into the hands of the highest bidders in the Primaries.

 Generally, the main forms of political communication take a sort of characterization. First, there are periodic campaigns for election in which the mass media are usually used intensively by competing candidates and their parties. Second, there is a continuous flow of news which carries messages about events that reflect positively or negatively on the government and other actors in the political arena. Third, there are, in varying degrees, opportunities for political advertising by the same actors, independent of elections. Specific attempts are also sometimes made to influence opinions on particular issues on behalf of various lobbies and pressure groups by various means. An opinion on a particular issue may be influenced by the media. To some extent, this reflects the ‘agenda-setting’ process, learning effect can be important when they lead to opinion change or, more likely, to the perception of reality that favours one side or the other. 

Mass media constitute channels through which the state and power interests address the people, as well as platforms for the exchange of views of political parties and other interest groups.  Mass media also promote the circulation of news and opinions with the politically interested publics. The spiral of silence concept which deals with how public opinion is formed shows that news is the social construction of reality. This demonstrates the notion that media structure reality in a way that is often shaped by their needs and interests.

At the global level, few elites own and control big media entities and corporations which dominated the industry that dwarf other smaller media organizations across the world. The many businesses within these corporations support and promote each other’s operations, and in effect, the flow of information to the developing world is also shaped by the might of these media conglomerates that dominate the world. For instance, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and Time Warner have controlling interests in media organizations in the USA and the many Western European States. In Nigeria, since the colonial era, the privately-owned media organizations are substantially owned by politicians or their close allies, suggesting that they were principally established to advance the political interests of their owners: The Nation newspapers owned by Chief Bola Tinubu, Tribune newspapers owned by the Awolowo clan, DAAR Communication (owners of AIT television and Ray Power radio stations) owned by Raymond Dokpesi, Independent newspaper owned by James Ibori, Compass newspaper owned by Gbenga Daniel and Sun newspaper owned by Orji Kalu. This monopoly of media organizations by a handful of entrepreneurs is more pronounced in the developed democracies of Western Europe. It is this ownership pattern that informed Trawler’s assertion that only ten corporations dominate the ownership of daily newspapers, magazines broadcast and cable television, book and film in the USA. This indicates the process of monopolization in the media industry by elites, which gave them the opportunity to influence ideas. Bagdikian writes “…a small number of the country’s largest industrial corporations have acquired more public communication power including ownership of the news than any private business…they created a new communication cartel within the USA.”

However, another concern that accorded the elites the opportunity in influencing opinion is the media performance in structuring and selecting news, which gives more priority to the elite. An important criterion for structuring and selection of news dictates that events became news to the extent that they satisfy the conditions of reference to elite people and elite nations.  Since the discussions and debates that lead to public opinion are based on the amount of opportunity provided by the mass media to the ‘public sphere’, whoever controls the mass media automatically controls the public sphere and invariably the society’s public opinion. It, therefore, becomes clear that public opinion is being ‘commoditized’ by the ruling or political elite that claim its ownership by the virtue of their ownership and control of the mass media; thus public opinion becomes heavily influenced in Nigeria by the governments or parties that control the governments in power and their political associates that own the remaining few media organizations that are privately owned.

It’s therefore instructive for the journalist to juxtapose his professional role and responsibility of enhancing the democratic process and taking advantage of it to produce the competent leadership required for development viz a viz the realities of media practice and ownership, and environmental factors exerting a strong influence on the media in an electoral process. The need for journalists working for development to be independent and fight ulterior motives need not be overemphasized.


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