In 1822, the fourth US President James Madison said: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both”.
The sentiments were later echoed by Abraham Lincoln in 1864. The 16th US president said: “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.”
The two underscore the critical role that leadership plays in setting the tone for flow of public information within the government machinery. They also emphasise the importance of information in a democratic dispensation.
The governed feel empowered when equipped with accurate public information that enables them make informed decisions. Information lubricates the wheels of democracy.
But it is also important to appreciate the role of the media in moving these wheels of democracy.
Government accuses the media of being unprofessional and negative while the media feels threatened.
The situation is so tense that media owners have issued the Mount Soche Declaration decrying “the worrying trend being championed by the State House and President Peter Mutharika with a view to limit media space.”
Unfortunately, when the two ‘elephants’ flex their muscles against each other, it is the public that bears the brunt.
Tension between the government and the media will always be there, but both parties should not allow egos to blur their resolve to address the impasse.
Briefly, I will attempt to provide some solutions based on communication and public relations (PR) perspectives.
It appears the conflict revolves around availability of public information and how it is used. The media feels government has a tendency to withhold public information while government feels it provides information, but journalists simply choose to distort it.
To what extent has government been forthcoming with public information? Alternatively, to what level has the media found itself answering queries of distorting information?
Instead of expecting the media to perform government PR and communications functions, government should seriously consider re-engineering its PR and communications machinery to make it vibrant by eliminating some structural bottlenecks to free and effective flow of public information.
Probably, this is an area that needs serious public service reforms.
For instance, how do you expect government spokespersons handling PR and communication issues to be effective when they are not incorporated into the Common Service in government?
There is also need to revisit the reporting structures. The effectiveness of these government spokespersons will be determined by their positioning within the government structure. Remember PR is a management function!
Urgently, government should consider resuscitating the formulation of the public sector PR and communications strategy to ensure that the flow of public information is well coordinated. For effective implementation of this strategy, there should be a department at the Office of the President and Cabinet to specifically coordinate communication issues.
Effective PR machinery should create a good interface between the media and government. Give the media the information on timely basis and let the public be better judges when it comes to neutrality.
But it has to be appreciated that in a genuine democracy the media and government are natural adversaries with different functions that usually complement each other. Each needs to respect the role of the other through mutual trust. n