In one of my early journalism classes, my teacher, Olatunji Dare, said nothing sells like a judicious mix of crime, sex and money. It’s well over 35 years since he said those words and yet they ring true like yesterday.
For over one week now, the country has been riveted on the tragic story of the murder of Michael Usifo Ataga, the CEO of Super TV, a Lagos-based content company. The heart-rending episode appears to have an injudicious mix of all three ingredients that Dare spoke about in one crime scene.
It’s a deeply tragic and troubling tale that has produced emergency marriage counsellors, family advisors, motivational speakers, criminologists, moral crusaders, avengers and an assorted bandwagon of saints and sinners.
But like all tragedies, this one is messy, very messy. Anyone looking to the press, that is, traditional news channels, to find meaning and clarity might have noticed that there’s hardly any difference in quality between what the press is reporting and what is on offer in the seedy recesses of social media. The Ataga saga is where frenzy meets insanity and the press, already charged with testosterone, is reporting this story with its third leg.
The coverage has been one of the most disgraceful races to the gutter in the tabloid culture of our recent journalism history.
The police set it up nicely and journalists couldn’t resist the temptation of finishing a bad job, with everything Ataga left behind including his wife and children, getting dragged in the mud. Initial police reports said Ataga, who was reportedly missing for days, had been found dead at a service apartment in Lekki Lagos.
Investigations led to the suspect, Chidinma Ojukwu, a student in the department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, who was alleged to have been the last - or one of the last persons - with the victim on the crime scene.
Because of the high-profile status of one of the parties, the police were obviously under pressure to resolve the crime. With a lot of help from the media, whose appetite in the matter kept shifting gears, the police took the bizarre culture of trial by the press to the next level.
First, they said the suspect used Ataga’s ATM card to withdraw N5m from the victim after the crime. Later the story changed to N380,000 as did the number of potential suspects involved and the circumstances surrounding the crime. But that was just the beginning.
To complete the travesty in one of the most outrageous stories ever told since Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, the police arranged a press conference where the suspect, like in all suspects in public interest cases in Nigeria, was made to sing like a fowl with a broken beak.
And she did sing! Everything - from raunchy late-night parties to wild experiments with drugs and sex orgies. The more she sang, the more the public - or at least a section of the public - wanted. Press reports feasted on the story relentlessly and TV stations reeled off so-called interviews with the suspect.
At one point, even after the suspect had mentioned her state of origin and local government, her inquisitor, a supposed journalist, asked which village she hails from, as if her village people had sent her to the crime scene.
There appeared to be no end to the salacious tales and the police were happy to help any willing reporter to keep the juices flowing. When the tap appeared to be drying up, some journalists went to the University of Lagos to find out how long it would take before the Mass Communication department would rusticate the suspect and clear the school’s good name.
They seemed prepared to breakdown the Vice Chancellor’s door with microphones and notepads, to extract an answer on the spot. As part of the frenzied efforts to deconstruct the anatomy of the crime, dispatches also came from journalists who purportedly interviewed Chidinma’s friends and teachers in the Mass Communication department. It didn’t matter that the suspect had not even been formally charged!
Chidinma’s father was not spared. The press and the police did not spare him. They dragged him out for “shielding” the suspect. Others moralised about how the suspect’s parents had failed in their parental duties, as if there’s any parent worth their name that would not give everything to secure their children’s future.
But there was more to come. The victim, Ataga, was portrayed in the most horrible light possible. He must be turning in the morgue as journalists, armed largely with hearsay, self-righteousness and half-truth, dealt him more deadly blows than the consequences of his own choices.
Even before the autopsy was done or the report filed and tested in court, the jury was out and everyone with WhatsApp on their phones already knew, for sure, that Ataga died of drug overdose or multiple injuries from stab wounds inflicted by the suspect. Case closed.
The doctor’s report can come later, the public autopsy conducted by the press and supervised by the police has told us everything we need to know. The court process is a fait accompli, it seems.
But there’s more yet. The mob also had to find a way to drag Ataga’s wife, Brenda, into the story. The fact that she is a senior adviser to the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Timipre Sylva, became fuel for the story, while others screen-grabbed pictures from her closet as a monumental rebuke to her husband’s infidelity.
Thanks to irresponsible coverage also, we now know more about the young woman’s troubled marriage and her private life than we know about those responsible for bringing the country into its present misery. So, perhaps we can monetise her grief to improve food supply and bring down inflation?
Of course, I’m aware that high office comes with scrutiny, but can we rein in our appetite for bad belle and self-righteousness? Can we restrain that killer instinct and the penchant for indulging the single-plot story? It’s not the first time this year that the police, ably assisted by the press, will not let the facts get in the way of a sensational story. It probably won’t be the last.
In May, when 26-year-old job-seeker Iniobong Umoren was ambushed and allegedly murdered by a suspect, Frank Akpan, we also witnessed a bizarre spectacle of police parade of the suspect and an even more bizarre spectacle of journalists interviewing the suspect.
In a scene seared in my memory, some of the journalists were asking the suspect, face-to-face, how it felt having sex with the victim, and if “he was in love with her!” Seriously?
I don’t know what sort of answer their depraved minds expected. But I know that it was one of those moments when words tell you not just what you need to know about the speaker, but also where they are coming from and the state of the institution they claim to represent.
If the police don’t know that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty, that every suspect, however heinous the crime they are charged for, deserve to have their day in court; if investigating authorities believe that pre-emption and trial by ordeal are proper, then responsible journalism is not obliged to lend a helping hand to such travesty.
It’s not just that reckless sensationalism is a disservice to the profession; it also undermines diligent and thorough investigation, weakens the system further and, in the end, allows criminals to go scot free. In the end, the mob wins, but who knows the next victim?
The Ataga saga might be a good Nollywood script, but shambolic police and press handling may have distracted the public from finding out exactly what happened and how justice might have been best served. And that’s double tragedy for the bereaved and grieving family that deserves nothing but justice.
And this happens all the time when police – or investigating authorities too lazy or too compromised to do their work – look for a short cut to closure.
We’re the worst for it, however judiciously this brew has been mixed.
Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP