Bamidele Johnson, an experienced journalist, was born in Ibadan. A holder of a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from University of Ado-Ekiti, Bamidele was editor of the defunct TEMPO magazine and rose to become the associate editor of TheNews magazine, both weeklies. Two weeks ago, the cerebral writer spoke to the Editor, FOLORUNSHO HAMSAT, on a wide range of issues that bother on journalism, his personal life, and more. Excerpts…
Your first four years in journalism practice, what was the experience like?
Exciting. These coincided with the dangerous era of the military, a fact that made journalism in Nigeria more hazardous than it had ever been. Abacha had his plans and it was up to the civil society and media organisations to challenge his plans and point out how odious such were. Tempo Magazine, where I worked, was unapologetically anti-military. This naturally earned us the tag of adversarial medium. We were, naturally, targets of intimidation, harassment, arrests, detention and ultimately, closure. We held editorial meetings wherever we could, as the office wasn’t safe even when it wasn’t closed. In spite of the clear dangers, it was fun; dangerous fun like bungee jumping or car racing. The desire to dislodge the military was the fuel for the engine of what we and other media organisations did at the time.
As a seasoned reporter, given that the media industry is stuck with the challenges of the time; economic, primarily, do you believe there are avenues open to ambitious journalists for making money and still report without bias?
Well, there have always been opportunities, though scarcely exploited by journalists. Basically, being competent in reporting and presentation (report writing), analyses etc. are required to be hired for assignments that could improve your financial status. But frankly, journalism-in strict terms-appears not designed to fetch stupendous sums and give you a Hollywood lifestyle. It is essentially public service. That said, it is possible to earn extra sums without becoming biased in your reports. Journalists with competence in writing and analysis are hired to write reports by agencies, including foreign ones. They write and edit books, especially biographies and the very professional ones remain detached from their subjects.
Please share some of the exciting moments you had as a reporter.
The one that readily comes to my mind was a report I did on morgue workers. I was assigned to do the report because my editor was persuaded, wrongly, that I was some strong-hearted guy. The truth is I am not and I am actually necrophobic. I am scared of corpses. But I was assigned. For days, my head thumped and whirred like a washing machine. I couldn’t decide where to start. At some point, I told myself: ‘start at the beginning’, which was at the morgue of the Ikeja General Hospital. Went there before others and watched morgue workers eat and drink in the morgue, showing no revulsion and listened to their tales. It helped, a little, to conquer my phobia for corpses.
What else do you get busy with when not writing that gives you joy and money?
I do not have money. I read a lot. It gives me joy, not money. I breed dogs on a small scale. The other things I do are related to writing, which excludes them.
Tell us about your pleasant moments interviewing top celebrities and, for those looking to you, were there other benefits derived mingling with them, and were there lessons learned too?
There are always benefits, not necessarily monetary in interviewing newsmakers. I do not consider them celebrities. You have access to information and make friends, depending on the complexion of the interview. And with friendship, other things can follow. I never conducted interviews on a sweetheart basis. If the subject respects my detachment enough to seek my friendship, fine. If not, no problem. Many have ended in enduring friendships. Others have ended sourly.
Reporters are said to love life and do live it like it is never ending because that is what the job demands, for anyone seeking to make a success of it. What’s your take, and please tell us how it was with you then and, even now.
I do not think reporters love life and live it like you described more than members of other occupational groups except I do not understand your question. This claim is just a myth. To get ahead, one needs to be dedicated and be prepared to learn daily. Adapting to trends is important; otherwise you’d be hunting a new game with an old dog. Reading is important. Journalists, I have observed, seem to tell themselves there is no need to read and blame it on their schedules. Invalid excuse, given that plenty of time is spent at drinking dens and, of course, carousing. Business owners, with far bigger headaches, read. Their day is made up 48 hours. The poor reading habit is what is responsible for the atrocious grammar and the formulaic writing you see in the media. Stuff like ‘lying in a pool of his own blood’ should no longer be seen. If a victim is not lying in his own pool of blood, is it in the journalist’s that he’d be lying? A candidate is contesting ‘under the platform’ of a certain party is close to inane. Is he hiding? What is wrong with ‘on the platform’? Those are two of the symptoms of not reading, especially books on grammar.
Let’s discuss family. Share your success as a responsible father and husband. And would you encourage any of your kids to do journalism?
I do think an assessment of me as a father can’t be objectively made by me. I leave that out for the reason stated. I will encourage my kids to be journalists if they show interest and capacity required. Whatever they want to be, as long as it is legit, they will have my encouragement.
What do you love and dislike about the Nigerian politics? And what attraction could force you to be a player?
I will not go into politics, even at gunpoint. I exaggerated. But I find politics unappealing because here, it is driven by greed and oiled with religion and ethnicity. It is a no-no for me.
Tabloid magazines, to some, represent an unrealistic view of celebrities because they believe they don’t present all the facts about their lifestyle and secrets. As a professional in tabloid journalism, do you share this view, and then what’s your own stand?
A little correction; I didn’t spend plenty of time in the area of journalism you mentioned. It was during my editorship of Tempo that the magazine transmuted, unsuccessfully, into something like a tabloid. But I am familiar with tabloid journalism. Growing up, I read ‘News of the World’ (now rested), Sun and Mirror, all British papers. But it is wrong to exclusively blame incomplete reportage of newsmakers on the tabloid press. The mainstream media are also guilty, if you must pronounce guilt. The truth is, a journalist can’t know everything. My assessment of celebrity journalism, I have to be honest, is unflattering. Eleven times out of 10, the stories lack substance, accuracy and are empty. The writing is cliché-ridden and tedious. These flaws can be found in other areas of journalism, but they are deeper in what you call the soft-sell.
How do you think the social media is best utilized because some think it is just for sharing fun, photos and interacting with the fans, while some think of it differently because of its supposed invasiveness, and lack of privacy?
I can’t legislate for social media users what they should post. As long as it is legal, no problem. Invasive? Not more than other platforms. If I make a video of you doing something you otherwise not have done and post it on a news website, I have invaded your space. News websites are different from social media platforms, which give greater mileage to content from other media forms.
How do you keep fit, and what’s your pastime?
I don’t keep fit and I lack dietary discipline. I am also too lazy to exercise. Pastime? I read non-fiction and biographies. I watch football and read about football. I have a decent library of football books and magazines. The habit has been with me for as long as I can remember. I grew up on Shoot, Match, and I bought my first copy of ‘World Soccer’ in 1978 for 50 kobo. I also scan the internet in search of what to read. These days, I run a website called Newsbreak.ng, which started shortly after I left TheNews. That keeps me online for long periods.
Was it your childhood ambition to be a journalist?
No. I wanted to be a lawyer.