Interview: CNN disowns US lobbying firm, raising questions about Jonathan’s $40,000 payment

Goodluck Jonathan and Christiane Amanpour
Right: President Goodluck Jonathan. Left: CNN's Christiane Amanpour

Cable News Network, CNN, has denied being paid, or contacted by American lobbying firm, Fleishman-Hillard, for a 2010 interview with President Goodluck Jonathan, contradicting the firm’s claim that it contacted CNN, and other media for a string of interviews.

Fleishman-Hillard, contracted through a Nigerian consultant to the presidency, Caser’s group, was to receive $58,200 to pitch interviews with advocacy groups, and major media outlets including Reuters, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN and Bloomberg.

In its filings to the US Justice Department, the company claimed that while it reached the media organizations, it only succeeded in securing a CNN interview for the president. It added that its fee was lowered by $20,000 after the rest of the interviews were rescheduled.

CNN has however denied arranging its interviews through agencies, specifically denying receiving contacts, or funds, from Fleishman-Hillard to speak to Mr. Jonathan. The TV station’s claim has now stirred fresh questions concerning the services the firm delivered for the president to warrant payment of thousands of dollars in public funds to it.

“We never have to deal with agencies for interviews. We don’t work for the government of Nigeria, and Nigeria does not work for us, so there’s no reason to make payments,” a spokesperson for CNN, Jennifer Dargan, told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone.

“CNN does not pay for interviews; we don’t pay for interviews and we don’t receive money for interviews. Not CNN.”

Asked specifically whether there was an understanding between the broadcast station and Fleishman-Hillard for setting up interviews, Ms. Dargan replied, “No, no!”

Fleishman-Hillard declined to state in exact details what its services to the presidency involved. In a previous emailed response to PREMIUM TIMES, the firm said the deal was a “one time” arrangement, that entailed “communication services”.

Contacted last week on why it claimed to have contacted CNN when indeed it did not, the company said it would not discuss further details of a job completed three years back.

“Fleishman-Hillard cannot provide any further details on the work completed in 2010,” a Nigerian representative for the company, The Quadrant company, said.

But the company admitted it didn’t share the funds released to it by the presidency with the CNN. It kept the entire sum to itself even when the service it rendered remained unclear.

A spokesperson, Eyitayo Olatoye, said the firm never transferred funds it received to CNN or other outlets for the interview with the president; confirming CNN’s claim, but stoking even more concerns about what service it delivered that  justifies the firm’s $60,000 bill to the presidency.

 “Fleishman-Hillard however categorically stated that no money was paid to any media organization or media representative at any point,” Mr. Olatoye said.

Questionable money-for-interview

The deal between the president and firm has sparked concerns regarding why Mr. Jonathan chose to channel state funds to secure an interview, when, as president of one of the world’s most important countries, he should have no problems getting leading broadcast stations to interview him.

The interview held in 2010, months after Nigeria’s turbulent power transfer from late president, Umaru Yar’adua; and amid President Jonathan’s preparation to stand for the 2011 election-two events that sure boosted the president’s news value. Critics say that period  naturally placed Mr. Jonathan as an appealing subject that any media organization around the world would like to interview for no fee.

Should the president found need to arrange an interview, they say, his officials and aides could easily have reached, say, CNN correspondents in Nigeria; or directly contact the network’s headquarters in Atlanta.

With news organizations perpetually scrambling to be ahead of one another everyday, Mr. Jonathan’s critics say the president did not need to hire a lobbyist or pay anyone to interview him.

Why the president’s team opted for a third party to secure the media interview for thousands of dollars, remains unclear.

Spokesperson for the president, Reuben Abati and Doyin Okupe, declined to comment for this story while Ima Niboro, who was the president’s chief media adviser in 2010, did not answer or return calls.

Information minister, Labaran Maku, also did not reach PREMIUM TIMES back after an aide promised the minister would do so. It is not clear whether the aide passed our questions to the minister.

But if the president’s decision to pay for the interview generated concerns, the CNN’s denial that it was neither contacted by Fleishman-Hillard nor received funds from the firm has left even more questions about the nature of the deal between the Nigerian presidency and the firm.

 Many sides of the deal

With its insistence that the firm had never contacted it to interview President Jonathan, Fleishman-Hillard appears to have lied to the US Justice Department, for it clearly claimed in its filing that it contacted, arranged and coordinated multiple media interviews for the president.

“Caser’s has requested and Registrant (Fleishman-Hillard) agreed to arrange and coordinate interviews for the president with major media outlets and advocacy groups in the USA and in Nigeria…” Fleishman-Hillard states in the filing.

“Registrant contacted media outlets such as CNN, Bloomberg/ Bloomberg Business Week, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, etc. and advocacy/ human rights groups to coordinate interviews for the president,” the firm adds.

None of the interviews occurred in the United States of America, it said, except one in Nigeria with the CNN Nigeria affiliate.

Even so, should the firm’s service, as detailed in its filing to the US authorities, been about contacting media organizations, then the CNN denial would seem to invalidate the company’s claim, that purportedly justified its $58,200 bill.

CNN contacted PREMIUM TIMES last week to respond to our two previous reports detailing the contract involving the Nigerian presidency and the American firm.

The television channel said its interviews are arranged professionally, and it had no need for third parties to reach world leaders for interviews.

Citing the example of the president’s interview with Christiane Amanpour in January, Ms. Dargan said the station merely contacted the Nigerian embassy in the US, which in turn contacted the president’s media team.

“We interview many presidents and heads of states on that programme pretty much everyday. It’s quite routine to have such guests on the programme,” she said. “It’s not very difficult for her to interview a head of state. But there has never been any exchange of payment.”

The controversial 2010 interview was anchored by Isha Sesay, ahead of Mr. Jonathan’s declaration to run in the 2011 election.

Part of the understanding between the presidency and Fleishman-Hillard was that interviewers  do not ask the president questions about his plan to run in the election.


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