December Issue 2008

By | Viewpoint | News & Politics | Opinion | Published 12 months ago

Two sections of the national media are dissatisfied with each other. One section wants the other to be balanced and not indulge in “advocacy,” while the other section is angry that it is being faulted. Some journalists have attacked one another personally. But aside from personal clashes, discussions have revealed genuine grounds for disagreement. And disagreement is not something one wants to wish away. Perhaps both the warring sections are right and should stay on the scene, letting the people be the judge between them.

It depends on the country which section of society is dominant. In the US, the liberal section is dominant. Fox News seems to plough a lonely furrow but draws strength from the presence of talk radio which is mostly conservative, full of bias on the basis of “advocacy.” In Pakistan, it is the other way around. This is understandable. The press was originally liberal but tilted heavily to the right in the 1980s. When Musharraf appeared on the scene, there was yet another shift in the media paradigm.

The media revolution in Pakistan was based on two factors: Musharraf’s liberal licensing policy and the lift-off in the private sector of the economy, making it possible for the new electronic and print outlets to survive by picking up more ads. When freedom began to bite back, Musharraf took tough action, causing billions of rupees of loss to owners by closing down channels and rendering many TV journalists jobless as a consequence. “Advocacy” came rushing in. “Adversarial” was plucked from objective investigation and changed into “hostility.” Some “goals” like democracy, the constitution, judiciary, independent foreign policy, etc, were set above professional dispassion.

Other concepts were taken on board. “Mandate,” explained nowhere in the constitution, was imposed as an obligation, to be interpreted by the anchors as they pleased. “Debate in parliament” was announced as compulsory, although mandated by the constitution only for budgets and lawmaking. Foreign policy was attached to the will of the common man and barbs kept flying in the direction of the elected government. When the lawyers’ movement came on the scene and was immediately politicised, TV anchors should have backed off, but they did not. That the lawyers got their leg-up from the channels was fine, but taking sides was not.

In some ways, the journalist community is structured the same way as the lawyers. The lawyers have their bar associations at the level of the district. The journalists too have their press clubs in most districts, with a clientele of the reading public. What is different is that whereas power has passed from the judges to the lawyers, in the electronic media it has not passed from the owners to the hosts, except where the latter bring in ratings and revenue. The lawyers are conscientious objectors dependent on the publicity that the free media gives them. Journalists should not be conscientious objectors to anything that the government does under the constitution. They are paid professionals who should compete for coverage of events without becoming politically involved in them. They don’t have to look for publicity. When they protest, they get publicity without trying.

Rapid expansion has left training lagging behind. Some universities that teach journalism have textbooks describing a column as something personal, non-analytical and emotive, which is true of the Urdu press but not of the English one. The anchors came mostly from among the Urdu columnists. In the first wave, the top columnists got the big jobs. During the second wave, the financial squeeze was on; therefore the second-rung or even the third-rung columnists got to anchor discussions. The result was a proliferation of the personal and the platitudinous. Since the voice was all “Fox News” and proudly “engaged,” the message was uniform and tended to brainwash viewers, who rang up interactively, shockingly repeating the same verbiage. No surprise that the government cringed. It no longer mattered that it had got the popular vote. Empowerment went to the head of the lawyers and journalists both.

If you count TV channels as “challengers,” they tend to stand together with other negative factors, some of them dangerous and reliant on intimidation. Unfairly, writers who criticise the terrorists receive death threats. Those who criticise the government and its “submission” to American hegemony in the war against terrorism, walk tall. When the last spat occurred between the powerful anchors and some of these benighted anti-Taliban writers, one anchor in his column actually appeared to invite the wrath of the terrorists on his critics. Al-Qaeda is winning the media war, first by getting its intimidatory killings publicised in the free media and then by getting politicians and analysts to come on TV to castigate the policy of fighting terrorism.

One recent not-so-popular seminar in Lahore arrived at the conclusion that, “The way the Pakistani media has glorified the radicals and militants has not only emboldened the radical groups and organisations but has also caused an increase in the trend and level of radicalisation in Pakistani society. The media must not lose sight of the fact that if the radical forces win in the country, their first target can be the media itself.”

Why should we be upset? The divide was always there. The Urdu press scrutinised the state of Pakistani nationalism and the English press more often scrutinised the functioning of the state. The Urdu press tended to guard the “nationalist” values that were losing their status elsewhere in the world. It was Manichean in its moralistic approach; the other was relativistic by reason of its exposure to more data of information. There were moments in the past when the newspapers clashed across the moats dug around them by language. Nothing of consequence resulted from this skirmishing. But now the landscape is different.

TV is more powerful and its outreach is immense. And language doesn’t matter any more. Now uniformity of the brainwashing, resulting from just one way of looking at things, can endanger society. The breath of fresh air is coming from the bunch of young boys and girls analysing the economy in Urdu, a discourse unknown to the Urdu press in the past. Maybe this is the new dawn which will lead to the wisdom of realistic and unbiased discussion. The other divide will remain – if one side of the argument is not killed off by Al-Qaeda, that is.